Both kids and adults with ADHD often struggle with time management. This can look like always being late or missing deadlines for adults.
For kids, it might get read as defiance; You tell your child that they need to turn off the video games in 5 minutes. Half an hour later, you find them still playing — and they argue with you that it hasn’t been 5 minutes yet. What gives?
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition, and the ways in which it affects the brain can make it difficult, or even impossible to measure and manage time efficiently. Here’s how you can help your child learn this important life skill.
Time Management and ADHD
Time management is one of the hardest skills for people with ADHD to master. This might especially be true for children, who are just learning this skill to begin with (whether or not they have ADHD).
Time management in ADHD is associated with a few different symptoms and features.
People with ADHD experience something called “time blindness.” This causes people to be “blind” to how long tasks actually take, notice how much time is passing, or be able to correctly estimate the amount of time that’s required to do something.
Researchers have found that time blindness may be linked to how ADHD affects the brain. In particular, cognitive skills like prospective memory (remembering the need to complete tasks in the future) and processing speed (taking longer to complete tasks) are more challenging for people with ADHD. Several areas and processes of the brain could lead to these symptoms.
For example, you might tell your child that they need to start getting ready for bed in 5 minutes. 20 minutes later, you come back to find them still watching television. When you scold them, they swear to you that 5 minutes haven’t passed yet.
Your child probably isn’t trying to blatantly lie to or defy you. It’s possible that, in their minds, 5 minutes doesn’t seem to have passed.
Difficulty processing anticipatory rewards or consequences
People with ADHD also have a difficult time with anticipatory events — events that are happening in the future. The farther into the future a potential reward or consequence is, the more likely it is that your child with ADHD will forget about it altogether. Or they may not forget about it, but also not have the executive functioning skills to be able to do anything about it now.
ADHD brains can often only think in two times when it comes to time: “Now” and “not now.” And, most of the time, whatever is happening “now” takes priority.
Maybe in the previous scenario, your child does know that their 5 minutes have passed. But even if they know that you’ll eventually come back to scold them for not being in bed, they’re too focused on the present to be able to pay any attention to what’s coming. Even adults with ADHD struggle with this.
Other executive functions that are involved in this include planning, motivation, and goal orientation.
It’s no secret that kids with ADHD are more distractible than neurotypical kids. This symptom is especially powerful for kids who have the inattentive presentation of ADHD.
It’s easy to see how distractibility could play a factor in time management. For example, your child could initially be aware that they need to start getting ready for bed, but could quickly get distracted by something else. Maybe they actually turn off the television, only to be distracted by another toy — completely forgetting that they need to get ready for bed.
How to help your child with ADHD practice time management
Just because your child has ADHD doesn’t mean that they can’t live a successful and fulfilling life. Time management is an important skill, especially in adulthood, and one that can be learned. There are ways you can help your child strengthen this skill before they become an adult.
Here are 5 ways to help your child with ADHD practice time management.
Make a to-do list
A lot of parents use to-do lists with their kids, even if they don’t have ADHD. To-do lists can be a great tool to help your child remember the things they need to do each day.
You may want to consider breaking up daily to-do lists into much smaller lists. Kids with ADHD can become overwhelmed easily, and might feel frustrated when they see what, to them, looks like a never ending list of things to do.
For example, make a to-do list for tasks to complete before they leave for school. You could add even small tasks like putting on their socks and double-checking their backpack to make sure they have everything. If this is too much, split it up: for example, a to-do list for before breakfast, and one before they leave the house.
If your child has homework to do, you could make a to-do list of assignments to be completed. To break it up further, you could break each assignment into smaller steps, and put each step onto the to-do list as a separate task.
Make boring activities more fun
This tip doesn’t directly relate to time management, but should make it easier for your child to stop procrastinating on tasks that they find boring.
If your child has ADHD, you’ve probably already noticed that they can easily get things done, sometimes — when the activity is something that actually engages them. Getting them to move on to tasks that are perceived as “boring,” though, can be a challenge.
To overcome this, find ways to make boring activities more fun for your child. Turn cleaning their room into a game. Play music that they love in the background while they work on something. As long as it’s not distracting them away from actually completing the tasks, there are so many ways to get creative with this.
Create and follow a schedule
One of the best ways to help your child practice time management is to create predictable routines. This includes daily routines, that almost always stay the same, as well as pre-planned schedules for special events. When your child knows what to expect, they’ll be more likely to be able to manage their time well.
Consider including other time management tricks into your routine, as well. For example, maybe your child eats breakfast every morning only as long as one 15-minute cartoon. Or maybe you prepare them, the days leading up to a flight, that you expect them to brush their teeth only 20 seconds (counted out loud) after you wake them up.
The more predictable your schedules are, the more likely your child will be able to stick to it. It’s just as important to follow the schedule as it is to make it.
Plan the day/week ahead of time
On a related note, plan every week ahead of time, and have visual reminders so your child knows what to expect. Of course, it’s impossible for parents to predict every single thing that happens during a week — unexpected problems are sure to arise. But whatever you do expect to happen, make sure it’s on the visual plan.
For example, if your child has soccer practice every Wednesday, write that in large letters (or symbols, if your child can’t read yet) where the child can see. When your child knows what to expect, they’ll be less likely to have a meltdown.
This can be helpful for parents of kids with ADHD, too. Many parents of ADHD kids also have ADHD themselves. Having visual reminders around the house can help the whole family stay organized.
Lastly, remember that if your child has ADHD, then it’s likely that they’re affected by time blindness. Their internal clock is likely completely out-of-tune, and they may not know how to accurately measure how much time has passed.
If you ever give your child a time-related instruction (such as, “Only 10 more minutes of video games”), make sure you set a timer that your child can hear. The timer shouldn’t be used as a punishment — it’s simply a tool for your child to be able to measure time. Consider using an analog timer so your child doesn’t get distracted on electronics when the timer on it goes off.
ADHD is a chronic condition, and time management might never be one of your child’s biggest strengths. But that doesn’t mean that this needs to negatively affect their life. You can create conditions in which your child is set up to succeed.
With your support, your child can learn the valuable skill of time management. Be patient with them, and try to remember that their difficulty with time isn’t their fault.