ADD/ADHD for the kid in the workshop
April 24, 2016 12:07 PM   Subscribe

My 9-year-old son with an ADHD diagnosis has recently embraced his love of tools and tinkering. Yay! However every project he embarks upon brings such disorder in its wake, his workshop (our garage) is in a constant state of chaos and is frequently unsafe. How do I help him (and keep my own sanity)?

We've had an official ADHD diagnosis for about a year and half. I feel like the diagnosis is on point and that, coupled with medication and a 504 plan at his school, has made his school life, much MUCH easier. His main medication is 15 mg of Focalin which we pretty much only take on school days - thinking his system needs a break the rest of the time. His dad and I feel like this is a reasonable balance, but I'm happy to hear other thoughts. But mostly I'm interested in behavioral strategies and "hacks."

J typically bounces around from project to project - but sometimes focusing on one thing super intensely for awhile. This seems to be fairly typical for ADHD. He's mostly doing small wordworking projects and some metal working. My boyfriend is crafty as well and helped him forge some steel in the back yard to make some small knives and other tools. J has fairly safe tools in his garage that I let him use with minimal supervision - a bench grinder, a jig saw, and a drill press. I know no power tools are totally safe, but we don't have big scary ones. We have a full complement of eye protections, gloves, etc.

I more or less let him do his own thing in the workshop and only offer advice when he asks or is really struggling. But as he's gotten more ambitious, I'm having a hard time with just the sheer mess he makes. As an example, he needed to use a drill bit from a new set I'd purchased for "household use." Within a few minutes, the packaging was shredded and all over the place, a dozen of the drill bits were out all over the floor, as were the scissors he'd used to open the packaging. He'd also grabbed my good flashlight out the of kitchen drawer to see to get the bit in the drill press chuck, and that was also on the garage floor, left on. It literally took 2 minutes for him to do all this. This is typical for everything. All the time.

I've tried to address "pick up after yourself" as a safety issue - as it is - and also as part of being a member of a household where other people need to use these things too. He also experiences plenty of frustration on his own when he can't find the tool or project he just had in his hand a moment ago.

So far I've tried checklists on the wall of how to put things away when you leave, and a multitude of storage and workspace options to try and keep things handy and make it obvious where they go - it wasn't worked much at all. He is also very sensitive to any kind of reminders I give him. If I sound at all irritated or frustrated he takes it very personally. But yeah, I find myself in constant nag mode and no one is happy.

We've been through a couple rounds of therapy and are taking a break for the moment. I realize we may need to return though.

I know metafilter is filled with build-y types and more than a few ADD/ADHD folks - so I'm hoping to hear from someone who has some first-hand experience. Practical suggestions are mostly what I'm looking for, or new ways to approach the problem (as a mom with a touch of ADD myself...I get it.)
posted by pantarei70 to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Pegboard for tools, with shadow outlines. It makes it "at a glance" to tell what's missing, and where it goes.
posted by yesster at 12:25 PM on April 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

One trick is to change "put things away when you leave" to "put things away as soon as you stop using them." Like, when I'm making dinner, I clean dishes as I'm cooking, and the can opener is literally either in my hands or in the drawer - never left on the counter, ever.

This has to apply to everything, not just the workshop, and be a rule for everyone (not just the kid with a diagnosis.)
posted by SMPA at 12:37 PM on April 24, 2016 [4 favorites]

You wouldn't have a crippled child take a break from his wheelchair on weekends, don't make your ADHD child go without medication! Look into a medication that you are comfortable with him taking every day.

Part of being the parent of a special needs child is setting them up to succeed. By allowing him to tornado through your home, you are not teaching him life skills. You may have to stand beside him and help him put everything up every time but he needs to see it done.

Take pictures of things in their proper places, print the pictures up, and then hang the pictures near the work area. Be aware that people with ADHD are easily distracted. He may leave something on that shouldn't be on or leave the door open and unlocked. You do need to check behind him every time.
posted by myselfasme at 12:44 PM on April 24, 2016 [9 favorites]

What worked with my son's was to have simple, clear standards where they understood both how and why. One of those was "I need to be able to walk safely from point a to point b." Another was "You have to follow safety protocols if you want to do this at all. No exceptions."

