5-Keys to Unlock Executive Dysfunction in ADHD Kids

Sucheta Kamath

Unmotivated, unaware, scattered and disorganized children are often thought to be lazy (and unintelligent). In fact, they typically struggle with symptoms of Executive Dysfunction.

It’s hard to like people who are unreliable or unaccountable. It’s even harder when those same people don’t change their ways in response to suggestions, guidance or advice. That’s the plight of a person with Executive Dysfunction.

I want to offer parents a framework to clearly understand Executive Dysfunction (also known as poor Executive Functions or Executive Function disorder). With an understanding of the challenges faced by an ADHD underachiever, you can approach the ‘appearance’ of laziness differently, improving your child’s ability to manage his/herself, and strengthening relationships within the family.

Get to Know the Beast

The main symptoms of ADHD include inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity. They reflect dysfunctions in a wide range of  “executive” abilities – cognitive, communicative, social, behavioral and emotional.

To simplify Executive Dysfunction, it helps to understand what well-developed executive abilities look like. Among other things, Executive Functions allow individuals to:

Constantly adapt or change

  • Shift focus or behavior, as necessary, when there is a slight interruption
  • Tweak familiar ways to handle unfamiliar situations
  • Make changes without being prompted by outside forces

Sustain focus on personal or group intentions

  • Pay attention, and maintain attention
  • Handle tempting distractions without wavering from task
  • Put effort into actions that move towards a final goal
  • Help others by helping yourself stay on joined goals

DO what needs to be done

  • Understand personal challenges and how they interfere with success
  • Use critical thinking to understand why goal-directedness matters
  • Solve problems to promote SELF goals

Executive Functions were once known as street smarts or common sense. When a child lacks these skills, it may appear lazy, rude, obnoxious, annoying or lacking in personal responsibility. Historically, discipline for children with Executive Dysfunction treats a child with ADHD like s/he has “character flaws”:

–   Rule with iron fist: be tough on the child.
–   Punish the child. Create a “fear of god” so s/he will stop.
–   Ignore it because getting the child to cooperate is tedious.
–   Just give up because nothing seems to help.

Parents can inadvertently blame the child with ADHD as intentionally difficult or purposefully oppositional. However, deeper understanding can lead to greater respect for the suffering of the children with ADHD and subsequent Executive Dysfunction.

4 Tricks To Shift your Thinking

1. Make Family Values Transparent: Trouble with concrete thinking, working memory and self-awareness makes it harder for kids with ADHD to accept a parent’s advice. Family values can foster loving relationships:

  • Listen more respectfully
  • Keep an open mind to ideas that may not make sense at first
  • Work hard on a suggestion before giving it up
  • Thank those who are patiently helping

2. Show More and Lecture Less: Trouble with self-awareness and self-judgment leads to a tendency for kids with ADHD to stall, procrastinate, or lose interest in their work. S/he may argue, annoy or show insensitivity towards those who are trying to help, leading to parenting “lectures” that often make the parent feel better, but does not necessarily reach the child. Think differently about the guidance you offer:

  • Show the first step. “Walk” your child through how to get started.
  • Email your concerns so your child can slowly process and not miss any details.
  • Emphasize your “feelings” using “I” language, and keep them brief.
  • Keep it simple — do not bombard with suggestions.
  • Avoid spilling out your fears of “impending doom” if your child doesn’t do what s/he is expected to do.
  • Keep words to a minimum when you are upset. Bring your child’s attention to the nuances of the emotional state of others.

3. Tools Are needed AND They Require Practice: Children with ADHD who present themselves as disorganized, inefficient and inconsistent are often offered help and support. However, if a parent comes up with the solutions, the child’s Executive Functions are not trained. Children must be educated about the WHY and the HOW of the Tools offered (such as planners, timers, Apps, recorders, organized binders, color-coded drawers).

  • Take time to explain why it is important to use a tool
  • Do not invent new tool each time the previous tool fails
  • Don’t be bedazzled by technology. A tool is valuable if it works and is easy to use, not because of its bells and whistles.

4. Bring Mindfulness Practice to the forefront: While children with ADHD have many needs, they tend to resist addressing them. The symptoms of Executive Dysfunction can create enormous amounts of stress on the family, especially when a child’s day is so full of glitches and faux pas that s/he doubts his/her ability to succeed. Managing these challenges takes resilience and optimism! This mysterious balance can be achieved through the practice of Mindfulness!

  • Involve the whole family in learning mindfulness tools.
  • Bring intentionality in healthy eating habits and exercise.
  • Learn deep breathing techniques through Yoga, Tai Chi  etc.
  • Create bed-time routines that include no electronics, fresh set of clean clothes, calm lighting, and inspirational reading material.
  • Learn meditative practice that emphasize using visual imagery and body relaxation.
  • Use CDs for guided relaxation.
  • Bring some type of spiritual elements to your daily life.

Parenting has never been easy. Modeling good citizenship is even harder. People who suffer from ADHD and Executive Dysfunction have an added burden of compensating for impulsivity, lack of awareness and inability to take different perspectives. Shifting the mindset from “how to handle this problem” to “how to lead a meaningful life in spite of it” will bring a sense of calm, certainty and hope. ADHD and Executive Dysfunction CAN be managed!

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