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5 Design Tips To Keep In Mind When Designing For A Kid (Or Adult) With ADD/ADHD…From A Designer/Licensed Marriage And Family Therapist

As any parent who has ever faced an ADHD or ADD diagnosis for their kids knows, the journey to get answers is fraught with worry followed by feelings of confusion about what to do next, even with that diagnosis in hand.

As a licensed Marriage and Family therapist of 20 years, I know all too well that as parents and children with ADHD begin weeding through diet, medicinal, and behavioral possibilities, post-diagnosis, so begins the deluge of well-intended but often overwhelming opinions that can be heaped upon us you by your peers or other parents. Those suggestions, meant to be helpful, can cloud the clarity you think you’re gaining as you learn more.

In my book, Home Therapy, I talk a lot about the ways our homes can support our healing paths, including for ADD and ADHD. As you can very well guess, our environment can be supportive or destabilizing to our journey. The truth I’ve learned is this: how we go out into the world begins with the tools we establish at home.

In my design projects, I absolutely love to put these tools into practice, as was the case with a family who hired me to make their home more supportive for a son struggling with ADHD. Specifically, this family brought me in to transform their 1988 home into a relevant and functional living space that would support every family member from the inside out. Our goal – as is the goal for every design project for me — was to put the mental health needs of the family in first position. Through this very intentional project, I was able to increase their calm and happiness throughout the home.

Here are the places I began that transformation:

COLOR

Color is by far the easiest and most impactful place to begin with ADD and the home environment. When we see color, our retina sends a message to our brain. That transmission triggers the release of certain hormones in our brains such as dopamine and serotonin. In each project that I’ve worked on with an ADD child, we begin with color. 

Here’s a fun fact: rooms for ADHD do not need to be all white. There is a notion that ADD or ADHD means you are over-stimulated. That’s false. Many ADHD individuals — kids and adults, alike — are actually being understimulated in a way that results in their symptoms. Using colors, especially in these situations, can be an appropriate way to increase healthy brain regulation. 

Blues, greens, and whites are the go-to when creating a sense of calm, but if we want to encourage productivity or increase energy, pops of reds, oranges, and yellows are where we turn. 

This room was designed for the son of my client who was struggling with his ADD. We wanted to land on a color that could meet him on two planes. He wanted a space to decompress at the end of the day but also encourage an increased amount of focus for reading or homework when the time called for it. Together, he and I landed on a blue that was both calming when he needed it and invigorating when his goal was to be productive.

ORGANIZATION

Organization is a great way to empower our kids to be in charge of the behavioral symptoms that often come along with this diagnosis — those symptoms being forgetfulness, lack of focus, and an inability to stay on task…among others. In the case of a loved one suffering with ADHD/ADD it’s difficult to watch them struggle with symptoms while simultaneously finding yourself frustrated at having to deal with the very same symptoms they are experiencing. In fact, I think I’ve heard every parent of an ADHD/ADD kid say at one point or another, “I get sick of asking them a thousand times to do something and them not doing it. It’s like they don’t even hear me,” — which by the way is a problem for every parent, but is definitely magnified for a parent of an ADHD kid. 

Diagnosed or not, organization is good for all our brains. Things like order, consistency, and schedules, not only help us be more productive, they make us feel safer. All of which is important, especially for children with either of these diagnoses. But, here’s something important to know, people have different styles of organization that speak most to their brain. Some of us are visual, others are listers, while some are more abstract. What feels like chaos to you and I, makes sense to them. 

When I’m designing organizational systems into a client’s home, I bring them into the process, especially if they have ADD or ADHD. Do the same with your kids. Start first with the intention of the room and organize to that goal. The reason being, what works for the cook in the kitchen might not work for your 13yr old who needs something very different for their space.

Also, expand your mindset around organization. Yes, it’s bins and baskets, but it’s also behavior. If we can solve or establish a behavior before the disorganization begins then we are remedying the symptom before it happens. What that looks like is this:  

In this client’s home, we turned a 1988 wet bar into a mudroom wall, complete with a drop zone cubby system. Each family member had their own cubby and we had lower baskets for shoes, bags, and purses. Hooks  — which I  love to ensure we are using all the vertical space —  went on the opposing wall, keeping jackets, scarves, and hats off the floor.

The bar top was also zoned to include a spot for keys and an intention tray, my solution to help give visual to your personal goals and dreams.

This entire space, built first to give their child with ADD a system to keep them on track, quickly became a solve for the whole family. 