If they set their project up in the middle of the floor, this violated the first rule. It was in my way and if they cannot be bothered to pick up after themselves, then mom is free to dismantle it or trash it or whatever she sees fit to do and don't cry to me about it. If you value it, do not violate rule 1. Period. Your feels about your project are not more important than my safety (or anyone's safety).

It also helped to create a kid scale space for their activities. Sometimes kids fail to clean up because it is too hard to do it. Making it simple, easy, obvious and within physical reach can help them comply by making compliance not onerous.

One day when the power went out, I entertained them by teaching them to play with fire. They thought this was nifty keen, but only happened a few more times because I was not going to clean up after them. They had to do it themselves and had to follow safety protocols. This made it not worth their while. And I was okay with that.

Your special needs child should get reasonable support and latitude for pursuing their interests. But their diagnosis should not become an excuse to run rough shod over the parents. If they cannot follow basic safety protocols and limit the mess to designated areas, it is fine if they find another way to occupy themselves.
posted by Michele in California at 12:44 PM on April 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Yeah, if he needs the medication to focus at school, he also needs it to focus when he's around sharp objects or working with electricity or whatever. I think you need to talk to his doctor about the medication, and if you don't feel comfortable having him take it every day, you need to limit his time around dangerous items to times when he's on it. Take the "breaks," if your doctor advises you that he needs them (which I've never heard of, but that's why you should ask your son's doctor. IANAD.) on days when all he's going to be doing is running around outside or being lazy or other things that don't require him to be organized and focused.
posted by decathecting at 1:37 PM on April 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

Drill press and bench grinder unsupervised at 9 years old? He may be a bit overwhelmed by having essentially the run of the workshop.
posted by rhizome at 1:48 PM on April 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

J has fairly safe tools in his garage that I let him use with minimal supervision - a bench grinder, a jig saw, and a drill press.

I personally wouldn't let any nine year old use any power tool without constant supervision, let alone a kid who has difficulty focusing and remembering to do things.

Nor would I be taking 'medication holidays' except under the specific direction of the prescribing physician.

I feel like it might be a lot more effective for you to get him into good habits before allowing him to play with stuff where a moment's inattention, or a lack of focus on important details, can have such tragic and long-lasting consequences.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 2:32 PM on April 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

I personally wouldn't let any nine year old use any power tool without constant supervision, let alone a kid who has difficulty focusing and remembering to do things.

That's fine. But I am not you.

I grew up around power tools and was literally using a drill press when I was five. I have a lot of good craftspserson advice around me (from handy friends who are also parents) so I think I have primary safety concerns well in-hand.

Drill press and bench grinder unsupervised at 9 years old? He may be a bit overwhelmed by having essentially the run of the workshop.

I am always within a few feet his tool use (kitchen and dining room are attached) and I pop in for safety (eye protection!) spot-checks. It's not like I'm watching a movie while he's in the shop.

Nor would I be taking 'medication holidays' except under the specific direction of the prescribing physician

We are off-meds on weekends under the advice and guidance of our pediatric psychiatrist.

Thanks for the suggestions, for the most part, but please assume I'm not simply reckless.

We may need to revisit the medication issue. And I am working on finding more ways to supervise and help him put away things as he goes, but, as I said, he responds extremely negatively to correction (there is also a mood disorder) so I'm trying to find more self-sustaining ways for him to learn this rather than being in his face all the time.
posted by pantarei70 at 2:58 PM on April 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

so I'm trying to find more self-sustaining ways for him to learn this rather than being in his face all the time.

This is where clearly elucidated, simple standards where he understands both how and why come in real handy. And the how part needs to be as much as possible something he has control over.

In most cases, my sons were not working with power tools, but they did, for example, like to build stuff with LEGOs. And I would tell them "I need to be able to walk to your bed, your closet and your dresser in the dark and not step on anything. If I step on something and it gets broken, you will not be happy. If I end up in the ER needing stitches because I stepped on something and you still cannot put it away, I am throwing it out. And then you really will NOT be happy."

Think through the outcomes you want to achieve. You do not necessarily need real persnickety details. The fewer details, the better.

Can you give him a plastic bin to dump stuff into? Can you give him two plastic bins, one for tools and one for nails or whatever?

