ADHD Parenting Advice from Michael Phelps' Mom

Need some ADHD parenting advice? Learn how the mothers of three ADHD super-achievers — an Olympic record-breaker, a TV heavyweight, and a world-class adventurer — helped their kids beat the odds.

Moms, Part 2

“I built off the gifts ADD gave him”

Yvonne Pennington, clinical psychologist in Marietta, Georgia, and mother of Ty Pennington, star of the ABC-TV series Extreme Makeover: Home Edition

As the happy-go-lucky handyman on the hit TV series Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Ty Pennington has hammered (and hammed) his way into our hearts. His mother, Yvonne Pennington, is, of course, his biggest fan — although she’s quick to point out that Ty’s manic energy wasn’t always an asset.

“In first grade, he’d hoist his desk onto his shoulders and wear it, running around the classroom as the other kids laughed,” she says. “Teachers insisted he was bright, but just couldn’t sit still. I was constantly getting calls from the principal’s office. I felt like the worst mother in the world.”

At home, Ty was a handful. Yvonne says he was always jumping off the roof and running into the street without checking for cars.

At the time, Yvonne was a single mom struggling to raise two kids — while attending graduate school by day and working nights as a waitress. She sensed that something was amiss with Ty, then seven years of age. But what?

One day, while doing research for a psychology class, she stumbled onto the answer. “I read some case studies about kids who had trouble focusing, and they sounded a lot like Ty,” she says. She had Ty evaluated by a doctor, who confirmed the diagnosis.

In the early 1970s, doctors didn’t use the term “attention-deficit disorder.” Kids like Ty were given a more ominous-sounding label: “minimal brain dysfunction.” Yvonne wasn’t sure she should tell her son. “Imagine hearing that,” she says. “He already felt like a bad kid. Why make things worse by telling him?”

Yvonne decided against informing Ty about his diagnosis. But she hit the psychology textbooks, learning all she could about minimal brain dysfunction and ways to treat it. She read about a form of behavioral therapy that involved the use of tokens, and decided to give it a try.

Here’s how it worked: For every 10 seconds that Ty managed to stay focused and do as he was asked, he earned a token (one of Yvonne’s drink coasters). Ty was allowed to exchange the tokens for rewards — 10 coasters for, say, an extra half hour of TV or time to play with his Erector Set.

At first, Ty rarely earned more than a token or two before returning to his usual antics. But Yvonne kept at it; she even persuaded Ty’s special-education teacher to use the technique in the classroom. Ty’s behavior slowly improved, and that gave his self-esteem a much-needed boost.

“In the past, people had only paid attention to Ty when he did something wrong,” says Yvonne. “But with the token economy, we turned that around.”

As Ty learned to channel his energy, he became passionate about building things — the bigger the better. “At age 11, he swapped his comic books for his friends’ help in building a three-story tree house,” says Yvonne. “I knew then that he’d grow up to be a carpenter — or a Hollywood stuntman.”

Ty earned mostly Bs and Cs in high school. But he hit a wall soon after entering Kennesaw State University in Georgia in 1982. The lack of structure sent him reeling; he dropped out a year later.

Around that time, in the early 1980s, the term ADHD came into use, and, with the stigma surrounding the condition waning, Yvonne decided to tell Ty the truth. “He always knew he was hyperactive, and I figured that was all he needed to know,” she says. “But when I realized that it was ADHD that was holding him back, I told him about it and suggested we see a doctor.”

With the help of stimulant medication, which he continues to take, Ty finally learned how to focus. He returned to school — this time at The Art Institute of Atlanta — and graduated with honors. After that, he dabbled in construction work and graphic design, and did some modeling and acting. Then he landed a job as a carpenter on The Learning Channel’s Trading Spaces. Three years later, he was tapped to lead his own renovation team on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.

“Even today, his spontaneity gives me heart attacks,” admits Yvonne, recounting the time when she switched on the TV to see Ty zooming down a steep driveway using an ottoman for a skateboard. Still, if her experiences have taught her anything, it’s that parents should learn to appreciate the unique gifts ADHD can offer. “The very traits that once held Ty back are now his biggest assets,” she says. “Many parents in this situation focus on what their kids are doing wrong. I encourage them to focus on what they’re doing right. Do that, and the possibilities are endless.”

To learn more about making a token economy, go to Yvonne’s website, Psychology.am; an instructional DVD and book will be available in May.


This article comes from the April/May 2007 issue of ADDitude.

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