TIME IN

There are three main ways that ADHD presents. Those three are: Inattentive, which is the difficulty to pay attention, Hyperactivity-Impulse, which leads to extreme struggles with sitting still or impulse regulation, or Combination, which is a blend of the two. What complicates all of this, is that there are other challenges that can look like ADHD or ADD but aren’t, like depression, anxiety, or sleep disorders. While all of that adds to the confusion of what your child may be facing, one thing is clear. For children wrestling with a range of these symptoms, there is a real struggle for them to feel in charge of or in tune with their mind/body connection.

As science shows us, the mind/body connection is increasingly-important, affecting focus, productivity, healing, and so much more. As a tool to solve this, I like to create TIME IN spaces, these are spots in our homes where your child can reset and be present.   

The payoff for TIME IN with kids is HUGE. 

In this TIME IN space, I created a nook under the stairs by DIY’ing a faux wall with foam board. I lined both sides with temp wallpaper but on the other side – facing into the dining room – I used the space to put in a wine rack.

This space is almost always small in scale to cocoon the child. It’s meant as a quiet space where they can sit and read or simply daydream, all to calm the mind and body.

On the wall we installed bins and filled them with intentional activities that research has shown, quiet the mind. These activities can be tailored to the child but often include a sensory focus such as aromatherapy and music to help the child connect their mind to their body, always adding in quiet games to increase focus and blankets or plushies to soothe. 

COMMUNAL

With ADD and ADHD, it can be easy to give more focus to behaviors that are less than ideal in our kids than it can be to speak about what is working. In other words, we risk no’s and criticisms becoming louder than kudos and compliments. I like to reverse engineer our thinking on parenting from correcting behavior to building it. 

I have three daughters hitting three different developmental stages — a 16-year-old, a younger teen at 14, and a 3rd grader. Our schedules are bananas! Yes, we have all sorts of scheduling apps that we can resort to, but somehow paper, clutter, and junk find their way onto every surface from the stair steps to the kitchen countertops. Like my clients, we too, were desperately in need of our own dropzone. To define ours, I traced out the most common path from where we enter the home through the garage into the kitchen and I saw how our stuff pile-up began the moment our kids hit the door. So, I followed the advice I give to my own clients. I created a FAMILY COMMAND CENTER. Like them, I chose the wall that we never paid much attention to and maximized it.

photo by ali harper

To start, we added hooks to utilize all the vertical space. Next – and I love this tip – I used paint to define and frame our wall workspace. It is SO effective because the color is the cue to pay attention, something that if you’re like me, you are always shouting at your kids to do. TBH, I lump my husband Travis into that, too. He has ADD and I’m on him as much as the kids to help keep the schedules and the space organized. This wall is my first line of defense.

By choosing an unused wall, you are building a home organizational system seemingly out of nothing and tailoring it to your needs!

photo by ali harper

Another great thing is to add a habit board to your wall. This is where we can build positive processes and patterns that become the habits that keep us on track. No habit is too small. Plus it allows us to celebrate our wins as a family. 

I devised my own habit tracker in my primary bathroom to help me get into the groove of exercising and meditating, during the pandemic when I literally lost all of my personal space, I created a small corner in my bathroom to lift weights, do yoga, and meditate. My habit tracker reminds me to keep up with my habits so that I don’t lose track of my previous routine. 

Between the colors or sticker systems, this entire wall becomes a visual cue for our goals. And for children with ADD or ADHD, it can help build focus and establish routines that lead to positive behaviors. Don’t shy away from customizing this space with family goals or memories, whatever it takes to make this a destination. 

Lastly, and maybe most importantly, set a weekly family meeting. This is where you all come together in the same communal space each week. I like the dining room. Phones go away and we check in with one another. As parents, arm yourself with a list of family goals, needs, and updates as well as plenty of questions to get those kids talking.

For my client teenager struggling with ADD and his family, we found that their dining room was the perfect neutral space to share feelings and frustrations as well as problem-solve. Finding a non-judgemental area in the home, where they could meet regularly, was the key to opening up positive communication for their family. When I was a full-time therapist, this was the main tool I helped families implement.

There is so much rich data that tells us that parents and kids talking like this leads to goodness in their mental health and ours. That might sound obvious, but with devices, activities, and a zillion other things vying for our attention – not to mention an already over or under-stimulated brain — and it’s too easy for hi and bye to be the extent of our daily exchange.

The number one thing to remember about our spaces and our struggles, be it ADD, ADHD, or something else, is that our homes are more than just a backdrop for our lives. They are a reflection of the habits and balance we are creating in ourselves. When we evoke the design of our surroundings to support us, our homes can actually lift us up and enrich our mental health.