Keep it simple. Keep it safe. Spell out the goals that you have in terms of specific safety considerations and then let him handle it himself in a manner that works for him. My sons both have significant issues. This approach always got full cooperation from them. In contrast, their dad's micromanaging bullshit basically got a polite quiet behind his back attitude of "Oh, go fuck yourself, asshole."
posted by Michele in California at 3:05 PM on April 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

ADHD is brain chemistry. When you take you meds, you can pay attention to tasks and learn how to get organized and complete the tasks. I sometimes will take a break from my meds on the weekends, but I sure wouldn't plan to using power tools or starting a project at the same time.
If he had diabetes, would you think about skipping his insulin?
posted by Ideefixe at 3:52 PM on April 24, 2016 [5 favorites]

"Keep it simple" is a good idea. For instance, is there a clean-up method that might include putting everything that is out of place into a single large bin for later sorting? We did this with toys in the living room, and it really helps with overwhelmed kids (and moms). Maybe you could make a deal like, "if you can put everything off the floor into the bin when you're done, I'll help you sort it out [at some time that is agreeable to both of you]" or even, "if you put everything into this big bin, I will devote [x number of minutes] to sorting some of it out." Not, "I'll do it all!" but "This is how much help I can give you if you'll meet me partway."

It sounds like one of the frustrations is that he used things of yours and didn't take care of them. Maybe there needs to be a second approach that limits his access to things that are not in the workshop or that don't belong to him. Like, there's putting things away, and there's not getting them out in the first place. I recognize that this also requires him to remember that he's not supposed to get into your stuff in the kitchen, which can be hard if he's focused on a specific goal. But perhaps a simple step like, "ask mom or mom's boyfriend before..." would be do-able.

It really helps at our house (where we have challenging kids but not ADHD specifically) to really think outside the box on things like this. "Kid puts everything away exactly where it belongs" is one solution to the problem, but it's not the only one.
posted by not that girl at 4:05 PM on April 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

Medication holidays is pretty common for people who are prescribed stimulants for ADHD. You could talk with your pediatric psychiatrist about possibly trying out a 6 day on/1 day off schedule during the school year, and then switching back to two days off during school vacations.

Whatever schedule you agree on with the psychiatrist, maybe you should consider only letting him work with the current minimal supervision when he's medicated. On medication holidays, you might want to only have him work in the garage when you're in there as well, or maybe only on projects with a limited scope that you agree on together.

Either way, it also sounds like you need to set some boundaries about him using your stuff. In this case, it seems fair to set a ground rule that he can't use anything other than his own tools (and possible a specific list of agreed on shared tools). This may seem punitive, but until and unless he gets better at taking care of these tools, this seems like it will help cut down on some of the friction.

FWIW, I don't use power tools, but I do take stimulant medication for ADHD so I do have first hand experience with the challenges this poses. Some more general tips:

One thing I do is keep a lot of checklists. For example, maybe you can work on creating a very detailed checklist about cleaning up the shop. For example, "Check all equipment to make sure it's turned off" etc, etc.

Organization is also very critical. For me, if I don't have a clear system and if I don't follow that system consistently, my room/office/car can go from organized to certifiable disaster area in no time. As mentioned above, one of the most important rules is to put everything away as soon as you're done with it. This is what I do when I'm cooking, and it's very helpful as long as you stick to the rule always.

Another thing to work on is not bouncing around from project to project. When I undertake projects like organizing my closet, I have to commit to not stopping until I've actually finished the project (minus breaks for food if it's a long project). If it's a larger, multi day thing, then I still make sure that I return whatever I'm using to a reasonably clean and organized state before I stop for the day.

For now, this is the kind of thing you may need to oversee to help him learn these work habits, but if you are willing to help guide him with this, it can teach him habits that will be useful for him even when he's not working with power tools. I wasn't diagnosed or medicated until I was an adult, but it would have saved me a lot of trouble if I had started working on these habits when I was a kid.
posted by litera scripta manet at 4:54 PM on April 24, 2016 [3 favorites]

I am on ADHD meds, my 10 yr old daughter is on ADHD meds. Her doctor, and mine, approve of the "weekend off" idea.
However, she recently wanted to take a sewing class. She realized she needed to take her meds on a Saturday to be able to focus enough. Playing in the yard, playing with friends, no meds, no problems.
I work on projects in my shop and helping friends with building projects on the weekends. Those are not days a take a break from my meds. Besides the safety aspect, I do better work and am happier with the result when I can string two thoughts together.

