In my work I frequently hear parents wondering why their child’s ADHD seems to be getting worse over time instead of better. A lot of parents believe their children will “grow out” of ADHD symptoms; that this is a disorder that impacts the youngest of kids and then somehow they snap out of it.

If this is your understanding of ADHD, keep reading. You’re about to have your ADHD world rocked.

Do you ever find yourself saying things like,

“You’re 9 years old! I shouldn’t have to tie your shoes for you!” or

“You’re 12 years old! You should know how to graciously lose a game by now!” or

“My 6 year old is having a hard time following rules in 1st grade… shouldn’t she be able to do this by now?!”

Once you learn the meaning of the number pattern below, you may just watch all of those “should” questions evaporate from your vocabulary.

I hope you experience an A-HA! moment. I hope you pick up some SUPER important insight into why your child is behind his peers… why she can’t do certain things yet… and how our expectations of our children based upon their biological age is setting them up for failure and squashing their self-esteem.

I know I did.

Alright, so let’s look at the simple math.

executive age

The top numbers in the series above represent your child’s BIOLOGICAL age – the birthday she just celebrated last. The age you think she should be acting like.

The bottom numbers in each cluster represent your child’s approximate EXECUTIVE age. That is, the maturity of his executive functions like impulse control, emotional regulation, work processing speed, working memory, planning and organization and so on. Your child’s executive age is what he or she is physically and mentally CAPABLE of doing.

{For more information about what executive functions are, see my blog post here.}

The number in parentheses after each “fraction” is the ADHD GAP between a child’s biological age and his executive age. Notice that as a child ages biologically, the ADHD gap widens on the executive function development chart.


Executive Age vs. Biological Age

Dr. Russell Barkley, one of the most prominent clinicians in ADHD research, calls this phenomenon the “30% Rule.” “If your child is 10,” he says, “he has the self-control of a 7-year-old.” Likewise, when he is 12 he has the self-control of an 8 year old. Oh, your child is turning 21? Her self-control skills are equivalent to that of a 14 year old.

Scared yet?

This ever-widening ADHD gap is precisely why ADHD experts do not encourage a “wait and see” approach to supporting executive function development. ADHD is not something that kids just “grow out of.” 

Their ADHD executive age is determined in a different way than what we expect our child’s age to be.

In fact, if you’re truly dealing with ADHD, and your child is not actively supported to develop her executive function skills this gap will become more and more prominent and the consequences will become more and more serious.

But here’s the real kicker… As our kids age, the situations we put them into are usually appropriate for their biological age. When a child is 3, that’s not a huge difference — daycare and play dates are generally all the same for toddlers. However as they age, this mismatch between their executive maturity and the situations we put them in grows. In turn, the gap becomes more and more obvious to everyone around them.

Example of Executive Function Age and ADHD

A good example of this is organized team sports. We put our kids onto sports teams based on their biological age. However, a 12 year old ADHD kid will perform significantly different than a 12 year old child without ADHD. A 12 year old ADHD child will have the ability to manage his emotions, his attention span and focus only as well as an 8 year old. His motivation to compete and be serious about the game will generally be that of an 8 year old.

Yet, he’s playing on a 12-year-old team and expected to “act his age”.  Do you think he’s likely to be successful? Do you think his team mates will begin to harbor negative feelings toward him? Do you think expecting him to perform at a level he is not capable of doing is fair to him? Perhaps it’s doing more harm than good?

{As a side note, I believe this is precisely why so many ADHD kids quit sports even though they are some of the kids that need them the most!}

Even scarier… as this gap widens and our kids turn into pre-teens, tweens, and teens, they are subject to more serious situations. These situations require a great deal of self-control in order to make good choices – attending parties, deciding whether to experiment with drugs or sex, driving cars, committing practical jokes gone wrong, being subjected to hazing. And that’s just a few.

That gap, combined with an ever-plummeting self-esteem in their tween and teen years, is a recipe for disaster. I mean, making impulsive / bad decisions in situations like these can be life-altering. Indeed, it can mean life or death. Literally.

I don’t know about you, but when I finally understood the impact of this ADHD gap things got pretty darn serious. ADHD is not something to dismiss.

{If you want to hear Dr. Barkely taking about this 30% Rule in his own voice, here is a great video.}


The Difference (and Similarities) Between ADHD and Executive Functioning Problems

While ADHD is an official diagnosis with its own host of symptoms, executive functioning problems refer to a broader term for weakness in our brain’s ability to manage itself. ADHD in and of itself isn’t unique to executive functioning problems — any child with learning disabilities and extenuating circumstances can suffer from executive functioning issues.

Our executive functions can be broken down into six simple functions: activation, focus, effort, emotion, memory and action. The activation part of our brain is what helps us organize and prioritize tasks, focus is responsible for sustaining our efforts toward a task or knowing when to switch tasks, and effort regulates our alertness and the speed at which we process our work. The management of emotion is what keeps our frustration in check as we work, memory lets us access and recall the information we need to complete a task, and action is our active ability to monitor and self-regulate ourselves as we work.

As you can imagine, each one of these functions is critical for success at any given task. When we try to force children to work at a level of maturity they don’t have, they are literally working with a broken system that doesn’t have the tools they need to succeed.

Both children who have ADHD and children with executive functioning issues can suffer from a lack of self-control, emotion management, the ability to start tasks efficiently and the capacity to hold information in working memory effectively. 

