Using Sand Timers as Part of Your Reward System for your ADHD Child

Sand Timer Reward System for SEN ADHD Child and Adult ADHD Parents

How can you use a sand timer as part of a reward system?

A couple of years ago I bought a set of three sand timers, each one is a different colour and lasts for a different length of time. There are a few different time intervals available but I chose 5, 15 and 30 minutes. The 30 minute timer, which is black, has become a firm favourite as part of our reward systems, not only for our youngest child, but also for my older two.

‘What kind of reward is a sand timer?’, you may be thinking. Well, it turns out it’s one of the most valuable gifts you can give your child. It’s your time.

Before we started using the ‘black timer’ we went through a hideously expensive, draining and frustrating period whereby we would give our son a small gift if he’d had a good day at school. Our youngest has ADHD like me, and is also on the Autistic Spectrum, and also has a chromosome microdeletion. He’s pretty unique, but I’m sure a lot of parents reading this will recognise the same trap that we fell into.

At first this reward system worked well. He is extremely obsessive so it started with Thomas the Tank Engine toys. He was doing well at school, his meltdowns were starting to lessen, but it was becoming more and more often that we’d be out buying another one. Did you know there are over 100 different characters in Thomas the Tank Engine? I didn’t know before we started this, but I sure do now. Then it was different versions of the same engine, ‘But this one has soot around the windows!’ and then it was ‘I need the wooden engines and the Take n’ Play engines’.

This reward system had become extremely expensive. I was trawling eBay for used engines which weren’t currently available and, in my fabulous ADHD creativity, I had told my son that we had a ‘Magic Cupboard’ when we started this. He had no concept of how much work, time and money we were using to ensure that when he went to the Magic Cupboard there was a lovely surprise for him. So the meltdowns shifted focus, why is the cupboard empty?

We switched to a chart based reward system, this increased the interval between having to stock the cupboard but really it didn’t solve the problem. Not only did we now have a little boy continually asking ‘What can I do to get a sticker?’ but we were still buying physical items as rewards. We couldn’t afford to go on like that.

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so where does the sand timer fit in?

This is the interesting bit! We bought the sand timers as a way of providing a visual guide to our son that he could use to help in when he needed to change tasks. I will be writing another post about using Sand Timers for helping your ADHD child with change and schedules. What I discovered, however, was that they had an even more surprising, and interesting use.

You see, like some other parents with adult ADHD, I don’t enjoy playing with my children unless I’m really in the right frame of mind. I usually last about two minutes before my brain jumps in with two or three things I have forgotten to do, or I would rather do, and it’s really, really difficult to engage. I try, I really do, but I struggle to become interested in what my kids are doing sometimes.

My son has moved on from Thomas the Tank Engine (no more constantly rebuilding train tracks) to playing Lego games on an XBox 360. These games are actually very enjoyable, the mechanics are good, the characters are great, but my stamina for watching him play the same game every day, for listening to him excitedly telling me about each character, which film their costume is from, what their special moves are, what characters will be available for download soon etc sometimes just gives way. He’ll ask me to watch him play, I’ll sit down for a couple of minutes, realise I need the toilet or I’ll go and make a cup of tea. I get distracted and don’t come back to him, or if I do, I’ve often got my phone with me so I can just check my game progress. I’m not really paying attention.

Add all that up and I’m a pretty lousy parent when my ADHD is in control, and worse, my kids sense that I don’t really want to be with them when it is.

I had finally had enough of buying the latest engine/Skylander/Infinity/Lego character. The reward system we were using had long since been effective, it had become a habit. I was beginning to resent the constant demands of my son and watching him play with this ‘stuff’ that we’d bought him was fueling that resentment.

He was expecting us to buy him stuff regardless of behaviour and because I wasn’t spending time with him properly he was also shouting for me to come to him over and over again, not just to play video games, but for all sorts of spurious reasons. ‘I can’t reach my drink’ or ‘I dropped my Lego on the floor’, I was getting more and more frustrated with him. I just didn’t see that he actually just wanted my attention, he wanted me to stay in the room for more that a minute or two. When I suggested that we use the ‘black timer’ as a reward for tidying his Lego away one day I wasn’t expecting his reaction.

'IF WE GET THIS LEGO BACK IN THE BOX YOU CAN HAVE THE BLACK TIMER, THAT'S 30 MINUTES, AND IN THAT 30 MINUTES I HAVE TO STAY WITH YOU AND DO WHAT YOU WANT US TO DO.'Click To Tweet

That’s what I said to him. I had no idea how much that momentary idea would change things. He was so excited! We got the Lego cleared up and he flipped over that timer. I even put my mobile phone in my pocket so that I wouldn’t be distracted. I thought it would be impossible to keep focused but somehow it was liberating knowing that there was a definite end time. Like the Time-Blocking exercise, somehow it freed up my mind from the constant feeling that there’s something else I should be doing. We played a game together, he was expecting me to watch and was really happy when I said that I wanted to join in. I only glanced at the timer a couple of times before it had run down and we were both able to accept the end of the session without guilt or frustration.

adult adhd parenting tips child sand timers reward system

I finally understood that giving my time to my child is far more important, and holds more worth, than giving them gifts to occupy them. He wanted time with me, to engage with me, not for me to give him something shiny and new.

Parenting when you have adult ADHD is tough, and if your kids have ADHD or other co-morbid conditions like autism then they have expectations of you that are hard to live up to. I have spent a long time feel guilty, wondering what was wrong with me that I couldn’t even spend time with my kids without getting bored, but now I’ve found a way which I can spend real time with them. Having the clear start and end point helps us both to make the most of our time and we don’t have to spend a fortune on all the other stuff quite so often.

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it might work for younger children but what about tweens and teens?

Well, it turns out they want to spend time with me too. For a long time our youngest has dominated the house, despite the difficulties that our older two children face themselves. Our 12 year old has Asperger’s Syndrome, and our 13 year old has ADHD and autism, but because our little boy shouts the loudest he gets most of the attention.

When they found out about the ‘black timer’ they wanted a turn! I hadn’t realised before how much they missed the way things were before our son was born, before we discovered his difficulties would have such an impact on the family as a whole.

It’s been a long time since I used sticker charts with my older children, but using the timer as a reward definitely gets results. Spending time with them has made me realise how much I’ve missed as they’ve been growing up and makes me appreciate their individual characters.

If you have struggled to find ways to engage with your children, or to give them each one to one time then making a commitment to your child to give them just 30 minutes of your time will mean more to them then you could imagine, and you’ll be amazed at how much you’ll grow to enjoy getting to know them better.

You can buy Sand Timers on eBay and Amazon for a fairly affordable price these days, between £5 and £10 so if you’re trapped in a cycle of buying toys as rewards it’s well worth the investment to give it a try! Let me know how you get on in the comments section below or you can contact me here.

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