Someone recently asked a question that has me thinking a lot.
Reader Marcia asked:
Marcia was referring to this post in which I brainstormed a list of questions that a parent might ask themselves as preparation to begin the process of diagnosis for their child. This is a really great question that gets to the heart of what might be helpful to a child who is struggling with the inattentive subtype of ADHD (or ADHD-H, or ADHD-C, for that matter). Here are some tips that I would say might be very helpful for those that fit the criteria. (I'll leave answering the broader question about being supportive to kids who have any of the characteristics for another day.)
I guess my curiosity is about if you do find your child has some of these characteristics, whether or not there is proof that your child actually fits the profile of adhd Inattentive type... what is a good way to be supportive?
1. Strongly avoid labels. This includes labels involving reference to ADHD.
The most damaging labels will come from outside the home, probably. Teachers are bound to refer to your child as "lazy" or "distracted" or "forgetful" or "absent-minded." Peers might call your child "stupid" or any number of other names. Take special care to not re-enforce these labels when the child is at home. Yes, your child will likely forget a lot of things, but calling him or her "absent-minded" or "forgetful" internalizes those events--makes the child percieve them as a part of who the child is, not a description of an event.
From a personal place, the brunt of my own self-loathing came from the label "lazy." I plan to talk more about this later, but this was a label that I heard so often that I literally thought I was about the laziest person in the world. This was not a hyperbolic exaggeration--I wouldn't say the words "I am the laziest person you will every meet" (which I said often) just for kicks and giggles. I seriously, fo realz, thought that in a room of 100 randomly selected people, I was always going to to be one of, if not the, laziest person in that room.
Obviously, that doesn't do much for a person's self-esteem.
Thankfully, I was self-confident enough not to let this inaccurate self-label do much damage to the totality of my person--but it certainly wreaked some havoc on my life. To a child whose self-concept, for whatever reason, might be more fragile, a label this pejorative and ingrained could do some serious, serious damage.
So, avoid labels. Don't call your child names. Describe behaviors, and even this, be careful with. Your child is your child. He or she is better than a label, and is so much more complex and nuanced and wonderful than a four or five-lettered word.
Also, talking about symptoms is helpful for a child. Explaining why those labels exist helps a child feel normal--they struggle with ADHD, just like a lot of other kids. But deciding to tell a child he or she "has ADHD" can be very, very tricky. For sure, use this diagnosis as a descriptor, not as a noun. A child never "is ADHD." A child might "have ADHD." I prefer to think that a child "faces" or "struggles with" or "combats ADHD." A lot of this is personal preference, I realize, but I like to keep the label as far away from the person's identity as possible.
2. Be understanding.
If your child has the inattentive subtype of ADHD (or any subtype) he or she will do a lot of really annoying things. For ADHD-I kids, this includes losing things over and over and over and over, lots of having to go back and pick up forgotten items that are necessary for school or home, gross disorganization, and difficulty in finishing tasks around the house in an adequate or timely fashion.
As a parent, these things aren't fun. They mean more work. They mean a great deal of hassle. They mean the loss of time and money, moments of embarrassment, and moments of high stress. Things like "Mom, I need to go back to school to get my science book for the test tomorrow." Or "Mom, I need to go to the craft store for a project that was due yesterday, and btw, can you help me with it because it's 50% of my grade and I don't understand how to do it because I wasn't paying attention when they gave the instructions, so can we call someone to find out how to do it maybe? Oh, yeah--sorry about the fact that it's 7:00pm." These kinds of things will happen a lot and will feel very, very frustrating.
But at that moment, your kid is likely feeling horrible inside, and what he or she needs is for you to understand why this has happened. He or she needs you to say, "it's okay. You can do better at remembering next time." Certainly, let your kids suffer consequences sometimes. Certainly a balance must be achieved between natural consequences and giving a child help in things they truly can't do. But more than anything, understanding what is happening and why it's happening, and being nice in the humiliating moment of revelation, is something that will help your kid maintain the self-confidence to transform his or her behaviors.... eventually.
3. Recognize the positives.
This is getting down to basic cognitive behavioral science, but affirming your child when he or she does remember to take out the garbage, or does get a good grade, or does wash the windows before leaving to play with friends will do far more in helping repetition of said behavior than criticism during the moments of lapse ever will.
These three things are very basic. I feel that I could go on and on (and perhaps I will). But this is what came to mind in answer to Marcia's excellent question.
All right, gotta get on with my day.