Full blown ADHD behavior is not compatible with power tools, or even sewing machines.

If you will look, the drill press has one of the highest accident rates in the shop. It only takes a second to think "oh, I don't need the vise for this little hole" then the drill grabs the work out of your hands. Or lean in and not notice your hair is about to get wrapped up on a spinning part.
posted by rudd135 at 5:17 PM on April 24, 2016 [6 favorites]

I understand this would be a lot more work, but can you check out tools and materials to him, and he has to return stuff he's done with to get the next tool or material/hardware whatever? That way he doesn't have to get overwhelmed by a huge cleanup at the end, and you can track what he's got and limit the scope of the chaos he can create at a given time.

It would require having a way to limit access (tool cage, locked cupboard etc.) located somewhere convenient to you both, which of course could be a big challenge.

Does stuff end up on the floor just because of course it ends up on the floor, or is that the only viable work surface? For me, any frustration that comes from the condition of my work surface is worse if that surface is the floor. Work surfaces are clutter magnets of course, but if there aren't any stable, decent-height benches or tables for him to work on I'd suggest getting something along those lines.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 6:40 PM on April 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

Are you setting him up for success, as far as cleaning and organization is concerned? As someone who has ADHD and works with tools a lot, it really helps me if I have a good system where every tool has a home, my materials are easily accessible, and there's a convenient place for me to put my waste as I work. I have a system that works for me, and it really helps me work productively, safely, and with a minimum of mess.

If your workshop has a good system like that, make sure you take the time to explain it to your child and make sure that he understands it. Show him the benefits of a clean, open work space, of knowing where every tool is without having to hunt for it, of disposing of his waste as he goes rather than trying to deal with it at the end. Help him come up with a system for his personal tools (I assume he has a few things that are his and his alone) so that he can take some ownership of the process and feel as though the system is there for his benefit, rather than just because you've said it has to be that way.

If you don't have a good system, maybe you and your son need to come up with one. Do you have enough storage that everything can be comfortably accessible? Are there well-defined places in your shop for materials, scraps, and waste? Do your tools all have homes, or do you tend to just put them away wherever they fit? Involve him in the process, both so that he knows where everything belongs and so that he feels like the system is something that he helped make. Frame it as improving the workshop, rather than a chore that he has to do as punishment for not cleaning up after himself.

Another thing that helps me is this mantra: "cleaning up is part of the job." If my work space is a mess, I'm not done working. This is an important time management thing too, something that I bet your son also struggles with (I know I do). If I don't budget time for set up and clean up, I'm going to either go over time, leave a mess, or both. Either situation is frustrating. Putting my things away at the end of the day, when everything has an unambiguous "correct" place to go and all I have to do is take all my things and put them in their homes, is actually very calming and relaxing. When my tools and materials are all squared away, I know I am all ready to go when next I set to work—there won't be any annoying pile of scraps to push aside, there won't be any hunting and digging for tools.

What it all boils down to is that I have set clear, detailed standards for myself for where everything should be when I'm done. If my 1/2" chisel isn't in the third sleeve on the inside of the right-side main pouch of my tool belt, I'm not all cleaned up. If there's stock outside of the stock pile, or the site hasn't been swept down, or there's debris outside of the trash can, I'm not all cleaned up. I don't have to wonder if I've done a good enough job; there are clear standards that I've set for myself.

Also, cleaning up is just really hard for kids—even neurotypical kids—and you can't expect him to be as good at it as an adult right away. You're going to have to find ways to correct him when he doesn't meet standards, but you also have to set standards that are age appropriate. What may be most important at first is simply that he has some standard to work to, even if that means you are going to have to come in behind him and finish things up. As he gets to a point where he can consistently check off whatever boxes you've given him, increase his responsibility. Don't try to get there all at once.

Finally though, one thing he needs to understand is that using the workshop is a privilege. Once you and he are satisfied that the standards are clear and that you both know what they are, you have to hold him to them. That means that if he leaves the workshop a mess, he doesn't get to use it again until it's back up to grade. If he consistently leaves it a mess, he doesn't get to use it at all until he's shown a willingness to do better. I know you've said that issuing corrections is complicated, but I don't see how you're going to get him to improve otherwise. Part of being mature enough to work with tools is being able to take care of your space. You can't do one without the other.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 7:02 PM on April 24, 2016 [7 favorites]

Medication holidays make a lot of sense, especially for a growing kid where the long-term impact of even a subtle change in the amount that he eats and quality of sleep is a particular concern.

