Treatment for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often entails a combination of medication and therapy. In therapy sessions, kids practice and learn various essential skills. These may include but aren't limited to concentration skills, problem-solving skills, social skills, and expressing or regulating emotions. Many types of therapy are used to address ADHD symptoms and other concerns. Therapy modalities and activities that help kids most may depend on factors such as a child's age and needs.
While it does not replace working with a professional and should be a supplement to therapy sessions with a licensed mental health provider rather than a substitute, parents can use therapy techniques at home to instill some of the same benefits. This article will discuss effective therapy activities for your child that can help manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.
Therapy Activities For ADHD: Child-Friendly Techniques To Use At Home
Whether you're a parent, a child's teacher, or another close and trusted adult, some activities commonly used in therapy can be easily transferred into other environments. For example, the home or school. Let's go over types of therapy frequently used for children, their benefits, and activities you can try with a child.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
People with ADHD tend to have trouble regulating emotions and frequently experience challenges like rejection sensitivity or difficulty with self-control. It's also common for people with ADHD to experience co-occurring concerns, such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem, for which cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is often used.
CBT focuses on finding solutions to problems and changing thought patterns to help individuals meet their goals.
Again, CBT is one of the most widespread types of therapy, with a number of benefits that help people meet their personal goals. Potential benefits of CBT include:
- Helps children learn coping skills to use during high-stress or emotional times.
- Can increase positive feelings toward oneself.
- Can help promote good behavior.
CBT can be combined with other therapies and is tailored to fit a person's individual needs. Examples of activities you might find in CBT include but aren't limited to:
- Discussion-based activities. Activities that give you an opportunity to talk about feelings and how to navigate them can be valuable. For example, you may read a children's book about emotions and discuss the book afterward.
- Feelings thermometers. Feelings thermometers or scales (which look a lot like pain scales) help kids rate the intensity of emotions on a scale of 1-10. For identifying specific emotions, feelings wheels can be valuable.
- Thought reframe. A common focus in CBT, thought reframing is a tool used to reframe cognitive distortions (e.g., catastrophizing, all-or-nothing thinking) and make them more realistic and supportive of a person's mental health.
Some children may benefit from CBT worksheets.
Children express themselves and learn skills naturally through play. This is exactly what play therapy is for; it's an opportunity for kids to express themselves and learn naturally through play in a safe space. Play therapy is often used for young kids because it is effective and engaging in a way that other therapies may not be for their age group. Professionals who conduct play therapy use it for ADHD, trauma, anxiety, and an array of other concerns.
Joon is a to-do app and game for kids with ADHD and related disorders. Using Joon is an excellent way to help kids learn independence, build confidence, and promote real-life skills.
Here's how it works:
Adults sign up first with Joon Parent App and make a customized to-do list for their children. Your child's to-do list can include anything you want, like therapy sessions, homework, chores, or daily self-care, like brushing their teeth. Kids connect with a separate app called Joon Pet Game. Upon finishing tasks, children get coins and experience points that allow them to progress in the game and take care of a virtual pet called a Doter.
90% of kids who use Joon finish every item on their to-do list. Even better, many users say it has improved their parent-child relationship.
To a child, play therapy techniques should typically feel like a fun activity, but the benefits and uses are extensive. Benefits of play therapy activities for ADHD kids include:
- Can offer insight into a child's emotions and thoughts.
- Gives children an opportunity for self-expression and emotional release.
- Can focus on building specific skills, such as social or problem-solving skills.
Play therapy activities may involve pretend play and other types of play activities. Examples you can use at home include:
- Self-directed narrative play. Give children puppets, action figures, dolls, stuffed animals, or other similar toys. Allow the child to take the lead and observe the story they create non-judgmentally. This is often used to help play therapists gain insight into a child's feelings. Often, this is called "non-directive play therapy" in therapeutic environments because adults are not instructing the child on what to do.
- Role-playing to build social skills. Using some of the same toys as those listed above (anything that can be used to act out a social situation and appeals to a child works), guide a child to act out scenarios that help them learn important friendship and communication skills, such as taking turns. This is an example of directive play therapy since you are giving the child instructions.
- Board and card games. "Classic" play activities can be used in play therapy and other forms of support for kids with ADHD and related disorders. Board games and card games are just two examples of classic play activities that can teach kids social and problem-solving skills, improve attention span, and more.
- Playing with sand trays and other therapeutic toys or items.
Mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy or MBCT-C is a subtype of CBT that employs and centralizes mindfulness interventions. It is highly effective for many concerns that kids with ADHD can be prone to, such as anxiety, behavior problems, and emotion dysregulation.
Truthfully, anyone can benefit from learning how to use mindfulness. Potential advantages of mindfulness-based therapy activities include but aren't limited to:
- Can improve anxiety.
