Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Supportive Parent--how to support a child with ADHD

Close-up of a young woman teaching her daughter to color

Someone recently asked a question that has me thinking a lot.

Reader Marcia asked:

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?

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.)

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.


  1. Not directly on the topic of this post, but I thought you might be interested in this:

  2. how can you tell if a child is actually being lazy or if it is a symptom or whatever you would call it. Or is lazy just a quick label given to answer ones actions and there is always something going on under the surface?

  3. Josh, thanks so much for this. I love what you say here. I taught and was a principal during a time when there was a lot of energy behind "natural consequences." I have to say it drove me crazy to watch teachers use language like "Well that's a problem for you isn't it?" or "So what can you do now that you have no pencil?" with this kind of covert sarcastic "well it's our bed you made now lie in it" kind of tone...I love you putting out there the notion that kindness, compassion, understanding, emphasizing "mid course corrections" etc. might be helpful. Go Josh!!

  4. to anonymous

    there is no such thing as a "lazy" person, child or otherwise. I know that sounds like a really out there statement, but hear me out.

    Everything we do is in search of fulfilling some sort of need we have. It may be for love, relaxation, safety, whatever, but we are all driven by our needs. Children are the same. If a child is doing a behavior that looks lazy to you, you are making a judgment on his needs. Ask him what he needs (this will be easier if you already have some rapport, like your own child). I lay around the house on days when I need to decompress and that could certainly be labeled as lazy, but I am making myself better able to handle the normal (and not so normal) stressors that come up during life.

    When my children are acting in a way that I would label as lazy, I try to look at it first through their they need less structured time (kids really need to play, it's how they organize their brains and learn), are they overstimulated, understimulated, have they been under a lot of stress recently. or any number of issues that would cause that behavior. Once I meet the needs *behind* the behavior, it will go away. No need for punishment, or lecturing. The need has been met. It works the same for adults, but we have slightly better verbal skills and cognitive abilities...and we often have less respect for the processes of children.

    The book "Nonviolent Communication" by Marshall Rosenberg does a great job of explaining this in a compassionate way. It really was paradigm-shifting for me. My children are not inherently "bad" or "good". They have needs, and it is my job as a parent to make sure they get met, so that as they become adults, they have a "full cup" with which to help the world. So that they can eventually get to a place where they can verbalize and safely get their own needs met all while forming and maintaining relationships that will enrich them and their communities. :-)

    It's pretty tall order, but we can do it one day at a time. :-)

  5. Anonymous--you pose a really good question. I really like Karin's comments and agree with what she said.

    I would break it down like this: any person can act in a lazy way, as a temporary description of his or her behavior. So, sure, there might be moments where a kid is "being lazy" (with "to be" as an action verb, not as a descriptor)--as in not working adequately in a time when maybe he or she should be. But, I don't believe this should ever translate into a broader description of the person as a whole. As you implied, I tend to believe that if there is repetitive "lazy" behaviors that are significant enough to tempt one to label a person as "being lazy" (with "be" as a descriptor), there is probably something deeper going on which merits further examination.

    We all act lazy every now and again. But a person that IS lazy is actually a person with something else going on entirely, imho.

  6. this really made me stop and think about how i'm dealing with my son. i get frustrated when my coping strategies don't work for him. much to consider.