Parenting children who struggle with ADLs

Activities of daily life are things like brushing teeth, bathing, brushing one’s hair, eating, drinking, getting dressed, etc. For an adult, you could group these things under the concept of automatic tasks or under the heading of self-care. Parenting children who struggle with these ADLs is tremendously challenging and thoroughly exhausting.

Parenting is a hard job. Most people would argue it’s the hardest job. But, with neurotypical kids who are on a predictable path of development, everything gets easier. I think we all know when we have kids that the first year or two are going to be really hard. Sleepless nights. Diapers. Teething. Weaning. But, at some point, they start eating solid food. Eventually they are toilet trained. They probably sleep through the night. They only have so many teeth to come in.

But we expect to have to brush those tiny little teeth when they come in. But I think we also expect our child to take over that task eventually. At first they need to be reminded. Eventually one would hope that it happens automatically. I don’t want to potentially stigmatize anyone by giving a specific developmental age for any specific ADL. It is important to remember that everyone is different. And there is often a pretty wide range of what is “normal.” I find it difficult to describe normal. But I don’t find it too hard to recognize things that are outside of the norm.

So what happens when your kid has severe ADHD, or a significant mood disorder, or ASD, or sensory issues? I can tell you, from both personal and professional experience, that neurodivergent kids often struggle with ADLs long after what we would consider developmentally appropriate for a “normal” kid. And that will dramatically affect you as a parent. It’s exhausting when your kid takes an hour and a half to eat dinner and you have to supervise it or they won’t eat. It’s exhausting when taking a shower is a fight every night. It’s exhausting when even doing a shitty job of brushing teeth is a fight twice a day. And underlying immediate stress of these conflicts is our adult awareness of consequences.

I just turned 45. I know that if my kids don’t brush their teeth they are going to suffer in the future and I am probably going to have to pay for it. I worry that kids who don’t shower get the reputation of the kid who smells. And once you get that reputation, good luck living it down. I know that not eating well mean my kids end up hospitalized for an eating disorder. I know that it will affect their growth and development. I also know that it affects their brain chemistry and all of their comorbidities.

So it’s physically exhausting to have to do all of these things with or for a child who you know is old enough to do it on their own. It’s emotionally exhausting to have the unnecessary conflict in a household relating to these issues. It’s attentionally exhausting and saps our bandwidth/ executive function to manage all of these things. And, at least for me, I’m also trying to figure out how to fix this situation all the time. Pharmacology? OT? Therapy? All of the above?

here’s my point. This is a hell of a lot to have on our plates especially at times in our children’s development where it feels like things should be getting easier. I would strongly encourage you to give yourself the credit you deserve for managing all that comes with raising children with issues. It is a tremendous amount of work and is largely a thankless job that shows very little linear progress. So get away from comparing yourself to other people, other families, other parents. It’s much easier for people to have sympathy for a family dealing with a child with a physical disability. People might think, “wow, it must be hard to get that kid dressed every day or get him bathed every day for or help him eat.”

But there’s no sympathy for us because nobody can see our kids disabilities and no one understands that all of those ADLs might be just as difficult in our household as they are in the household where there’s a child with a physical disability. My point is not to be eliciting sympathy. I just want all of you out there who are struggling through this alone thinking that there’s something wrong with you that there isn’t. These kids need a lot of attention and a lot of effort on a minute by minute basis. And if you’re fighting the good fight every day, you are doing a great job and you’re a great parent.

Standard disclaimer. As a person with ADHD, I made the decision when I started my blog, that I didn’t want it to be that thing that I avoided out of perfectionism. I made the decision to get my ideas out there with very little filtering and rarely any editing. Adhering to this philosophy means that I may never have put out a perfect blog post. But it also means that I put a really good blog post out most weeks for the last decade. So please continue to bear with me by overlooking awkward phrasing, typos, grammatical quirks, etc. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the heck out of the contact. P.S. I’m not even gonna read this before I start slapping it on the end of my blog posts. Ha!