5 Strategies to Support Your Young Child if You Suspect ADHD (or not!)

May 6, 2021 | Development

This post was written by The Childhood Collective

Does my child have ADHD? 

One of the most common questions we hear from parents is, “Do you think my toddler or preschooler has ADHD?” This is because many young children will show characteristics similar to ADHD. Maybe your toddler or preschooler…

  • Changes activities quickly or has a short attention span
  • Is constantly running and climbing everything in sight
  • Talks loudly or makes constant noises
  • Has huge tantrums (in the checkout line at Target, of course!) that seem to come out of nowhere

 

All of these behaviors (though overwhelming!) are normal for young children. It is really the degree to which you see these behaviors and whether your child starts to outgrow these patterns. ADHD is typically diagnosed in children 5 years of age or older (sometimes as early as 4 years), as the diagnosis requires that the child shows significant symptoms in more than one environment (e.g., school, home, or with friends).

 

If you start to notice that your child is not maturing out of these behaviors at the same rate as their peers, or these behaviors are having a negative impact on life at home or school, then an ADHD evaluation may be needed to help you identify supports to help your child thrive.

 

Are there ANY signs I can watch for?

 

Research has shown that young children who eventually receive a diagnosis of ADHD show some differences in the early childhood years. For example, children as young as 24 months demonstrated more externalizing behaviors (e.g., aggression, hyperactivity, and impulsivity) and sleep problems than their peers (Bernard Arnett, MacDonald, & Pennington, 2013). Additionally, another study found that hyperactivity and impulsivity are the strongest behaviors that predict if a child will go on to receive an ADHD diagnosis in their preschool or school-age years (Churchack-Lichtin, Chacko, & Halperin, 2014).

 

How can I help my child at home? 

 

Children with ADHD (and many kids, actually!) struggle with executive functioning. These brain-based skills help us to start tasks, stay organized, and regulate our bodies. Think of the brain like a car. The executive functions are the brakes (controlling impulses), power steering (regulating speed), and the accelerator (initiating tasks) that help the car run. Executive functions take years to develop, so all children can benefit from support. Let’s talk about five simple, fun ways you can promote executive function skills in your young child!

 

  • Play, play, play: When you sit down and play with your child, you are helping develop their inner voice. Children actually learn a lot of self-regulation and social skills from play. If play doesn’t come naturally to you, follow your child’s lead. You can imitate how they play and talk about what you are doing together. BONUS: As I’m sure you’ve picked up on from following the Speech Sisters themselves, play is ALSO one of the best ways to develop your child’s speech and language skills!

 

  • Focus on connection and praise: Connection is such an important part of any relationship! And the really amazing thing is that 10-minutes per day of dedicated 1:1 playtime with your child can make a huge difference in those challenging behaviors.

It’s easy to get into a pattern of redirecting and correcting our children. Our natural inclination as parents is to correct problems as they arise. Instead of correcting or punishing, focus on prevention by finding dedicated playtime with your child and praising your child as often as possible. When using praise, rather than just saying “Great job!,” focus on praising your child’s process in play or specific behaviors (e.g., “Look at the colors you chose! You are so creative,” or “I love how you picked up your toys and put them in the basket; what a great helper!”). When you are intentional about giving your child lots of positive attention, you will observe fewer behavioral challenges.

 

  • Build routines: Routines and clear expectations help children feel safe and can minimize meltdowns that often happen during transitions (like that apocalyptic meltdown turning off the iPad!).  As a family, think about what is meaningful and important in your routines. From there, you can set up simple routines for bedtime, mornings, meal times, and even screen time. You can minimize tantrums by having clear and consistent expectations throughout the day, preparing your child for transitions, and offering choices for non-negotiable parts of their routines (“Do you want the strawberry or bubblegum toothpaste?”).


  • Give everything a place: Along those same lines, children with ADHD will likely need support to develop organization skills (hello, lost soccer jerseys!). You can start at a young age by teaching your child that there is a place for everything… shoes, socks, a wet towel, and a toothbrush. Over time, it becomes second nature to your child to put things away, and this will save you SO MUCH time in the long run!

 

  • Navigate those BIG emotions: Your child’s emotions may go from 0 to 60 faster than a race car. You are not alone! Try to find your own calm at the moment and take a deep breath. Remember, ALL feelings are allowed (even when they seem out of proportion to the issue at hand!). Listen to your child and reflect back their feelings (“You look really sad with your shoulders hunched over and that tear on your cheek…  I know you really wanted ice cream for dinner. Let’s find another time to have ice cream.”). Just because you are validating your child’s feelings, does not mean you give in to their desires.

 

One last thing to keep in mind: You know your child best. If you have concerns about ADHD or other areas of your child’s development, trust your instincts! Start with your pediatrician who can connect you with other professionals who evaluate and treat ADHD. And even though ADHD is not diagnosed until 4+ years of age, your child may still benefit from a developmental evaluation at an earlier age to determine if they would benefit from early intervention services. 

 

We would love to have you join our community and be a part of your parenting journey! Check out our website The Childhood Collective for lots of resources, including our free ADHD Treatment Guide and online course, Creating Calm, for parenting children with ADHD.

 

Lori, Katie, and Mallory 

The Childhood Collective

 

References
Bernard Arnett, A., MacDonald, B., & Pennington, B. (2013). Cognitive and behavioral indicators of ADHD symptoms prior to school age. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and Allied Disciplines, 54 (12), 1284-1294.
Churchack-Lichtin, J., Chacko, A., & Halperin, J. M. (2014). Changes in ADHD symptom endorsement: Preschool to school age. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 42, 993-1004. 

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The Childhood Collective

The Childhood Collective is a team of two child psychologists (Lori Long, Ph.D. and Mallory Yee, Ph.D.) and a speech language pathologist (Katie Severson, M.S., CCC-SLP). Most importantly, they are three moms who are dedicated to supporting parents of children with ADHD, anxiety, and learning & language differences. With over 40 years of combined professional experience, their goal is to empower parents by teaching science-backed strategies to help children thrive at home and at school. Free resources and an online ADHD parenting course can be found at  www.thechildhoodcollective.com.

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