Coping with death and grief is difficult for most people. But for kids with ADHD and their families, it can be especially hard. Trouble with impulse control, managing emotions, and adapting to change create challenges other kids don’t have.
Kids with ADHD may behave in ways that are unpredictable or inappropriate for the situation. That puts added pressure on parents and caregivers who are trying to cope with their own loss.
Despite the challenges, there are ways you can help your child with ADHD manage death and grief. Here are eight ways to help.
1. Help your child identify feelings.
Kids with ADHD may not be aware of their own feelings and behaviors. Recognizing how they’re responding to situations is key to helping them change their behavior. You can say, “You’re talking very loudly. Are you feeling anxious? Let’s talk about that after the service.”
2. Explain how others feel.
Many kids with ADHD have trouble seeing beyond their own experiences, so they may not understand how a death impacts others. Help your child make those connections by giving context. For example: “Grandma’s death means that Aunt Mary has lost her mom. So you can see why this is so hard for her.”
3. Help your child get unstuck.
Some kids with ADHD get stuck on ideas and talk about them nonstop. They may not realize how frustrating that can be to the people around them. You can say, “I understand that it’s hard to stop thinking about what happened. But we all need a break from talking about it. What else could we do right now?”
4. Let your child know what to expect.
Unexpected situations are hard for kids who struggle with flexible thinking, like kids with ADHD. The more information they have, the better they can cope. You can say things like, “One of Dad’s work friends is dropping off food. I’m not sure when. But there’s nothing you need to do.”
5. Involve your child in problem-solving.
When you talk about upcoming events, encourage your child to problem-solve. You might ask things like, “Do you think you’ll have a hard time handling any of this? What might make it easier?” It also helps to include your child in the planning process if you’re hosting an event.
6. Create safe spaces for your child to talk.
Kids who are impulsive often speak without thinking. They may bring up things that seem inappropriate or insensitive. You can help your child avoid saying the wrong thing at the wrong time by providing safe places to talk.
Say things like: “I know you’re worried about how this will affect our holiday plans. But this isn’t the right time to talk about it. Let’s set up a time to talk about it when things settle down.” Let teachers know what’s going on so they can reach out to your child, too. And ask a relative or family friend to be a go-to person for support.
7. Maintain schedules and routines as well as you can.
It’s not always possible to stick to everyday routines when there’s been a death or illness. But structure is key to helping kids with ADHD stay on track. It can also reduce stress for your child. Do your best to stick to bedtime and other routines, like ADHD medication.
8. Keep an eye out for mental health.
It’s natural for kids to experience some anxiety or sadness when dealing with death and grief. But kids with ADHD are at greater risk of having anxiety problems and depression. Learn about the signs of anxiety and depression at different ages, and reach out to your health care provider if you have concerns.
About the author
About the author
The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.
Ellen Braaten, PhD is a child psychologist, professor, and founding director of the Learning and Emotional Assessment Program (LEAP) at Massachusetts General Hospital.