*Designs by Anita Yokota
**Styling by Emily Bowser
***Photos by Sara Ligorria-Tramp
(unless otherwise noted)

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Lisa
10 months ago

If people would like even more input, there’s a lovely YouTube Channel “How to ADHD” and this post specifically made me think of her video on ADHD Friendly House Hacks where she talks very practically about how she designed her home to be more conducive for executive function for her and I think it is really cool and helpful 🙂 If people want to check it out it is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=posZhu_YIl0

10 months ago
Reply to  Lisa

thank you for sharing!

Brenda
10 months ago

Thank you for doing a post on this topic!! Helpful and valuable information!

Vera
10 months ago

Wow thank you Anita! Great ideas and gorgeous photos. I just added your book to my wishlist!
Thank you EHD for featuring this post! These kinds of posts – about family life in a home – are very helpful and enjoyable! I expect this post will do very well over time as people search Google for this sort of thing.

DeniseGK
10 months ago
Reply to  Vera

Same. I don’t have ADD/ADHD but there is a huge overlap between this post and my personal goals for my home as a formerly depressed person trying to rediscover and nurture my old interests and habits. I so appreciate this post, and knowing that this kind of design/decor is a thing – maybe I’ll meet someone who can use it.

Tracy
10 months ago

Thought provoking read! Any source for the wooden bed with the horizontal black rod in your photo?

Kj
10 months ago
Reply to  Tracy

Looks like the AnthroLiving Hemming bed in oak.

J Young
10 months ago

Last year, I reorganized my aut/hd 13 up’s room under the the theme “if they can’t see it, it’s not there.” We used a lot of peg boards, created a drop area, and put their clothes into the bookshelf with baskets that have pics of clothes on them. But it has not stopped my kid from piling stuff up everywhere.

I would love to hear more about the habit trackers!

This is a great article!

Jessica
10 months ago
Reply to  J Young

I have done similar for my other half who has this issue. I have found that the more visible the items the better, so no door on things, and baskets & boxes are a no-go.

Karla
10 months ago
Reply to  J Young

My 20yo daughter has multiple dx’s but one is ADHD. I use large wire baskets that she can easily see thru for her clothes and clear bins for her trinkets and such. While the ‘open’ containers do technically contain everything, being able to see it all on her shelves drives me nuts on the inside because it still looks cluttered but it works for her because she can see where things are.

Tara Lynch
10 months ago
Reply to  Karla

The clear bin option is a great idea. Thank you for sharing. Off I go to plan how to do that for my son’s room (and, for full disclosure, me, as well!). Thank you!!!

Suzanne
10 months ago
Reply to  J Young

It’s so nice to hear that other’s children have this issue that out of sight means non existent. My daughter is now in college, and when she comes home for the weekend, I frequently send her back with a bag of items. She ends up putting on he dorm room floor or shelf and never bothers to unpack or look in it. When she tells me over the phone that she needs something, I ask her if she ever unpacked the bag. Every. Time. What she needs is in the bag.

Suzanne
10 months ago
Reply to  J Young

Also, my daughter has made many habit trackers. They are always of her own design in Google sheets. Sometimes they help, but she frequently needs a reset. But she usually decides how it’s set up and what is on it. She also has created schedules, which when she’s able to follow, she feels great. But the ADHD struggle is real.

Sahaja
10 months ago

This isn’t a post I would have sought out, but it was very revealing and helpful. Adding your book to my list! I would love to have more details on what is on your family command center. And are the 4 baskets for your client a sort of in/out box for each person? I find having a place in my front closet for things that need to leave the house so helpful.

stacy
10 months ago

This was a really interesting read! Thanks for sharing =)

R. Pyper
10 months ago

Thank you for this post! As a mother of a child with ADHD and as a middle school teacher, I know ADHD is much more common than many realize. I love these tips, and I will be checking out your book too.

10 months ago

I love this post so much. More on this topic please! I want to know more about the sensory bins! Tell me more about the grounding music and smells. What did you use to incorporate these things?

Sarah
10 months ago

Thank you so much for this post. My 9-year old son was recently diagnosed with ADD and I feel like I am constantly failing him as a parent, especially when I get frustrated with behavior that he likely isn’t doing intentionally, or even consciously. This is really helpful information; the family meeting in particular seems like something I’d like to try.

If there are any “veteran” ADD parents who read this comment, I would be so grateful for any recommendations you can give me for tools you’ve used to effectively support your ADD kiddo.

