Navigating choices with ADHD: Simplify decision-making for your child

Understanding 'I don’t care' as a sign of overwhelm, not disinterest, is crucial for supporting children with ADHD through their decision-making processes.

Children with ADHD are characterized by impulsive actions and inconsistencies in performance. Parents often ask, “How can he complete this task one day, but not the next?” ADHD kids also struggle navigating their thoughts and the intensities of their emotional capacities. This dynamic makes decision making quite difficult, filled with stress and frustration.

Understanding the challenge behind "too many choices."

Many children with ADHD experience what can be described as “decision overload.” When faced with multiple options, they often resort to saying, “I don't care,” or “yeah,” which lets me know that the child hasn’t processed all of the information given. First clue: the information is too much to sort through in their mind and they cannot foresee their future selves doing “that” option. Additionally, when kids respond with “But it’s my choice!” the phrase may seem defiant or dismissive of your intentions. In actuality, these are coping mechanisms that reveal overwhelm.

Having too many choices (yes, even deciding between two) doesn't represent freedom or what you may have heard as a need for control. The choice paralysis is also not about a lack of care or refusal to make a decision. It is about the difficulty in processing multiple streams of information simultaneously. Clinically, it is a verbal working memory challenge, which is in the executive function skills realm.

Simplifying choices to empower.

Here’s a short example. During a session that included a more complex play scene, one ADHD 5-year-old quickly became overwhelmed when the elements didn't fit together or when suggestions for change were made. His immediate response was, “I don't care,” signaling that the task felt too challenging. Recognizing this as a moment for us to reflect, I took on the cognitive load for him and adjusted my position. Instead of offering multiple suggestions or pressing for a solution, I presented a single, manageable option that was within his individualized skillset. This adjustment allowed him to immediately reduce the feeling of overwhelm. He considered the idea from my perspective and replied with the following comment, "Oh that does work."

Strategic choice reduction.

Reducing the number of choices available doesn't mean removing autonomy or control. It's about structuring the decision-making environment so that it becomes more accessible and less daunting. Consider the language being used because when you praise with, “you made a good choice,” the underlying meaning is that the other option was a “bad choice.” Also, the language is going to vary based on each child’s capacity to process all the words. It’s the message and your intention that stay the same.

Final thoughts.

Understanding the unique challenges faced by children with ADHD in decision-making scenarios allows parents and caregivers to better support their needs. By simplifying choices and taking on the “heavy lifting,” as I call it, we can help ADHD kids navigate the complexities of information processing with more confidence. This perspective reduces the stress load by slowly forming problem solving skills while creating successful experiences. The goal is to then connect successes, bring them to your child’s awareness, and provide them with increased opportunities to practice being successful!

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