As I’ve mentioned earlier, this causes a discrepancy between executive age and biological age that can affect a child’s self-esteem. Where the impulsiveness and difficulty with emotions can cause kids with ADHD to become isolated from other kids, the difficulty with memory and brittle thinking that executive functioning problems create can cause the same issue. When a child asks, “What is my maturity age?” The expectation shouldn’t be their biological age.


Narrowing the ADHD Gap

Once you grasp this 30% Rule, frustrating situations become not-so-frustrating anymore. Empathy — as opposed to aggravation — can take the front seat in your parenting strategies. And how to help your child becomes more intuitive. 

Our goal in helping kids with ADHD is to narrow the ADHD gap. This means teaching your child how to improve their executive function skills so that they begin to engage in more age-appropriate behaviors.

This takes time. It takes a lot of work – for you and your kiddo.

But here is the most important sentence in this entire post: In order to help an ADHD child develop their executive skill set, you must first MEET THEM AT THEIR ADHD EXECUTIVE FUNCTION AGE.

Go back. Read that again. I’m serious — read it again.

What does “meeting your kid at their executive age mean?” Well, let’s think about this in terms of helping your child with something really straight forward. Let’s say your child is struggling in 3rd grade with math. They just can’t understand some of the basic rules and processes. What would you do? Would you tell them that their best bet for getting better at third grade math is to try 6th grade math? Or would you instead try to assess what skills your child does have – where they are starting from – and help them advance from there step-by-step?

I think the answer is pretty darn obvious.

The same is true for your ADHD child and his executive skills. In order to help a child learn the strategies needed to narrow the gap between his executive skills and his biological age, we must first determine where he is now and help him move forward from there.

When you are helping your kiddo with self-regulation skills you support your child at his executive age. You literally provide him or her the guidance and supervision you would for a child of his executive age. This is going to look different for each child because each kiddo has different strengths and struggles.

So what do we do?

Well, when my child is 9 I support him emotionally as though he is 6 in any way that his executive function requires that support. I know where his baseline is and I help give him tools to meet challenges in appropriate ways that help him grow without failing.

This means, for example, that I generally don’t run errands during his sports practices. Remember, his executive function skills lag behind most of his teammates by 3 years. He’s less competitive, he’s more impulsive, more distractible and quicker to lose his temper or feel like a failure than the other children are. This makes him sometimes seem like an outcast. Other kids don’t really get it and sometimes the coaches are unsure how to handle it.

So I’m there.

To the outside world, this may be seen as “too supportive,” or helicopter-ish. But as an ADHD parent you have to stop giving a single shit about what the outside world “thinks” about your child’s invisible disability.


What You Can Start Doing Now

We also need to be active in providing the support our children need within our local communities. For school, this may mean working with educators to create an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that works for your kid. What does this entail?

IEPs that fall under a 504 Plan (a specific educational plan that has to meet certain standards by law to accomodate children with learning disabilities) are built to offer tutoring or coaching that helps children develop executive functions. This can be the start of a strong toolkit to help your child learn organizational skills and get the extra time they need to complete tests and other academic challenges.

At home, there are more strategies you can use to meet your child at their executive level. Kids learn better when they have daily routines and rituals that provide structure in an otherwise chaotic world. 

Children can also benefit from learning self-regulation skills through your guidance. When you understand where their base mindset is, you can help them develop the ability to reframe negative thoughts and learn how to stay persistent during longer tasks. The more you invest in helping your kid learn the skills they need to succeed and the less you assume about what they should already know, the easier it will be to help close that gap between what their biological age is and what their executive age is.

For you, what else might this mean?

This may mean that your 14-year-old daughter doesn’t start babysitting alone even though her peers are starting to do so.

This may mean that you don’t allow your 15-year-old to get his driver’s permit when his friends are doing so.

It may mean that you don’t allow your 10-year-old to bike to the neighborhood park unsupervised even though the neighborhood kids are doing it.

And it may mean that you don’t allow your 18 year old to go on an unsupervised trip to Europe after high school. Or maybe you encourage him to find a college close by home instead of moving half-way across the country. He will need your support much more so than your average 18 year old.

And that’s OK. That is ADHD.


Supporting Your Child’s Executive Age with ADHD Boosts Their Self-Esteem

When we fail as parents, coaches, and teachers to meet children at their executive age, we set them up to fail every time. We create a situation where your child will spin into one negative experience after another. Eventually those small negative incidents will accumulate into a general feeling of inability, ineffectiveness, and hopelessness.

Instead, support your child at their executive age. Help them have successful, positive experiences. Don’t let them begin to fall in the first place. One positive experience after another will begin to BOOST their self-esteems and — ironically — improve their innate ability to do more things on their own.

No one learns when they are in a place of constant stress and shame. We can’t expect our children to do so either. Lift the stress and they will begin to blossom.

When we meet our children at their executive ages, we help them develop the confidence to work on their shortcomings. As they experience little wins they begin to snowball into big ones. Your child who once felt like success was something only OTHER kids experienced will begin to experience his own for the first time. We no longer ask ourselves the question, “What is my ADHD child’s executive age?”

At the end of the day, meeting your kiddo at her executive age isn’t an option if what you want is improvement. This is our most important assignment as parents of ADHD kids. Dr. Barkley says it best. “If you’re expecting more [than your child’s executive maturity], you’re my problem. Your child isn’t my problem. You are.”




Together we’ve got this!


Honestly Erin

P.S. If you are wondering what exactly you need to do to meet your child at his or her executive age — what that looks like and how in the world you’d go about doing that — check out the ADHD parent coaching website. I’ve got a lot of stuff up my sleeve for you.