Yanina Markova
10 months ago
Reply to  Sarah

Meds are not the enemy. It’s helpful to walk them through whatever they are struggling with by your side, so then they have the experience of doing the “right thing” the “right way” and it isn’t as intimidating/mysterious. But also, I got diagnosed as an adult when I suspected my kid might have it and I have found the meds amazing (I have a mild version and no longer struggle with executive function, only with specific types of tasks.) So my recommendation, try the meds, you can always discontinue.

Harmony
10 months ago
Reply to  Sarah

Yup. The struggle (and frustration) is real. A couple of things we’re working on at the moment: 1. Trying (and it’s super hard) to try and stay calm as a parent. Get what ever support YOU need so you can stay calm for your child – this is what has made the biggest difference to our child’s behaviour 2. Language of accountability – rather than telling your child give options – if you choose to have your shower then you can have 20 minutes of TV. If you don’t that’s ok but you can’t have TV 3. Step by step training – we’re working on the morning rush at the moment and teaching my son step by step how to get ready by himself in the morning. It’s a very sloooooow process but he can now put away his dishes and get dressed without us nagging which is huge! 4. Give your child things they can do – the other week we were at a big shopping centre and I let my son walk from the shop I was with to another area where my partner was waiting about 100m away. He didn’t and didn’t get distracted and was SO… Read more »

Kellie
10 months ago
Reply to  Sarah

I have a 12 year-old with ADHD Inattentive Type who was diagnosed in second grade. He’s doing great now–he had a fabulous first year of middle school–but it was a journey getting here. I highly recommend checking out ADHD Dude. He has a great training program for parents. Once you know how to provide the scaffolding and support that ADHD kids desperately need, they can thrive.

Julie S
10 months ago

This is so interesting! My husband is ADHD and needs things out for them to exist for him (while also simultaneously not “seeing” messes/piles… gah) so we have a little push and pull with our opposite organizational tendencies. My biggest takeaway was the *gasp* attractive big weekly wall calendar in pretty colors. Giving me ideas about doing something like that.

Lenea Headley
10 months ago

Thank you for this article. I liked the design tips and the calm and accepting voice about how to support family members with ADHD.

Geraldine
10 months ago

So glad to see design ideas for people with neurodevelopmental differences shared here!! More, please. For my son with autism, a rich “sensory diet” is important, so we got a willow porch swing in lieu of a loveseat in our family room.

Suzanne
10 months ago
Reply to  Geraldine

My daughter is autistic and has ADHD and at college now on a beautiful campus. When she goes for her walks in nature, she’s so much more regulated. She used to love swings and any kind of compression. She used a weighted blanket now.

Cris S.
10 months ago

I too would LOVE to hear/see more about this topic. My daughter has ADHD and seemed to think that when she went to college she’d suddenly become a completely different person – organized and on time – without any help from anyone. The whole year was a game of catch up as she recognized she was still the same person and needed supports to succeed and that this wasn’t shameful. When my husband packed up her dorm room on move out day he could see that one of our most difficult persistent problems with her living space was still happening – a complete inability to recognize what was trash and to bin it and get rid of it. Those are actually two different problems – every object (boxes, wrapping paper, broken things) is a ‘possibility’ that she doesn’t want to get rid of and then secondly, even recognized trash never gets to where it should. I’d love to know how to help her and reorganize her shared small dorm room in a way that works for her!

Tara Lynch
10 months ago
Reply to  Cris S.

Ummm … did you spy on me when I was helping my son pack up his room last year?? LOL All kidding aside, what you said about your daughter needing help to stay on track and keep organized hit home. My youngest son took this year off from UNH specifically to address his ADD and create strategies and habits for success. He’s going back in the fall with the addition of a support person to help keep him on track.

Suzanne
10 months ago
Reply to  Tara Lynch

Tara, my daughter almost took a leave, but we worked her university to do a part time load remotely for a quarter. She’s back on campus, and while it’s not a huge success, she’s making progress.

Tarynkay
10 months ago
Reply to  Cris S.

I highly recommend the work of Dana K White at A Slob Comes Clean. She has books, YouTube videos, and years of podcasts. She is extremely helpful for folks with executive function disorders- wonderful creative people like your daughter who see possibility in every piece of trash and who also just flat out forget to throw away trash.

Suzanne
10 months ago
Reply to  Cris S.

