How to manage technology with an ADHD kid

How To Manage Technology with An ADHD Child

Every person, parent and family has their own relationship with technology. There are varying degrees of what people consider “healthy” technology usage. What works for some people, isn’t what works for others; and what works for some parents, isn’t even always what works best for their kid(s).

Some families are okay with unlimited amounts of technology. Other families feel they are fighting an uphill battle.

When does Technology become a problem?

In therapy sessions, many kids admit they want to put their screens down but they just can’t, thereby forcing parents to become the dictators of screen time.

Sean Grover, L.C.S.W

Lots of kids have trouble managing screen time and knowing when it’s time to unplug. But ADHD can make it even harder for kids to make good decisions about technology.

ADHD is a neurological disorder that is associated with difficulty controlling impulsive behaviors. By its very nature, ADHD poses more of a risk for addiction of all types, so people with ADHD are particularly susceptible to technology addictions that involve computers, video games, the Internet, and phones.

Technology addiction refers to the uncontrollable urge or impulse to continue using technology to the point that it starts to interfere with the individual’s mental, physical, and social life.

In addition, ADHD can sometimes be associated with social anxiety. For people with anxiety, video gaming, and the Internet provide a “safe” interface for social interactions, but one which seems to limit the advancement of social skills rather than enhancing them.

I will posit that ~ 25% of posts in my ADHD Homeschooling Support Group are related to some kind of technology struggle; a parent desperately reaching out for solutions to excess technology usage that, “lead to aggressive, meaner, more obsessed children”. Comparing this to my generalized homeschooling groups I find that, while still a topic of conversation, the number of technology-related cries-for-help drop significantly.

A study of 29 ADHD children (and 21 children in a control group) between the ages of 6 and 16 found that ADHD children exhibited more problems playing video games and could be more vulnerable to developing a dependence on video games.

Having a child with ADHD causes additional technology struggle due to the child’s impulse control, time blindness, and self-regulation. But parents of neurotypical children may struggle with boundary setting too as technology may lower emotional intelligence.

If you feel your child may be addicted to and fixated on technology, here are a few ideas to help you and your kids regain a healthier relationship with each other, screens, and the rest of life.

How to set limits on screen time

Clearly Explain the “problem” with technology

Making sure children understand the reason behind a rule you set as parents is helpful in gaining buy-in. Rather than technology (or you) becoming the enemy, explain the why behind the limitations being set. Is the use of technology really bad, or has it simply started impacting other areas of your child’s life? Is your child disengaging with activities such as their learning, physical health, and relationships? Are they becoming mean or using their online time inappropriately? Is it impacting their sleep?

Explain that when these things occur, that’s when technology becomes a “problem” and needs to be examined. Express the need for balance. Technology can be a wonderful source of learning and relaxation as long as it doesn’t become debilitating, stripping away our ability to show up as our best selves in life.

Consolidate unstructured screen time

Unstructured screen time is an important source of entertainment, and maybe even comfort, for many kids. Letting your kids know that you understand their needs is a simple way to reduce stress for everyone.

After years of daily screen time monitoring and limiting, screen time sessions that predictably ended in tears and increased aggression for my son, regular arguments with my husband about the “appropriate amount” of screen time, and family therapy, I was ready to throw in the towel and succumb to my family’s arguments for allowing MORE screen time in our daily lives.

While visiting family recently, a cousin casually mentioned her screen time battle with her girls. She shared how switching the daily screen time sessions to a longer once-a-week “Saturday morning cartoons” session minimized the amount of asking, whining, pleading and aggression in their home.

I was skeptical that it would make a difference, especially with my ADHD son who is known to fixate on things in the future-ie, waiting around and counting the days/minutes until he can have what he knows is coming. The first two weeks of our trial confirmed my suspicion but by week three, we got into a nice groove. He surprised me with his easy-going energy and willingness to transition when screen time was up. Our weeks became easier with less “begging” and whining about his screen time usage.

give kids control – (Obsseing = No Screens)

Compiling our weekly screen times has given my son more control over his choices and actions. He is allowed to choose how he spends his screen time on Saturdays. Most weeks he chooses to watch shows, occasionally he chooses to spend the time playing video games, and frequently he decides on a mix of the two activities, learning how to manage his time and when to transition from one to the other.

