If you’re raising a child who has attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD), you probably spend a lot of time pointing out his weak points — and looking for ways to shore them up. There's nothing wrong with trying to correct your child's impulsivity, disorganization, or lack of focus. Indeed, it's important for parents to do so. But focusing too intently on your child's shortcomings may be doing a number on his self-esteem.
Children who are continually told that they're lazy (or worse) may become so discouraged that they fail to pursue — or even to notice — the things that they're good at and enjoy doing. Like everyone else, boys and girls with ADHD have their strengths and passions. But they'll have a hard time figuring out what these are if parents and teachers are always disciplining and wagging fingers at them.
The point, experts say, is not to avoid criticizing your child. It's to temper your negative remarks with encouragement and praise for the things your child does well. "People with ADHD improve their chances for success by focusing on their natural talents — the ones that consistently yield excellent performance — and by developing a plan to make those talents even stronger,” says David Giwerc, an ADHD coach (and ADDer) in Slingerlands, New York. "I don't know anyone who has gotten ahead by attempting to eliminate his weaknesses. But I have lots of clients, friends, relatives, and colleagues who have grown and moved forward by emphasizing their strengths."
Striking a balance
Focus on your weak points: That's the message Steve M. got while growing up with ADHD in the 1960s. "From my very first day of school, I was made acutely aware of all the things that I couldn't do," he says. "I couldn’t read well. I couldn't pay attention. I couldn't sit still. I was very impulsive, and sometimes aggressive. My teachers, and even my friends and relatives, thought I was lazy. All anyone ever noticed about me was what I wasn't good at."
After high school, Steve enrolled in a community college, but flitted from one concentration to another, and ended up dropping out before earning a degree. His parents tried to help him find his way. But deep down, he says, he could sense their disappointment at his failure. A string of odd jobs left him confused and angry. "I couldn't keep a job because I would get off-task too easily. I would make stupid mistakes because I wasn't paying attention to details."
Steve consulted a psychiatrist, who diagnosed his ADHD and put him on medication. Suddenly, he could focus. The doctor encouraged him to assess his interests and strengths — and move forward from there. "I had always loved to cook, but never thought I could actually make a living at it," he recalls. With the help of therapy, he recognized that he has a knack for creating recipes. So he returned to the community college and studied food service.
Now Steve and his wife earn a good living as owners of a pizza parlor. "It took me a long time to identify my strengths," he says. "Once I did, it changed how I saw myself and how others saw me. I know that my strengths are in the people parts of the business, not in the details. I make sure that I have good systems in place, so that the details don’t fall through the cracks." Now, Steve is helping his nine-year-old son, who has ADHD, explore different interests and find his own talents — and trying to keep him from the kind of problems that Steve grappled with while growing up.
Parents as detectives
It's one thing to say ADDers should focus on their strengths, another to put that advice into practice. How can parents tell what their child is good at? Giwerc encourages parents to be detectives—to pay close attention to what the child enjoys and does well, and to any circumstances that contribute to his success and happiness.
“Try to determine what your children seem naturally inclined to do and where they find success with it. I’m not urging parents to ignore a child’s weaknesses,” explains Giwerc. “But if your child comes home with a report card that is all As and one F, what will you focus on? Chances are, it’ll be the F. If you do, it can send a message that what isn’t done well is more important than what is already done well.”
This article comes from the February/March 2007 issue of ADDitude.