What Makes Waking Up So Difficult for People with ADHD

In a previous article, What makes sleep so difficult for kids with ADHD, We explored the difficulties that children and adolescents may have with falling asleep.  As we have mentioned in many sessions with parents and professionals, research shows that between 25 and 50% of people with ADHD have clinically reported sleep difficulties. These can be attributed to biology, stimulant medication side effects, lack of consistent bedtime routine, and characteristics related to the ADHD itself.

For many parents, getting their children to sleep is only half the battle. Having their children awake and ready for school on time is a significant problem. In my practice as a Parent Coach teaching the Calm and Connected© method, the issues related to morning are often quite pervasive. Not only do parents battle to wake their children up, but they battle the negative mood, the slow pace, the last minute “must dos”, and for some, the added burden of driving kids to school after the bus is missed. Parents wonder how much to support the process, and how much to let “life” teach its lessons. Today, we are going to explore the combination of issues first.

waking up ADHD

How response-able are kids when it comes to waking up and being ready on time??

This is the first factor you must consider when deciding how to address your child’s morning situation. We know through research and experience that at the core of ADHD are difficulties with motivation, arousal, and alertness. Science also tells us that some people with ADHD have difficulty establishing a sleep cycle that is “in sync” with the rest of the world – their circadian rhythms are off. Even in typical kids, from the onset of puberty until late teen years, the sleep cycle is different than for adults.

According to Kyla Wahlstrom and her research team at the Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement, medical research shows that the “brain chemical melatonin, which is responsible for sleepiness, is secreted from approximately 11 p.m. until approximately 8 a.m. during this age range. This secretion is based on human circadian rhythms and is rather fixed. In other words, typical youth are not able to fall asleep much before 11 p.m. and their brains will remain in sleep mode until about 8 a.m., regardless of what time they go to bed.”

This reminds us that their difficulty waking up is not always simply behavioral – they are not necessarily trying to be lazy or defiant. Add to their difficulty with waking up the fact that they may be inherently disorganized, have slow processing speed, have difficulty with transitions, and have an impaired sense of time and you begin to see that there are many challenges some children face just to start their day. This is not to say that should not have any responsibility to get up and be ready, rather to point out that they may need additional supports and skills to be successful.

What are some strategies that help?

In most cases, rewards and punishments do little to teach skills and affect long-term behavior change. As always, the first strategy in raising a child with ADHD, is to involve your child in the solution. First, you will want to reassure them that the conversation you want to have with them is not about setting up new punishments for when they are not successful in getting up. You want to understand what is making mornings so difficult.

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  • Assess whether there is any resistance related to going to school, taking the bus or other things related to what happens once they leave the house
  • Make sure they are aware of the importance of getting enough sleep related to their health, mood, and performance throughout the day. “Enough sleep” varies for each child, but ranges between 8 1⁄2 and 10 hours of uninterrupted sleep.

waking up ADHD

  • Review their nighttime routine to ensure that they are doing their best to be successful in falling asleep at a “reasonable” hour. Refer to my article cited above for some specific strategies.


  • Make sure that everything that can be done at night is done to take pressure off of the morning. This can include packing up the backpack and ensuring that everything that must leave the house is in one consistent spot, checking the weather report and picking out clothes, and reviewing the schedule for the next day to see if there are appointments or activities to planned for the day.
  • Experiment with different alarm clocks. Even for young children, it is a good idea to let them get used to an external device that they can set so that they learn to prepare for waking up and have a clock to see the time. Some people prefer music, some prefer rhythm, and some need loud noise to jolt them awake. There are some great and creative options on the market now.
These are 3 great alarm clocks that I recommend:

Clocky:  A fun and crazy alarm clock on wheels. It jumps from a 3-foot high nightstand, and then off it runs in different directions every day, bumping into objects, changing direction again, and beeping until you wake up, get out of bed and turn him off.

Sonic Bomb Alarm Clock: can be set super loud, has lights that flash, and has a vibrating disk to shake the bed.

Phillips Wake-Up Light: as a light that goes on gradually 30 minutes prior to the time the alarm goes off.

