Timers: Essential Tools for ADHD Families

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

As any parent of a child or teen with ADHD knows, constantly losing track of time is practically a hallmark ADHD symptom. It’s also one of the most frustrating symptoms since it impacts so many aspects of the child and their family’s life on a daily basis. People with ADHD struggle with time management for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they become so hyperfocused on an activity that everything else fades far into the background. Other times they simply become distracted by what is in front of them and discount the importance of anything less immediate. So, if a teen is planning to leave the house in 5 minutes to catch the bus on time, and a text message pops up on the phone, their brain prioritizes the text message over the less immediate (but more important) task of getting out of the house on time. Losing track of time is also problematic during homework, especially when kids or teens spend excessive amounts of time on one small piece of an assignment at the expense of completing their homework on time. For each of these situations, using a timer as a tool can be extremely helpful. It’s a recommendation that can seem so simple that parents often doubt that it can be effective. But when used correctly and consistently it can have a big positive impact on ADHD symptoms and family stress.

So, how specifically can timers help? Which types of timers are best for each situation?

  • Improve awareness of the passage of time. Many kids and teens with ADHD simply do not seem to experience the passage of time in the same way as other people. Parents often try to fill in this gap by calling out reminders to count down the time remaining, “10 minutes until we need to leave the house!” “Just 5 more minutes until we need to be out the door!” Unfortunately, these reminders don’t seem to help speed things along and leave everyone feeling frustrated. Visual Timers, like the Time Timer, can help. These timers include a red disk that covers the timer face. As time passes, the red disk gradually gets smaller and smaller to show the amount of time remaining before the buzzer goes off.
  • Improve productivity and on-task behavior. Staying on task for long stretches of time is difficult when you have ADHD. Timers of any kind can be extremely useful for breaking longer tasks down into smaller chunks. Use a timer during homework to have kids and teens focus for anywhere between 5-20 minutes at a time (depending on their age and ability) before taking a quick break and jumping back in for another timed stretch of work. You can also increase focus by giving kids “beat the clock” challenges. For example, challenge them to complete 5 math problems in 5 minutes (remind them that accuracy counts!), and be sure to pile on the praise and enthusiasm when they succeed.
  • Reduce conflict and improve independence. Parents are constantly frustrated that their child or teen is constantly running late, isn’t getting anything done, or can’t seem to do things on their own without a parent hovering over them. Kids and teens with ADHD complain that their parents keep nagging them about staying on task or getting something done on time. Frustration and anger erupt on both sides. In these situations, a timer can essentially act as a neutral party. When the timer goes off the time is up – and it is the timer that delivers the news, not the parent. It may seem simple, but this subtle shift dramatically reduces conflict for many families. On top of this, once your child or teen learns to use timers effectively, you won’t need to hover over them and call out reminders nearly as often – giving everyone the independence and breathing room they need.

If your child or teen’s struggles with time management are taking a toll, try including a timer as a tool in your ADHD parenting toolbox. Work with your child’s therapist or school counselor to help identify specific ways that you can use a timer to help manage ADHD symptoms at home.


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.


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