Developmental Age in ADHD

I’ve been asked what the single best parenting tip I’ve gotten as the parent of a child with ADHD is. After a lot of consideration, I’ve decided that it involves setting expectations. When we re-frame things that are appropriate for their developmental age, it alleviates so many fights and frustrations. These expectations can vary if they’re on medication at the time, how much sleep they’ve had, and more.

What is developmental age?

Kids with ADHD have a delay in brain development that affects the ways they organize, process, and act upon information.

Chronologic age

We typically measure a child’s age by how long it’s been since they were born. This is their chronologic age.

We assume that kids will be able to understand more complex ideas and master new tasks as they get older. There are certain milestones that are associated with various ages, such as a social smile by 2 months or walking by 15 months of age.

Developmental age

Your pediatrician will ask developmental questions at routine well visits to be sure your baby is on track.

These questions help us to identify if your child is developing at a normal rate or if there is a delay. At some ages there are specific standardized developmental screening tools to be administered.

As long as a child meets expectations, their developmental age and chronological age match. If they are delayed, we can give a developmental age to help identify their stage of development.

We know that ADHD is one cause of delay of areas of the brain that are important in executive functioning. At this time there are no standard screening tool recommended at all well visits to assess this development. It is important to bring up any concerns from home or school with your physician.

What are executive functioning skills?

Executive functions are the things we use to help us use and act upon information.

Understood is a great resource for many things related to learning, attention, and behavior. They have a great page about what executive functioning problems look like at different ages – from preschool to high school.

But my child’s smart, not delayed!

Being delayed in executive functioning areas of the brain is not the same as being academically delayed or having a low IQ. Parts of our brains grow at different rates.

Even your child that excels in certain areas can be delayed in others.

A child who can do math several grades ahead of classmates might not be able to remember something as simple as turning the homework in the next day.

Another child who reads grade levels ahead might not be able understand why a certain behavior is considered undesirable.

A child who is gifted in the arts can struggle significantly remembering all the things that must happen to get ready to leave the house in the morning on time.

It’s easy to get angry at kids for having missing assignments, when they forget to brush their teeth, or when they’re always running late. It can be difficult to help kids understand why they cannot blurt out answers or tell others what to do or how to do it.

Negative feedback leads to increasing problems

Unfortunately, kids with ADHD often hear negative feedback when they fail to do what’s expected, which can lead to rejection sensitivity.

Kids often develop unproductive ways to buffer the negativity that follows their failures. They can act out, become the “class clown,” decide to stop trying because of the fear of failure, and more.

It is now recognized that kids with ADHD have a delay in brain development that affects the ways they organize, process, and act upon information. #executivefunction #adhd #adhdkcteen

Setting expectations

I’m asked all the time how to set expectations with kids, especially those with ADHD.

It’s understandably difficult to parent when your child, who otherwise looks and acts like kids of the same age, doesn’t have the same abilities in areas of focus, organizing, prioritizing, completing tasks, and self care issues.

Visible differences are easy to spot

When kids look different due to a genetic or physical condition, it’s easy to see what accommodations are needed.

If a child has an obvious trait that makes it difficult to do a task, we modify our expectations. A wheelchair bound child would never be expected to run upstairs to grab something.

Invisible differences still exist

For those who look “normal” but are neurodevelopmentally different, it’s easy to fall into the trap of setting an expectation based on the typical expectation for their age, not their level of development.

A child who has problems with working memory might also struggle to run upstairs to grab something. It’s not a form of defiance when they go upstairs and forget what they’re supposed to be getting or when they don’t return because they get distracted by something else.

Many kids are simply not there yet.

They can’t act their age because that part of their brain is not at that stage.

Most will get there, but it takes them longer.

Set appropriate expectations, and when they struggle, show patience and help them learn. This is much more effective than setting the bar too high, resulting in punishments and anger.

Delays of executive functioning

Dr. Richard Barkley has shown that kids tend to develop executive functioning skills about 30% slower than neurotypical peers. This adds up to about 3-5 years at most ages.

This might mean that your 12 year old might struggle doing what another 12 year old has already mastered. They might only be able to handle things expected of an 8 year old.

Set expectations according to skills, not age

The single tip that helps de-stress parenting more than any other that I’ve heard is to adjust expectations by skill.

Chronologic age is less important when deciding what a child is capable of and what they’re ready to learn.

this doesn’t mean letting them get by with anything…

As a child grows, you will watch their successes and failures.

You learn what they can and cannot handle. Help them with the things they cannot do while letting them do as much as they can.

