ADHD, LDs, ODD? How to Stop Doing Too Much for Your Special Needs Kid


“If I didn’t put his homework in his folder, put the folder  in his backpack  and ask the teacher to get him to take it out, he would never  turn in any  homework,” says a mother of a son with ADHD.

“I have to sit right with her to get her to do her homework.  It takes hours  and by the time it’s over we can barely stand each other,” says a father of  a teen with learning disabilities.

The  shadow side of helping too much becomes more apparent in the middle and high  school years, and often becomes an even bigger problem in college and into  adulthood.


If you are nodding, crying or smiling, you know this role.  These parents are  literally stepping into their child’s brain and performing  the executive  functioning skills their son or daughter struggles to do on their  own.

It all starts out of clear and defined need; young children need  adults to  teach them how to plan, prioritize, and manage time and multi-step  projects or  actions. Toddlers know that they put on their pajamas and brush  their teeth before they get in bed. Preschools are set up for young  minds who have  short attention spans and can only hold a couple of behavioral  rules at a time  (walk, don’t run, hands to ourselves, indoor voices). As they  move into  elementary school the expectations also rise. Children are expected  to remember  more rules for different settings (what you can do on the  playground is  different than what you can do during math time) as well as  follow multi-step  direction, control their impulsivity and one of the big ones-  completing work  tasks on time and correctly. And at home, they are expected to  start  participating in household chores, and get themselves ready to go to   school.

Related:  Doing too much for your ADHD or ADD child?

Parents intuitively know that they need to put breakables up  high when their  baby starts crawling. They know they need to block the stairs  and keep the back  door shut. Without consciously thinking about it, parents  masterfully step into  the role of their child’s brain, specifically the frontal  lobe which houses the  executive skills functions. Most of the time, this  process naturally and gently  moves from the parent’s domain to the child’s.  It’s what kids are supposed to  do. They start insisting they will “do it  myself” thereby giving parents a  clear signal it’s time to back-off and let  them learn to do it themselves.

But  what about the children whose brain is wired differently  and the frontal lobe  functions are immature and underdeveloped such as in a  child who has AD/HD, an  autism spectrum disorder, mental health issues, or  medical issues? Those  children need external help to stay functional- keep  their room clean, track  their belongings, get along with siblings, deal with  changes in routine,   get ready to go to  school and  complete homework. And guess  who  gets that job?

Related:  Does your child disrespect you and take you for granted?

Parents can’t wait, teach and process for everything their  child needs  executive functioning support for so they take over as much as they  can –for  everyone’s sanity. Unfortunately this life-saving method will become a  habit  and that’s when it can become dysfunctional. When children are young, it   usually doesn’t look like anything but attentive parenting. The shadow side of   helping too much becomes more apparent in the middle and high school years and   often becomes an even bigger problem in college and into adulthood. Outside   demands keep increasing; teachers expect students to be able to juggle multiple   classes and assignments and have a basic handle on organization, time   awareness, ability to prioritize and the perseverance to get the work and   activities completed. At the same time, adult support decreases and students   are left on their own to make it all work.  Changing habits is hard work  and the first  step is seeing what needs to be changed.

How do you know if  you are “doing too much”?

  1. You automatically pack up for your child before   school or practice or a trip.
  2. You speak before you think – such as giving them   a reminder they need to start on homework or unload the dishwasher or any daily   task without waiting to see if they can do it on their own.
  3. You come to the rescue and run to school to  bring  the lunchbox or homework or soccer shoes left behind.

Parents don’t want to see their beloved children struggle,  make mistakes or  fail. But the time comes when parents must step back, look at  the habits they  have created and use their own executive functioning skills to  make a new plan – one that will help their son or daughter train their own  brain.

Related:  Is your child learning how to be helpless? How to stop over-functioning for  him.

Sara started to see that her own behavior was interfering  with her 10 year  old son Dylan’s development when her sister Jennie sister visited and watched  Sara do all the thinking and  planning for both Dylan and herself. Sara was  running around the house getting  packed for a ski day and that included getting  all of Dylan’s stuff too. He  played video games while she was organizing.

“Why are you getting everyone’s stuff?” her sister Jennie  asked.

“I have to. Dylan would forget something like his gloves and  that would ruin  things for all of us,” Sara quickly replied.

“But why do you have to do it?” her sister pushed. “Can’t  you give him a  checklist or make a video of what he needs or just ask him to  get one thing at  a time? You don’t actually have to do this for him. How will  he ever learn to  do it himself?”

Sara stopped, ski pants draped over her arm. She knew that  Jennie was right  but she had no idea how to go from doing all his planning to  teach him to do it  himself. She had made it so easy for Dylan; he didn’t even  try to help. He got  the message that he ‘couldn’t’ do it right so he didn’t  need to do it at  all.

Jennie, being the observer, could see that this dynamic  wasn’t good for  anyone, especially Dylan. She also knew that parents can’t go  from doing it all  to doing nothing. That was a set-up for failure.

And though she had some good suggestions both Sara and Dylan  needed to take  a step back in order for Dylan to know how to get from where he  was to where he  wanted and needed to be.

They needed to do 3 things to get him on the path to  organizing himself.

  1. Start at the end. That means that in  order to use a checklist, Dylan needed to know what it  would look like when he  was ready to ski. He needed a picture of what ‘ready’ looked like. Parents can  literally take a photo of what ready for school, ready  to ski, ready to play  baseball looks like (take a picture when he is ready and  use that as his  reference). Then you can ask him, what do you need to get or do  to get to the  end point? Tip: Before  starting to pack,  stop and ask Dylan to imagine himself at noon in the slopes,  what will he look  like, be wearing, etc.
  2. Estimating time. Just  because a child can  tell you what time it is does not mean they understand how  long 15 minutes  feels like. Practice time sense in small ways by first  estimating how long  Dylan thinks it will take to get ready to ski. Let’s say he  says 15 minutes.  Set a timer for 5, 10 and 15 minutes. Use each checkpoint to  see how far along  he is as a method of feedback, not to show him how inept he  is at using his  time. Tip: Make  sure you have an analog  wall clock where you can see the minutes actually move.
  3. Organize by category. Checklists don’t  usually work for people with executive functioning  deficits. They don’t make  any sense. Instead of a list, try organizing by  category and use pictures to  provide visual prompts. For instance, Dylan can  pack for baseball practice by  using three categories- equipment, clothing and  snacks. He can take a picture  what is needed in each category and then put it  into his ‘baseball’ bag. Tip: Put  the picture on a  luggage tag attached to the bag.

It is never too late to change the terms of engagement with  your child or  teen. It is natural to do less as children grow. Even kids who  seem lazy and  unmotivated to change can when parents change their role in the  relationship.  When adults can give their children real, practical tools along  with a clear  and voiced belief that the child can learn everyone benefits.  Today, Dylan  packed up his ski gear, tomorrow; he will learn what he needs to  be ready for  school, without Sara doing it for him. Then they can celebrate   together.


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