Why is it that just when the clock is ticking down precious minutes, our beloved children seem determined to sabotage our frantic efforts to get someplace on time? It is almost like they do it on purpose, and sometimes they do, but most of the time the problem is how immature brains work.
First off—Lets talk little kids (I mean the 6 and under crowd). Young children have very little concept of time. You know how you can say “Ok five more minutes till dinner!” and they are either shocked that it went by so fast, or oblivious if you forget to call time for another hour? Learning to gauge time is part of executive functions—abilities to plan, execute tasks, and self-monitor that don’t develop much until later childhood. Among children with ADHD, the ability to gauge time may be immature by as much as 3 years or more, so your child’s chronological age may be out of sync with his awareness of time. Younger children and kids with ADHD have no idea how long it takes to do things. They see nothing wrong with taking off their snow boots or dumping out the Legos two minutes before its time to go. They don’t understand why that’s a problem, because they have no idea how long two minutes is, or how long it takes to correct what they just did. Consequently, they are often surprised when their parent is suddenly mad at them for doing something that they do all the time without getting in trouble.
Second—Kids slow down when their parents get upset. Just like a staring rabbit in the path of a speeding car, kids often freeze up when their parent is stressed or angry. Some kids slow down to engage with you, get reassurance, or keep your attention. It is hard for a harried parent to ignore dawdling. Parents may inadvertently reward off-task behavior by giving attention, more help, or even rewards (“I’ll give you a cookie if you’ll just put your coat on!”) Children with separation anxiety will cling tighter to a stressed out parent—remember, your stress signals danger to them. Some kids get worried they will do the wrong thing, and slow down to avoid making you madder. Others get too anxious to function. Anxiety impedes concentration—so as the parent is yelling “Come on! Come on!” it is taking the child five times as long to find their cleats or zip up a jacket. Remember that if you are yelling, your child will have a harder time focusing on directions. They will be paying too much attention to the fact that you’re upset. Parental stress creates kid stress, and kid stress is bad news when you need everyone working well together.
Third—Kids don’t really get why being late is such a big deal to adults. A four year old has no concept of what it would mean to you to lose an important client or miss a doctor’s appointment. Their little brains are focused on the present, not the future. Older kids know they can get in marked tardy at school, but even older kids don’t understand how that compares to adult concerns. This is because as the brain matures, we develop the capacity to think about long-term consequences, and evaluate our choices based on possible outcomes. Older kids can think about consequences to some extent, but don’t understand all the implications beyond simple things like, “I’ll get in trouble” or “My teacher will be disappointed.” They can’t imagine all of your adult worries, and won’t understand you no matter how much you explain (“Aidan, mommy has an important client, and won’t make partner next year unless she gets this brief filed by 9 am, so can you PLEASE find your cleats?!).
Here’s some quick and easy tips to keeping kids on-task, so you can be on time:
- Make an actual schedule for them. Create a short, simple checklist of all things they have to get done (for little kids, draw pictures to convey tasks like ‘put on your coat’). Some parents Velcro picture or word cards on a long strip of Velcro or piece of felt, and the kid removes each ‘task’ as it gets done. Older kids can have an actual paper checklist and a time goal for getting it all done. Tying a completed checklist to some sort of allowance or reward works very well.
- Use timers. Find a timer that is loud but not too jarring, and set it. Put it where your child can see it. To help kids with ADHD, pick a rotary timer or clock so they can watch time passing and get a visual on how much is left. Timers save you from having to nag and yell. Best of all, timers don’t give extra attention that reinforces dawdling.
- Plan ahead. Try to get as much set up in advance, and make sure to build in time for whatever ‘monkey wrenches’ your kid will throw at you (e.g. searching for the missing soccer ball that rolled into the basement). If you know you have some slack, you’re much less likely to get over-stressed.
- Try to keep your cool. Remember that if you’re stressed and angry, your kids are probably likely to go SLOWER not faster! If you’re going to lose it, take a minute to duck out and take some deep breaths. Remind yourself that keeping control of your emotions will mean keeping more control over the kids.
- Practice speed drills. Work with your kids on practicing complex skills to make them faster. Tasks like tying shoes or packing their own lunch get faster the more automatic they become. During times when you have no time constraints, see if your kid can ‘beat the clock.’ Before school starts, do ‘dry runs’ of the morning routine to make sure to work out the kinks in advance.
- Break it down. When giving directions to an unfocused child, give short directions in little parts. Avoid giving directions with more than two parts to a child under six or a kid with ADHD. Instead of “Ashley GET DRESSED!” try “Ashley, take off your nightgown. Now pick up your underpants. Now put your right leg in. Now put your left leg in.” Pause between each step and give lots of praise.
- Don’t reward lateness! Think through what you’ll do if your child misses the bus, doesn’t have time for breakfast, or can’t find his lacrosse stick. Make sure your plan does not come with extra goodies or privileges that will make your child want to be late again (e.g No stopping at McDonalds on the way to school if your kid missed breakfast after sleeping in! Throw him a granola bar instead).