There are very few decisions in your ADHD child’s life that you can’t “undo”. There are usually a variety of ways to go about managing different ADHD / executive function challenges. It’s a beautiful thing that there isn’t just “one way” to help your child. Every family gets to determine how they travel on this journey.

And if you pick one path and decide it isn’t right for one reason or another, we can shift.

Decide to send your child to private school and hate it? Move back.
Decide to put your child on medication and don’t like the results? Take him off.
Try a new behavioral technique and find out it doesn’t work? Try something new.
Start a new diet and figure out you don’t see a difference? Stop.

We can change our minds. Usually.

There is one decision, however, that you cannot undo. There is one decision you cannot change no matter how hard you try. And the consequences of this decision can be dire.

What is this big decision?

It’s the decision to ignore possible executive function problems when you first start noticing them.

It’s the decision to let critical time pass before you decide to direct purposeful effort to help your struggling child.

It’s the decision to “wait and see.”

Now, please notice something I did not say. I did not say that the problem was in getting your child diagnosed with one disorder or another. No, my focus is on behavior your child is exhibiting now and how to ensure you address these behaviors now – regardless of any diagnosis.

Personally, I’m a fan of early evaluation. I’m almost pathological in my need to look a problem in the eye, learn every square inch of it, and then squash it like a bug. However, I know that’s not the case for many of you.

Many of you – or your significant others – can’t even imagine talking diagnosis early in the game. It makes your stomach turn. You don’t want the label, the stigma. You don’t want to start down that road. I get that. So don’t. A diagnosis just isn’t critical to this conversation. It can happen at the right time on your journey as you talk and consult with your teachers and mental health professionals.

What I am talking about here is deciding to help (or not to help) your child with his or her behaviors when they begin to point to possible delays in their executive function skills.

Unlike common myths, help can happen with or without a diagnosis and can come in many forms. Help doesn’t have to be time-consuming. It doesn’t have to involve medication.

But there is one time when help cannot possibly happen: when we as parents don’t actively decide to do so.

It’s the years that go by while we wait for our child to “grow out of” their incessant need to move and touch everything in sight. It’s the repeated discipline techniques that aren’t working at anything other than crushing your child’s self-esteem. It’s the months we spend telling your child that she “should” be able to do something that she frankly, may not be capable of doing it yet. It’s the late-night arguments when one parent asks “do you think there is something wrong with Johnny,” and the other responds, “don’t even say that,” or “of course not, you’re being ridiculous!”

What Exactly Is Executive Function?

In short, executive function includes: distractability, hyperactivity (both physical and mental), impulsivity, poor processing speed, prioritization, initiation of tasks, transitioning from one task to another, sustaining effort on tasks they really don’t like, emotional regulation and self-awareness. {Read more about executive function here.}

These are complicated concepts in and of themselves and each could take up its own series of posts. So let’s keep it simple.

When you hear the words “executive function” I want you to imagine a little manager dude (or gal) up in your child’s brain. Like a very diligent crossing guard – orange sash and all.

That little crossing guard watches all of the thousands upon thousands of electronic signals that are happening every second in your child’s brain and decides which signals to allow to rise to the surface. That little crossing guard decides which impulses your child actually gets to act on while the other ones get quieted.  It tells your child when throwing an all-out tantrum is acceptable and when it would be better to control his anger by running away from the situation instead. This vigilant crossing guard decides what part of your child’s environment is going to get her attention and which parts she is going to filter out and ignore. It helps keep different pieces of information handy and in order while your child tries to remember and complete multiple commands or solve a complex problem.

In kids who ultimately have ADHD or other executive function struggles (i.e., dyslexia, autism, brain trauma, sensory disorders, ODD, etc.), this little crossing guard is out to lunch. All the time. And unless parents deliberately help their children develop their crossing guard, this function will always be lazy, slow, and sometimes completely absent.

This little manager – i.e., our executive function skills — continues to develop until we are about 30 years old, so we aren’t expecting perfection in kindergarten. However, as your child grows from toddler-hood to kindergarten and the early elementary school years there comes a time when kids with executive function delays will begin to stand out a little more. They may be viewed as “immature,” or more “naughty”. They may be “daydream-y” or “intense”.

Parents and teachers alike become frustrated because the usual ways they’d address issues aren’t working for their kid. Peers get annoyed and choose to play with other kids.

THIS is the time – this moment when you first notice your child pulling away from the pack – THIS is the time to open your eyes wide and begin to adjust your own parenting approaches to help your child learn skills to get back in the race.

What’s the Harm in the “Wait and See” Approach?

Before we get to how we help, let’s talk about what might happen if we don’t help.

For some children early executive function delays do not turn into diagnosable disorders. These “late bloomers” mature at a different rate and catch up over time with no real repercussions. So if we take a wait and see approach with these late bloomers, no harm no foul, right?! (This, by the way, is the scenario that every “wait and see” parent out there is hoping will actually happen.)