- May help reduce or manage impulsivity.
- Often beneficial for relieving angry feelings or emotional outbursts.
Many different activities can promote mindfulness. Practices to use for children with ADHD may include but aren't limited to:
- Breathing exercises. There are many child-friendly breathing exercises parents can share with children. Breathing exercises make great coping skills or strategies that can be used anywhere. While some kids can follow directions from parents and learn exercises like box breathing or 5-5-5 breathing, other kids may practice best through guided videos. Free-breathing exercise instruction videos for kids can be found online through YouTube or breathing exercise apps for children.
- Grounding activities. Focusing on the present moment is a critical component of mindfulness. For kids, using fun games like "I Spy" (which you can play in the car or on a nature walk) and exercises such as the 5-4-3-2-1 activity (where you notice 5 things you can see, 4 you can touch, 3 you can hear, 2 you can smell, and 1 you can taste) are simple, practical ways to help them concentrate on “the now” rather than worry about the past or future.
- Sensory activities. Much like the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise, many mindfulness-based activities are based on the 5 senses. Common activities include mindful eating (e.g., having a child eat a small food item, like orange slices, and describe how the oranges taste, feel, and look),
- Balance activities. Instruct kids to balance on one foot. You can even have a contest to see who can balance for the longest. Much like grounding activities, sensory activities, and breathing exercises, this helps a child practice paying attention to the present moment and focus on the exercise.
- Guided meditations. You can find guided meditations for children online or through meditation apps for kids.
Many children are drawn to and enjoy making art. Art therapy may use a nearly endless number of creative activities and crafts to help kids with ADHD and related disorders express themselves, communicate, gain feelings of accomplishment and confidence, and more. For easily distracted kids, making arts and crafts can help them practice focusing or concentrating.
Art therapy can be used to address many concerns in addition to or outside of ADHD. Benefits of art therapy can include but aren't limited to:
- Fun and engaging.
- Promotes creative expression.
- Encourages focus and concentration.
- Can aid motor skills.
In general, arts and crafts make fantastic recreational activities and are a common mode of self-expression. Here are some art therapy prompts and activities you can use at home:
- Self-portraits. Having children make self-portraits is a fun way to spark creativity and get insight into how they see themselves.
- "Make a feeling’s creature." If an emotion like anger was a creature, what would it look like? Ask your child to paint or draw feelings such as happiness, sadness, or something else. An alternative way to approach this is to ask a child to make a creature that represents how they feel.
- Collage-making. Making collages is a calming activity and can help kids practice concentrating on an activity, like most other arts and crafts. Have children create a collage from magazines, photos, or anything else you have around the home - the options are endless.
- Drawing the future. What does your child want their future to look like? How do they envision themselves and their lives as adults? Ask your child to draw it for you.
- Jewelry making or craft kits. Fine motor skills and concentration are often required for these activities.
Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT)
Parent-child interaction therapy, or PCIT, is based on parent-child interaction, just as one might expect. Often, it is used for children with behavioral problems.
During the first stage of PCIT, kids lead a play activity while their caregivers observe and comment on the child's positive behaviors but ignore poor or inappropriate behaviors. This is sometimes called the relationship enhancement phase because it focuses on strengthening the parent-child relationship and positive regard toward the child.
During the second stage of PCIT, parents learn to give children clear instructions and provide consequences for poor or inappropriate behaviors. Parents also continue giving praise for positive behavior.
Research shows that PCIT programs conducted by therapists can be incredibly valuable for children. Potential benefits of PCIT include:
- Helpful for younger children with behavior problems
- Builds positive parent-child relationships and interactions
- Can reduce angry feelings, aggression, and defiance in kids.
- Improves communication skills in families.
Many different activities are recommended by providers who teach and use PCIT. Classically, parents are instructed to avoid giving children demands during PCIT in a therapeutic environment. Ideas that may be suitable for kids with ADHD include but aren't limited to:
- Legos, blocks, puzzles, or building sets. Not only do these activities aid motor skills, but they are also an opportunity to foster positive parent-child interaction and teamwork.
- Active hobbies or games. Kids with ADHD may have excess energy and are known to benefit from movement. Sports and active games can be ideal for high-energy kids.
- Art. Arts and crafts activities of all kinds have similar benefits to building toys or sets when applied in this context.
During these activities, compliment your child. For example, during an art project, you may compliment the colors a child uses.
Many activities used in therapy can be transferred to the home as a way to help children build new skills, express themselves, improve behavior, and promote overall mental health. Parents and other family members can use the ideas in this article to support children. While the value of using therapy activities at home is real and can be productive, doing so does not replace therapy sessions with a licensed mental health professional. Ideally, kids who may benefit from therapy should engage in sessions with a provider and use recommended activities at home as supplementary practice.