It’s Not All About the Kids: Back to School Can Be a Challenge for Parents, Too—Particularly Those With ADHD

Photo: Getty Images/Marko Geber
Schedules, breakfasts, wake-ups, registration forms. Drop-offs and pick-ups and lunches. Getting kids—particularly neurodivergent kids—mentally and physically prepared for sitting in class come fall often takes center stage at the start of the school year. But for parents with ADHD, back-to-school can be a time of under-acknowledged stress and upheaval.

“A lot of the emphasis goes on the kid being ready and not a lot of emphasis goes on the parent who's preparing them,” says psychiatrist Sasha Hamdani, MD. “It’s just this huge ramp up in intellectual needs.”

Experts In This Article

While ADHD can look different from person to person, it’s generally characterized by “a breakdown in functioning related to an inability to regulate focus,” Dr. Hamdani says, which can also affect your ability to regulate emotions.

Multi-tasking and multiple-ball-juggling is a challenge for any parent. And parents with ADHD may have an especially difficult time with these logistical demands, especially when they all come at the same time.

“Some of the demands of the organizational things and time management can be a little harder for individuals with ADHD,” says Zoe Martinez, MD, PhD, an ADHD clinician with Done, a digital health company. “Any transition for any individual with ADHD requires more organization than for someone who's ‘neurotypical’ or has maybe different issues.”

Dr. Hamdani is herself a parent with ADHD, with both kids in school for the first time this fall. She says it’s been a challenge to juggle paperwork, to-do lists from teachers, family schedules, her own job and self-care, and ya know, the rest of life.

“I am a parent with ADHD, and I am struggling right now,” Dr. Hamdani admits. “For me at least, it's not a skill set that comes naturally. It requires a lot of time, a lot of effort, a lot of forward planning, a lot of building in checks and balances to make sure things get done.”

"I am a parent with ADHD, and I am struggling right now." —Sasha Hamdani, MD

While some parents might feel relieved by childcare duties getting taken off their plates for a good portion of the day, the very fact of a change itself is an additional challenge for parents with ADHD.

“Any time there's a transition, it requires a period of recalibration, and that can be destabilizing for someone with ADHD,” Dr. Hamdani says. “It's hard to create routines and build in patterns, and so when there's a change in something that has become a pattern, it takes a bit to get used to it again.”

There is an added emotional layer of stress, since preparing your kids for school is wrapped up in the high-pressure idea of being a “good parent.” People with ADHD may feel shame or anxiety if they’re struggling with the transition, which can only compound these issues since those emotions can lead to procrastination—which then makes the tasks, or anticipation of doing the tasks, feel even more overwhelming.

So how can parents with ADHD effectively navigate back-to-school?

1. Admit to the struggle

Recognizing the logistical and emotional challenges of back-to-school time is the first step in getting through this time period.

“Acknowledge that any time there's transitions, there's increased stress, and whatever you're struggling with is going to be a little harder, and that's okay,” Dr. Martinez says. “Having the conversation or even allowing yourself to have the thought that this might be something I'm struggling with is a good first start.”

2. Be okay with making mistakes

You’re not going to do everything perfectly, and if you do make a mistake, try to approach it with compassion, and the attitude that every day is a new day. “The expectation of what ‘perfect’ is needs to really go out the window,” Dr. Martinez says. “There is no person with or without ADHD that is going to be perfect at anything, including parenthood.”

3. Ask for help

Give yourself permission to delegate tasks to support people in your life, suggests Dr. Hamdani. “You look at these challenges and initially maybe it doesn't look that complicated, but there's a lot of stuff and there are a lot of layers, and it requires being vigilant,” Dr. Hamdani says. “If you have a good partner or if you have family members that can help with some of that and just keep you accountable, that’s really important.”

3. Manage the to-dos one by one

Breaking tasks into manageable chunks can also help you avoid feeling overwhelmed. “Make the transition smaller by breaking it down into pieces,” Dr. Martinez suggests. Case in point: Dr. Hamdani says she tried to get all her back-to-school tasks done in one day, which meant she got totally derailed when the day didn’t go exactly as planned—she says breaking it up would have helped.

4. Take notes

Dr. Martinez also urges that you shouldn’t be hesitant to take your time in digesting and recording information in a way that works for you.

“Most people don't want to admit that they didn't really hear what someone said to them,” Dr. Martinez says. “Writing things down is really important. That being said, a lot of times people with ADHD find that particular task to be extremely dull. So it's a lot about the discipline of just knowing that that's something I just kind of need to do when someone tells me something.”

5. Don't forget about your own needs

Finding time for yourself will also help you replenish your mental and emotional engine, so allow yourself to prioritize self-care.

“We don't feel guilty about brushing our teeth,” Dr. Martinez says. “Self-care should be just like that.”

Overall, strategize with your mental health professional or with other online resources that might help you understand your brain better, and be kind to yourself.

“It's okay to take your time to meander through it and feel the feelings,” Dr. Hamdani says. “It's a complex time and that’s okay. You're not alone.”

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