Taking the Stress out of Back-to-School Shopping

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

With the first day of school just weeks away, it’s time to stock up on all of the school supplies, clothes, and accessories that your kids are going to need this year. Back-to-school shopping can seem overwhelming when your child has ADHD. The idea of having to keep track of an active, impulsive, and distractible child while also managing a long shopping list is daunting for parents. For kids, the stress, overstimulation, and temptations that accompany back-to-school shopping lay the perfect foundation for the predictable arguments and meltdowns. No one can avoid back-to-school shopping, but there are many things you can do to make it a more positive experience for you and your child.  

  1. Design a shopping plan with your child’s limits in mind. While you may be tempted to embark on a back-to-school shopping marathon so that you can finish everything in one day, chances are good that your child is not up to this monumental task. Instead, break the shopping trip up into chunks either by store or by category (clothes, school supplies, shoes, etc.). Plan to spend only as much time in each store as you think your child can reasonably handle. Remember that unlike typical shopping outings where you pick up some groceries or a few household items, back-to-school shopping requires your child to help make decisions about things you’ll be buying. Decision fatigue, and the irritability and frustration that accompany it, will inevitably creep in if you shop for too long.
  2. Make a list and let your child check it off. Creating a list for each shopping trip will help you and your child stay focused on the things that you really need to buy. Empower your child by assigning him or her the task of checking off items as you go. Better yet, have your child write down the price of each item as it is purchased, so that he or she can track the amount of money being spent. When children pay more attention to cost, they may be more understanding when they ask for something extra and are told “No.”
  3. Set clear expectations. Your child will feel more calm and patient while shopping if he or she knows what to expect before you leave the house. Let your child know which stores you’ll be visiting, how long you’ll be shopping, and what you’ll be buying (only items on the shopping list!).
  4. Be prepared to help your child deal with temptations. When a store is filled with temptations, your child is going to see many things that he or she would like to buy that aren’t on the list. It hard for kids to be surrounded by so many things that they cannot have, and this is especially true for more impulsive kids who have ADHD. You can’t remove the temptations, but you can help your child cope with his or her impulsive feelings and the “need” to have so many things that he or she sees:
    • Create opportunities for choices. Empower your child by allowing him or her to make choices about the things that he or she is able to have. Let your child pick out his or her favorite notebooks, pencils, erasers, backpack, etc. If having too many options is overwhelming for your child, then point out two or three items that are a good fit for your child’s needs and your family’s budget, and allow your child to choose from this smaller selection.
    • Add extra items to a birthday, holiday, or future rewards list. Spending time shopping with your child actually provides an excellent opportunity for you to learn about things that he or she may want to earn as rewards for meeting behavior goals, or receive as gifts on his or her next birthday or holiday. So, if your child sees something that he or she wants, let him or her know that he or she can’t have it now, but he or she can add it to the reward or gift list. Some kids like to create the list as they shop, and others like to write out the full list from memory when they get home.
  5. Praise your child. When you’re busy and stressed it can be easy to focus on all of the things that your child is “doing wrong” and forget to focus on everything that he or she is doing right. So, make a conscious effort to notice the times when your child calmly puts something back after he or she was told that he or she couldn’t have it or when he or she stayed by your side instead of wandering off. Praise your child and let your child know that you appreciate the way that he or she is behaving. Also acknowledge that it’s not always easy to follow the rules and accept tough decisions on school shopping days. The more positive attention your child receives from you, the more likely he or she will be to meet your expectations and enjoy the experience.

Back-to-school shopping isn’t easy for kids with ADHD or their parents. But when you’re prepared with a few key strategies and solid shopping plan you’ll be able to get your child everything that he or she needs and may even enjoy each other’s company along the way.


Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


Huntington Learning Center is the tutoring and test prep leader. Its certified tutors provide individualized instruction in reading, phonics, writing, study skills, elementary and middle school math, Algebra through Calculus, Chemistry, and other sciences. It preps for the SAT and ACT, as well as state and standardized exams. Huntington programs develop the skills, confidence, and motivation to help students of all levels succeed and meet the needs of Common Core State Standards. Founded in 1977, Huntington's mission is to give every student the best education possible. Call us today at 1.800.CAN LEARN to discuss how Huntington can help your child. For franchise opportunities please visit www.huntingtonfranchise.com.

This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.

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