But let me ask you this… would there be any downside for these late bloomers if their parents had decided to help them early on? No. There would be no harm. In fact, these kids may have a few creative, alternative skills up their sleeves to use in challenging situations growing up. They may even be better equipped to deal with the world.

What about for the other kids? The ones whose early executive function delays do turn into diagnosable disorders and who won’t ever really “catch up” to their peers. What happens if we take a wait and see approach with those kids?

Let me paint a picture for you.

As these children age they are met with one negative experience after another. At first they are minor, but they compound themselves. During elementary school years the social and emotional struggles of ADHD children cause them to be rejected by their peers and an inordinate rate. Outright and chronic rejection occurs in 52-80 percent of ADHD children while less than 1 percent are perceived as popular. They are less well-liked, and are much less likely to ever acquire a “best friend” relationship with a peer.

Their parents, teachers, coaches, extended family, and friends correct behavior and discipline frequently and ineffectively resulting in these kids experiencing half-a-MILLION negative, coercive, or oppositional interchanges every single year. (Pelham & Fabiano, 2008)

Their self-confidence and self-esteem take a dive before they’ve ever had a chance to discover who they are.

As they age ADHD behaviors and attitudes toward the world and themselves become more ingrained. And their choices become more impactful.

These kids are three times as likely to be suspended from high school and twice as likely to drop out all together. If they make it through high school they are seven times less likely to graduate from college and ultimately they make significantly less income in the “real world” than their peers. (Tudisco, CHADD 2013)

These children are two to four times more likely to develop addictions and will do so earlier and have a harder time quitting. The girls with ADHD, not surprisingly, are more likely to have unintended pregnancies. And both sexes are 45 percent more likely of being in a serious traffic accident.

They are twice as likely to die prematurely.

Perhaps most bothersome to me is the increased level of anxiety and depression that these kids will experience throughout their lifetimes. A Swedish study on the connection between ADHD and suicide found that teens and young adults with ADHD were nine times more likely to attempt suicide and ten times more likely to succeed.

*So, there’s that.*

Pick Your ADHD Weeds When They Are Small

I once had a coach that told me to “pick your weeds when they are small because if you don’t they will grow so big they will literally choke out your garden.” In other words, deal with your problems when they are more manageable, before they morph into something you cannot control.

The same is true for your children.

I would much rather be helping parents teach their kids skills to control impulsive behavior when they are 7 years old and we are dealing with excessive talking or blurting in the classroom, than when they are a 15 year old facing criminal charges due to his propensity for physical violence.

I would much rather be helping a 9 year old learn how to finish their homework without repeated prompting than helping a 16 year old figure out how to salvage what is left of a failing high school career and dismal college prospects.

I would rather help a 10 year old with self-esteem issues learn how to find confidence and make meaningful friendships than I would learn about a 17 year old exhibiting real addictive and self-harming behavior.

I don’t know about you, but I like the idea of picking small weeds.

Teaching children skills to manage executive function delays early helps them put those same skills to use when life gets more serious. And that’s my point.

What Does Early Help Look Like?

Help can look like a lot of things. It can look like doctors and therapists – which I always encourage you to seek out anytime your gut tells you it’s right. It can look like biofeedback or acupuncture. It can look like medicine or diet changes. It can look like all of it, or pieces of it.

One thing that parents sometimes overlook, however, is the impact a change in their own behavior and parenting style can help their children.

In fact, recent studies have demonstrated that parent coaching can result in significant improvement in their children’s behavior at very early ages. (DeMars 2014; Fabiano et al. 2012; Tamm, Nakonezny & Hughes 2012; Wentz, Nydén & Kreveres 2012; Lerner, Mikami & McLeod 2011.)

A good parenting coach – which often doesn’t carry the stigma other approaches do – educates parents on exactly what their child may be thinking and feeling in those hard-to-control moments. Once parents better understand why their child is behaving the way they are, they better understand how to help.

Many parents simply don’t understand how their child ticks. What is he thinking about when he is refusing to do his homework? Why can’t he stop throwing temper tantrums over the smallest of disappointments? How can you stop this negative downward spiral and foster a more uplifting environment at home and school? Are there tips you can share with your child’s teacher to make his school days more successful?

This is just a tip of the iceberg of the topics a good ADHD parenting coach will be able to help you with – whether you’re ready to pursue formal evaluation yet or not.

Interested in learning more about parent coaching? Check out Honestly ADHD’s parent coaching resource for more information and how to receive a complementary consultation based on your specific situation.

Together, we can do this.

XoXoXo,  Erin

Parents as always, I remind you that I am not a doctor or licensed therapist. Please connect with your medical and mental health professionals for any assessments regarding diagnosis and treatment. When in doubt, discuss all of your concerns with your health professionals.