However, if he needs it to tinker safety, and he's usually on Focalin XR, maybe consider talking to the prescribing Dr about having a small supply of a smaller, short-acting dose around for weekend projects where you don't want him to spend the whole day medicated (and so he could safely take it, at, say, 2pm without screwing up his whole night)?
posted by R a c h e l at 2:19 AM on April 25, 2016

Um, I'm struggling to concentrate because my ADHD meds have worn off so i haven't read every response, but i thought i might have some insight.

I really like that you did checklists - i use them in my projects, but i really need them for day to day shit and I'm resistant because - let me at it! And ADHD x age 9 stuff. I get it.

So, a combination of things. Make things easy to put away. Not just peg board. Baskets with labels. Drawers with labels. New purchases put away when they're bought, not when they're first used.

Get him onboard. You sound really cool about this stuff and not one of those annoying people who expect me to be something I'm not. So say, "look kiddo, i can't let you go on using this space if you don't develop some WHS practices. Why do you reckon I'm being so hard arse about this?" He's going to get the obvious ones and maybe connect it to rules rather than safety and resource management.

I was terrible as a adult with my belongings until i converted it to hours worked. As it is, my kids in their 20s still have very little regard for my budget until i started charging them. So, you have to get an emotional connection to financial waste. "Every time an action of yours destroys an asset, i will have to take equivalent time off you" whatever natural justice you can both percieve as fair.

Tell him you get that putting stuff away doesn't come naturally, that he doesn't deliberately not do it, he just doesn't think about it. So ask him to spend some time thinking about what could help him remember. What if when he enters the garage, he puts on a 15 minute timer, and when it buzzes, he tidies his environment? And resets it until he's done. No doubt, over time, he'll game this tidying as he goes, so when the timer goes off he can sneer at it and reset it (i leave it up to you as to whether you share that).

Tell him you have some online friends with a similar problem, they leave messes and they don't even want to, what would he suggest - not off the cuff, he has much time to answer as he needs, but you respect his judgement and his experience of his life. Was there maybe a time in preschool where the system the school had helped him to tidy properly?

Oh the safety stuff: remember when you first had kids and you crawled around the house at baby height to see what danger they coukd get into (or was that just me?) Anyway, explain the concept of Workplace Health & Safety officers and how they identify risks (there are ISOs you can refer to). You can tell him its preparing him for the workplace (it is) and get him to be a WHS detective. Maybe do a bunch of simplified forms to do your risk assessments. Maybe tie it into natural justice (you didn't do your timer cleanup, so now we need to do a risk assessment).

I think you're awesome for giving your kid tool skills AND knowing him well enough, and recognising his ability and capacity that you don't helicopter - which reduces confidence, for sure.
posted by b33j at 4:59 AM on April 25, 2016

Most everything I wanted to say about meds on the weekends is covered except that you should consider his opinion. Talk to him about it. "We think taking medication on shop days may help a lot with problems x and y. Maybe next time we'll do a trial run and see what happens. What do you think?" Then consider what he says (and allow him some time to really think about it).

As far as organization, it really helps to have a system that makes sense to him and is really easy to use. A stranger should be able to come in and know where everything is without looking.

Open shelving
No doors, drawers, or lids
Clear containers (as long as you can see what's in it)

The goal for an AD/HDer is to make putting it away as easy as putting it down.
posted by meemzi at 8:45 AM on April 25, 2016

It sounds like you've made up your mind about allowing him unsupervised access to the drill press, so I won't harp on that but what I'd do is set the boundary to a kit of him own, personal hand tools. One of those old eggbeater drills can drill any hole, up to 3/8", as fast as a battery powered drill. Then there are braces for bigger holes. Lots of people are moving away from power tools in their home shops. You learn how to sharpen properly and work efficiently. Every single time you're at it, you're learning and it's very engrossing. MeMail me if you want links to hand tool stuff.
posted by bonobothegreat at 2:45 AM on April 26, 2016

« Older Help me make foods taste more garlicky.   |   Too many flags? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.