Improving Communication With Your Child With ADHD

Simple methods to help your child slow down and pay attention

Affectionate mother and teenage daughter

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Communicating with a child who has ADHD presents challenges for parents. Many parents find it frustrating to get their child to slow down, pay attention and follow directions. The problem is compounded if parents themselves also have ADHD.

Kirk Martin is executive director of Celebrate!ADHD, an educational organization that provides training for educators, parents, and children affected by ADD, ADHD, autism, sensory integration disorder, oppositional defiance disorder, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other learning or emotional disabilities.

"It is important to understand that children with ADHD have very busy minds," says Martin. "Think of your child’s brain as a city with streets carrying information, impulses, sensory input, teachers' lectures, and your directions. But in their city, the traffic lights are not working, creating gridlock and chaos."

Communication Tips

Since it is essential to communicate more effectively with our children, Martin recommends that parents and teachers try these strategies.

  • Give clear, specific directions.
  • Try to break tasks into one or two steps so they do not feel overwhelming.
  • Give the child choices.
  • Ask questions instead of making statements. This forces a child to stop and think about the alternatives.

"Use interesting time limits and make it a challenge. Saying, 'We are leaving in five minutes' is meaningless," explains Martin. Instead, ask your child, "Do you think we can set a record by picking up all our Legos in three and a half minutes?" Martin also encourages parents to speak softly and whisper at times. "It helps your child learn to listen more attentively."

Instead of requiring your child to maintain eye contact, let your child move around and/or have something in their hands (such as textured objects or fidgets) while you are speaking. "This will actually increase attention and retention," Martin says.

Sometimes we talk until we are blue in the face and children simply don’t listen. They tune us out instead. Martin recommends visual and auditory reminders to keep a child on task. "We teach parents how to use color cards (yellow for slow down, red for stop, green for go) and timers to help children turn off their video games without being asked."

How to Communicate During a Temper Tantrum

Many parents are unsure how to handle the temper tantrums that can occur when a child becomes extremely frustrated. Martin encourages parents to look at tantrums as an opportunity to prove their personal integrity. "The sooner you show your child that their tantrums cannot control you, the sooner they will stop throwing them."

"The most effective way to calm an emotional child is for us to be calm. When your child is having a meltdown, you need to be the calm rock in their life. No matter how much their world is spinning out of control, you need to show them that you, the adult in their life, are in control and that everything is okay. And they need to recognize that you are so emotionally strong that even their wildest tantrum cannot move you.”

Martin explains that when we give in or try to bribe our children, they learn that they cannot count on us. They learn that we can be manipulated or embarrassed by screaming and crying. This causes even more insecurity and instability.

"Children with ADHD have great chaos inside, so they need order and structure on the outside," says Kirk Martin.

"So when your child loses it, seek first to control yourself and remain calm. Because your child has become emotional, he is irrational. And it is impossible to reason with an irrational person."

Martin counsels parents to draw the child into their calmness. "Sit down and begin to color with crayons, read a magazine, water your plants, cook. Invite him into your calm. This will freak him out at first because he is used to seeing you get upset. What you are communicating, though, is (1) Your actions cannot control or manipulate me and (2) No matter how out of control you may feel, I am a rock you can count on."

Parents may then calmly let their child know they are available when the screaming and acting out stops. Martin gives an example of what a parent may say: "When you are ready to talk, I’m all ears. But I can’t hear what you are screaming at me and your tantrum will not get what you want."

A Word From Verywell

Communicating well with kids is essential, no matter the child's diagnosis. If your child has ADHD or other learning or attention issues, communication can be challenging. Miscommunication and frustration can lead to tantrums. But as a parent, you can help your child learn to listen and focus with smart suggestions, statements, and questions that promote understanding.

By Keath Low
 Keath Low, MA, is a therapist and clinical scientist with the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina. She specializes in treatment of ADD/ADHD.