What Makes Waking Up So Difficult for Kids with ADHD?

In my previous article, What Makes Sleep so Difficult for Kids with ADHD?, I explored the difficulties that children and adolescents may have in falling asleep.  As I had mentioned, research shows that between 25 and 50% of people with ADHD have clinically reported sleep difficulties.  These can be attributed to biology, stimulant medication side affects, lack of consistent bedtime routine, and characteristics related to the ADHD itself.

For many parents, getting their children to sleep is only half the battle.  Having their children awake and ready for school on time is a significant problem.  In my practice as a Parent Coach, the issues related to morning are often quite pervasive.   Not only do parents battle to wake their children up, but they battle the negative mood, the slow pace, the last minute “must dos”, and for some, the added burden of driving once the bus is missed.  Parents wonder how much to support the process, and how much to let “life” teach it’s lessons.  Let’s explore this issue first.

How response-able are kids when it comes to waking up and being ready on time??
This is the first factor you must consider when deciding how to address your child’s morning.  We know that the core of ADHD is difficulties with motivation, arousal and alertness.  Science also tells us that some people with ADHD have difficulty establishing a sleep cycle that is “in sync” with the rest of the world – their circadian rhythms are off.  This reminds us that their difficulty waking up is not always simply behavioral – they are not necessarily trying to be lazy or defiant.  Add to their difficulty with waking up the fact that they may be inherently disorganized, have slow processing speed, have difficulty with transitions, and have in impaired sense of time and you begin to see that there are many challenges some children face just to start their day.  This is not to say that should do not have any responsibility to get up and be ready, rather to point out that they may need additional supports and skills to be successful.

What are some strategies that help?
In most cases, rewards and punishments do little to teach skills and affect long-term behavior change.  As always, the first strategy is to involve your child in the solution.  First, you will want to reassure them that the conversation you want to have with them is not about setting up new punishments for when they are not successful in getting up.   You want to understand what is making mornings so difficult.

  • Assess whether there is any resistance related to going to school, taking the bus, or other things related to what happens once they leave the house
  • Make sure they are aware of the importance of getting enough sleep related to their health, mood and performance throughout the day. “Enough sleep” varies for each child, but ranges between 8 ½ and 10 hours of uninterrupted sleep.
  • Review their nighttime routine to ensure that they are doing their best to be successful in falling asleep at a “reasonable” hour.  Refer to my article sited above for some specific strategies.
  • Make sure that everything that can be done at night is done to take pressure off of the morning.  This can include packing up the backpack and ensuring that everything that must leave the house is in one consistent spot, checking the weather report and picking out clothes, and reviewing the schedule for the next day to see if there are appointments or activities to planned for the day.
  • Experiment with different alarm clocks.  Even for young children, it is a good idea to let them get used to an external devise that they can set so that they learn to prepare for waking up and have a clock to see the time.  Some people prefer music, some prefer rhythm, and some need loud noise to jolt them awake.  There are some great and creative options on the market now:
    • Clocky by Nanda Homes has wheels and will make strange sounds.  When the alarm goes off, it will roll around until someone physically stops it.
    • Sonic Boom alarm clock is extremely loud and comes with a bed vibrator.
    • Phillips Wake-up light has a light that goes on gradually 30 minutes prior to the time the alarm goes off.
  • For people who are on stimulant medication, consider a two-alarm system.  The first alarm can go off 30 minutes to one hour prior to the necessary wake up time so that medication can be given.  This will allow actual wake up time to go more smoothly as the medication has had an opportunity to help regulate the individual.
  • For some people, motivation is a major obstacle.  They may be so focused on how deeply they want to sleep that they are unable to focus on reasons to get the day started.  Help your child come up with some visual reminders of what success will “look” like.  Perhaps a picture of them achieving a goal, or something that reminds them of what they hope to accomplish.

Keep a healthy, helpful perspective
Even with the best of planning and intention, mornings with children, especially when challenged with ADHD, can be very stressful.  It is vital that parents keep in mind that as difficult as it may be for them as parents, often, the child is struggling as well.  They are often keenly aware that they are not meeting your expectations, nor their own.  Try to avoid letting them go off to school with constant anger on anyone’s part.  Recognize and praise their efforts, not just perfect success.  When things are particularly rough in the morning, don’t let it carry over into the afternoon.  Believe me, they have a whole host of new challenges they are facing.  Agree to keep working on solutions to address the difficulties as they arise.   Your bond with them and your active support in raising their awareness  will do more to motivate their growth than anything else.

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Cindy Goldrich, Ed.M., ACAC About Cindy Goldrich, Ed.M., ACAC

Cindy Goldrich, Ed.M., ACAC, is a certified ADHD Coach and Parenting Specialist, providing education, tools, strategies and support to help parents reduce the arguing, stress and chaos that so often exist on a daily basis. Coaching and Parent Trainings are provided in person and on the phone. For more information, visit: PTS Coaching.