The other thing my son is learning is that he has control over his relationship with technology. If he starts obsessing or refusing to transition to the next activity when time is over, he understands he will lose his weekly privilege. On the other hand, if all is going well and he has a healthy relationship with his screen sessions, is engaging with other non-screen activities, is helpful, and interacting well with the family, he knows I will be more inclined to approve an additional short screen session during the week.

Encourage other activities

There are many ways to have fun. Running around outside, playing a sport, reading books, doing crafts—variety is important for a balanced life. Encourage your kids to develop a wide range of interests. Model yourself doing this, too. Let your kids see you reading a book and making things and having a hobby. Finally, present these things as just as rewarding as screen time—not alternatives to it. Equal billing is important.

Meet Your Child’s Need In the Real World

There are several reasons your child could have a technology obsession. Are they seeking Adventure? Fantasy? Excitement? Achievement? Perhaps they feeling depressed, lonely or anxious? Once you identify your child’s motivations, see if you can find ways of helping your child to meet those needs in the real world.

Think of other activities that might meet the same needs. Do they need more real world friendships? If they are seeking more excitement consider their interests. Would a martial arts class, paintball, skating, or some other sport fulfill that desire? If it’s role playing they like, perhaps a Dungeon’s and Dragon’s game or an acting classes would be up their alley? If your child seems depressed and withdrawn, please seek professional help.

It can be tricky to find motivational “carrots” for ADHDers. If games and other screen activities carry motivation, you may want to use them. Just remember to try and get involved in the cyber activities of your child when they are young so that you are tuned into that part of their life. And, remember everything in balance. Obsessing, whining, or complaining = no screens…temporarily, of course.

Set Clear And Consistent Rules

When establishing new rules, it’s normal for kids to push back, asking over and over to change the rule or throwing tantrums. As a parent I understand the desire to give in slightly, second guess yourself, or feel flustered in the moment by “gray” areas.

Make sure the rule you set is clear, not only for your kids, but for yourself. Give the rule two weeks before making any adjustments. Usually, your kids will adjust within a week or two. It’s important to keep the rule consistent during that time and avoid making exceptions at first. And it’s best not to debate about the rule—once it’s set, it’s not up for discussion.

It can also be helpful to start a new rule at a time when other changes are happening, like the end of a school vacation. That way, kids get a fresh start all at once. If, after two weeks you feel the rule is not viable, simply reevaluate, explaining or discussing your reasoning behind the change, and start the process over. It’s okay to be flexible—after your initial two-week trial period.

To prevent technology from taking over, consider delegating media-free times (meals, 30 minutes or more before bed) and media-free zones (bedrooms, outdoor spaces, etc.) to set limits on media use.

Be a Role Model

One of the most important ways we can help our children (in any area of life), is to be a good role model—something you probably already know. However, most people don’t do what they know because, well, easier said than done, right?

Set technology limits for yourself too. Do you find yourself regularly reaching for your phone during dinner or while spending “quality time” with your kid(s) or spouse? Is the TV often on in the background? Perhaps it’s time to evaluate your own role in your children’s relationship with technology.

Find the balance

Helping your child find a healthy balance is far more valuable than teaching them to obey your rules. The ultimate goal is to teach healthy technology use.

Seek Nature

Nature is a great way to unwind, reconnect with oneself and get any technology frustrations out of the system. It’s a great way for kids (and adults!) to practice mindfulness and/or get in some much-needed exercise, balancing the more sedentary technology time.

Create A Screen Time Contract For You And Your Kids

Making a family screen time contract is a great way for you and your child to set boundaries together. Brainstorm together so that the contract:

  • Holds everyone accountable with a child and parent section.
  • Has firm guidelines about the types of apps and sites that are and are not acceptable
  • Has clear consequences if the agreement is broken
  • Builds in a regular review period for the contract to be adjusted, as needed
  • Gives the child some responsibility and allows for growth and personal learning

Working together on a contract can help you feel more like teammates and less like opponents when it comes to managing screen time.

Use this Family Media Contract template as a starting point. Once you’ve both agreed to it and signed it, keep it someplace handy so you can both review it regularly.

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