My daughter thought that she’d be an overnight organized adult when she started college. I’ve continuously reminded her that she has not failed because she still needs my support and the on campus supports that are offered. I’ve tried to get her to rely more to on campus resources, but she feels comfortable getting calls and texts from me. I’m like her personal assistant – her outsourced executive function. Part of the issue is getting her properly medicated. The doctors are so hesitant because she had difficulties with various meds in high school, and she’s lost weight since starting college. Slowly, she’s building schedules and habit trackers on her terms, and just having me check in on her progress using the tools she’s come up with. And she’s slowly finding what she likes to eat at the dining hall and remembering that exercise is her friend.

DeniseGK
10 months ago
Reply to  Suzanne

I really sympathize with your daughter! I’m not neurodivergent but I, too, thought I could go away to college and easily become a different me. I even cut all my hair off (like, from waist length hair to a “boy” haircut) thinking that I needed a new look for the new me. A few small things did change! But “no matter where you go, there you are” is Truth even if it comes from a silly movie. I love that you say she’s still trying different schedules and trackers – she’s got perseverance and small victories to build on, it will add up in time. And of course, sounds like she has at least one awesome cheerleader in her corner, loving and supporting her! 🙂

Suzanne
10 months ago
Reply to  DeniseGK

Thank you, DeniseGK!

Nora
10 months ago

This was a wonderful post – thank you! Super helpful information, and exciting to see something on this topic.

Kate
10 months ago

What a great article! I love this–very helpful & insightful! Thank you so much! I hope you get to post again; I’d love more insights or to see how you implemented these principles in different homes!

Kate
10 months ago
Reply to  Kate

I just re-read your previous posts from 2021! Love, love, love your design work & your insights. So, so good! Hope to see you here more often! Thank you so much!

Catherine
10 months ago

More on this subject please! brilliant.

KathrynJB
10 months ago

Inspiring content and gorgeous photos. Thanks for this post on a very important topic.

Donna
10 months ago

More articles like this please! The headline could have been Designing with Love, Acceptance, and Inclusivity. Readers of this blog all love design, but with purpose in mind can be so much more.

10 months ago

Thank you so much for this post! As a therapist, I know this advice will have a powerful impact!

Kate
10 months ago

I really love & appreciate this post so much–I love both the design & the insights. I wish it had a ton of comments. I hope the EHD design team understands that this is a very busy week & weekend for many people–end of school, graduations, weddings, & more–& I think that many people are missing their usual reads right now. I really hope that the Emily keeps that in mind–I really love this post so much & hope that Anita posts more often! Thank you!

Katherine
10 months ago

Lovely article with beautiful ideas! Just a quick clarification on diagnostic terms if it’s helpful for those learning about the diagnosis: the term ADD is considered an outdated term – it is not used in the most recent diagnostic manual (DSM-5). The current diagnoses are ADHD with three subtypes: Inattentive, Hyperactive, or Combined type. Some individuals may still identify with the diagnosis of ADD if they were diagnosed prior to the release of the newer DSM. Navigating the world of providers and services for ADHD can be tricky so I just wanted to clarify this as a mental health provider specializing in ADHD!

Katie J.
10 months ago
Reply to  Katherine

BRAVO. I was thinking this the entire article. Thank you for clarifying for folks.

Joyce Garrity
10 months ago

I want to second the comments on meds. As a therapist, I always asked clients to make an experienced decision, try the meds , then you will have the data to decide

Katie J.
10 months ago
Reply to  Joyce Garrity

AGREE! as a mother of an Inattentive ADHD child. Meds may not be for everyone, but they are not an enemy. Very helpful and just one of the many tools we’ve introduced for our child.

Kari
10 months ago

Love the design (the kitchen is gorgeous). But I cringed the whole post reading the language. Please use person-first language. That means saying “a child with ADHD” and not “an ADHD child.” No one is defined first by a diagnosis but first by their personhood.

Dana
10 months ago

As an adult with ADHD, there are a couple of organizing strategies that work well for me. One is, clear containers behind a door. I get distracted by mess, but I also forget things exist if I can’t see them easily. So my closet is all hangers with a rack of mesh drawers for folded clothes, my living room stuff is in clear boxes inside a cabinet, that kind of thing. The second strategy is having a designated “mess box”. If it’s not easy to put something away then I just won’t do it, but I can also get sidetracked into tidying when I’m really supposed to be doing something else. So I have a box or basket in each room and if something is out of place or bothering me, it goes in the “mess box” to be put away later. It satisfies the “this thing needs to be dealt with” urge without taking me out of whatever I’m supposed to be focused on, and it makes it easier to tidy up because all the random objects are in the same place. Also, it makes it easier to find stuff if I’ve misplaced it, because the first place to… Read more »