SEt expectations and supports

One child can be expected to get dressed and brush teeth without reminders.

Another child of the same age will need a chart listing all the routine things that need to be done.

And yet another child of the same age may need reminders to look at the chart.

All of these same age kids can be smart and have good intentions, but they need different levels of reminders.

Recommended Video

I recommend this video to parents often. It shows very clearly what it means to parent a child who is delayed in executive functioning. Parents of kids with ADHD will most likely identify with it.

Cherish the Gifts of ADHD

Ok, so I know most parents of children with ADHD will read this title and think I’m crazy. Gifts of ADHD? Really?

Kids with ADHD have trouble with behavior, academics, and social skills.

Adults with untreated ADHD fail to meet their own expectations, as shared by Jessica McCabe, and have problems at work and home.

How in the world can we cherish ADHD?

ADHD involves impairments in executive functioning. How can anything causing a broken executive functioning system be cherished?

Because they also have many positive traits that can be cultivated.

  • People with ADHD tend to think outside the box so are great problem solvers.
  • They have lots of energy so can work tirelessly.
  • They are often very creative so are gifted in the arts.
  • They often have a great sense of humor.
  • We all think of their inattention and poor focus, but they also hyperfocus on things they love. If they become passionate about something, they can sustain attention and work on it for long periods of time. If they use this hyperfocus wisely (with setting time limits so they can do other daily activities) they can become an expert in that area. For young children the hyper focus tends to be on “kid” things, like trains or video games, but as they get older, allowing kids to experience activities that interest them will give the opportunity to find a life passion that could turn into a fantastic career.

gifts

First, we must realize that everyone has gifts.

ADHD has many variables in the way it shows up, so people with it also have many variations in gifts. But they do have gifts.

I want parents, spouses, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncle, neighbors, teachers, and more to understand the value of these gifts and help children (and adults) recognize the benefits that people with ADHD can have.

“ADD people are high-energy and incredibly good brainstormers. They will often happily work 12 to 15 hours by choice. The business community should not fear ADD. Instead, they should see that they have a potential gold mine here.” – Dr. Kathleen Nadeau, psychologist

Despite those positive qualities, It’s easy to lose sight of them

Don’t forget to look for the gifts of ADHD despite the troubles.

I’m not saying life for them is easy.

It’s not.

They struggle with many things other people can easily manage. But they still have gifts. I want kids to grow up building their confidence by using their gifts, not by measuring their failures when they don’t conform to norms.

Kids can lose their drive and ambition if they are not supported along the way. Depression and anxiety can easily develop when kids continuously fail to meet their potentials.

School is not favorable to kids with ADHD.

It’s hard for kids with ADHD to stay on task and not rush through assignments.

  • Kids must sit in a chair for prolonged periods of time and keep quiet.
  • They need to color in the lines. They need to do all the steps in the order the teacher wants. Doing things someone else’s way is not easy for kids with ADHD.
  • They need to solve the math problem the way the teacher did it and show their work. They lose points if they get to the right answer but didn’t show their work or if they get there a different way. The teacher might assume they cheated to get the answer, but some kids just skip steps. To me that might just show brilliance. They can skip steps. Their brain just “gets” to the right answer. I never could figure math out without being told how to do it, but there are kids out there who can. What a gift! Unfortunately they feel dumb if they can’t show the steps just like the teacher taught. And it would be quite typical for a child with ADHD to have a brain that thinks this way if math is that child’s gift. What a shame that our schools tend to make these kids feel inferior because in the end they might resist working on math and will never reach their potential.

role models and resources

If your child struggles with the diagnosis, consider finding a mentor who is successful but has the same diagnosis.

Have them read Percy Jackson (link to a book review). He’s a fictional character with ADHD and dyslexia that kids can look up to.

Throughout history many successful people have had ADHD. Your child with ADHD can also become a leader, an inventor, an artist, or an otherwise excellent contributor to society. Let them see this list and see how many athletes, celebrities, and other leaders have ADHD.

Dr. Melissa Welby has compiled a list of her favorite books on ADHD.

cultivate the gifts!

We need to help these kids find their gifts and work on their challenges so that they can flourish.

Support them so they do not lose self-confidence.

Celebrate what they do right more than harping on what they do wrong.

Encourage them to develop their talents.

Help them find ways to accommodate for their struggles and to learn tools to help with some of the executive functioning problems they have.

Cherish them!

ADHD gifts
Yes. Cherish the gifts of ADHD.