  • For people who are on stimulant medication, consider a two-alarm system. The first alarm can go off 30 minutes to one hour prior to the necessary wake up time so that medication can be given. This will allow actual wake up time to go more smoothly as the medication has had an opportunity to help regulate the individual.
  • For some people, motivation is a major obstacle. They may be so focused on how deeply they want to sleep that they are unable to focus on reasons to get the day started. Help your child come up with some visual reminders of what success will “look” like. Perhaps a picture of them achieving a goal or something that reminds them of what they hope to accomplish.
  • The study done in Minneapolis schools, cited below, showed that there was a significant reduction in school dropout rates, less depression, and students reported earning higher grades. Perhaps we can encourage our school districts to look at the facts and begin to make adjustments to support our children’s well-being.

Keep a healthy, helpful perspective. Even with the best of planning and intention, mornings with children, especially when challenged with ADHD, can be very stressful. It is vital that parents keep in mind that as difficult as it may be for them as parents, often, the child is struggling as well. They are often keenly aware that they are not meeting your expectations, nor their own. Try to avoid letting them go off to school with constant anger on anyone’s part. Recognize and praise their efforts, not just perfect success. When things are particularly rough in the morning, don’t let it carry over into the afternoon. Believe us, they have a whole host of new challenges they are facing. Agree to keep working on solutions to address the difficulties as they arise. Your bond with them and your active support in raising their awareness will do more to motivate their growth than anything else.

Written by Cindy Goldrich, Ed.M., ACAC © 2018 PTS Coaching. All rights reserved. Articles may be reproduced or electronically distributed as long as attribution to PTS Coaching is maintained.


8 thoughts on “What Makes Waking Up So Difficult for People with ADHD”

  1. Hi there,

    Thank you for the great information. Diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, I have always had a very hard time getting out of bed in the morning and (finally) discovered a truly workable solution. On Android, there is an app called sleep cycle , to which I have no affiliation. The app allows you to set various criteria that must be met in order the alarm to turn off. In my case, the NFC tag is the best option. NFC tags are cheap, available on Amazon for under $10 . For the unaware, NFC or Near Field Communication, is how services like Apple Pay and Google Pay work. After initially scanning the NFC tag (tapping it with your phone), the tag acts like an off switch. I placed it in my bathroom next to the shower and so every morning when my alarm rings, I must get out of bed and scan the tag in order for the alarm to turn off. Problem solved.

  2. I am also using an android sleep cycle app on my wearable watch the beauty of it is that it wakes me up when I am in the lightest part of my sleep cycle I give it a range of when I want to wake up and it buzzes on my wrist when I am in light sleep. I have found this makes it easier to get up and I don’t feel so groggy. I am wondering if there is anything on the market like this for young kids pre-cell phone age.

  3. You mention : The study done in Minneapolis schools, cited below, showed that there was a significant reduction in school dropout rates, less depression, and students reported earning higher grades. Perhaps we can encourage our school districts to look at the facts and begin to make the adjustments to support our children’s well-being.
    I don’t see the information to find this study. I think it would be helpful. I am a teacher for teen boys in an alternative school.

  4. Baron – what an incredible solution!!! I’m a recently diagnosied Adult ADHD-er (25 yo, working for government offices). I’ve been looking for something like this for ages! So smart. Thank you so much,

    I’ve always struggled getting out of bed. My current trick is to put my alarm (my phone) the other side of my bedroom under my (fresh) shower towel, so by the time I’ve turned it off I’m standing by the door with towel in hand, ready for shower. But the amount of times I still drop the towel and slump back into bed is far too often. Your solution sounds much more effective. Thanks.

    One of the big things that always seems to get me out of bed is loud, fun, high-energy music in the morning. Pump it REALLY loud and then I just can’t help moving and dancing (even in my bed), which wakes me up. Unfortunately, this isn’t an option with housemates! Instead I try to put my headphones in quite quickly after waking up and pump it loud then – I can still dance around my bedroom that way!

    One thing I really struggle with though is just when I’m naturally more ‘alert’. I’m currently writing this at my desk in the office at 11am, because I just don’t have the energy to focus on my boring admin job right now (that’s another factor I suppose…). I never get into the office before 10am (and usually come after that time) and don’t really feel ‘alert’ until 2/3pm, even moreso at 4/5pm when the early birds start going home and I can concentrate more without feeling disturbed – sometimes working until 8pm just because I can only do work between 4 and 8pm.

    • Thanks for sharing, Sam. I have similar problems and am looking for ways to get myself up. I appreciate seeing your routine as I was diagnosed around the same age as you (now turning 27 this month).

      Keep up the great work and keep improving as you can.

      All the best,



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