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.

Raising ADHD Superstars: Mothers talk about raising future stars with ADHD Darrell Miho Olympic swimmer, Michael Phelps was diagnosed with ADHD at age 9

Whenever a teacher would say, ‘Michael can’t do this,’ I’d counter with, ‘Well, what are you doing to help him?’

Debbie Phelps, mother of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps
   
 

Michael Phelps on ADHD

The most decorated Olympic athlete ever, Michael Phelps is a world-class role model for children with and without attention deficit - plus a few billion adults, too.

Now you can read his full life story in Michael Phelps: Beneath the Surface, out now in hard cover.


ADHD Parenting Advice

 
   

What does it take to succeed despite attention deficit disorder (ADD ADHD)?

It takes hard work, for starters — a willingness to meet challenges head-on. It takes support from family members, teachers, therapists, and coaches. And, of course, it’s hard to overstate the benefits of ADHD medication.

But, of all the ingredients needed to make a happy, successful life, nothing is more important than good parenting. Behind almost every ADHD success story is a devoted parent (or two). In honor of mothers, let’s give credit where credit is due — and heed their ADHD parenting advice.

The three mothers profiled here helped their sons and daughters achieve great things — more than they could have imagined. Steadfast and resourceful, they saw strength where others saw weakness, and kept looking for ways to help their children after others were ready to give up. Let their stories inspire you!

“We worked as a team to overcome ADD”

Debbie Phelps, middle-school principal in Towson, Maryland, and mother of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps

No doubt about it, Michael Phelps has made waves in his chosen sport. In 2004, at the age of 18, he swam his way to eight medals (six of them gold) at the summer Olympics in Athens. Now 21, he holds 13 world records, including the 200-meter butterfly and the 4 x 100-meter freestyle relay.

Yet Michael might not have loved swimming at all, were it not for the ingenuity of his mother, Debbie Phelps. “At age seven, he hated getting his face wet,” says Debbie. “We flipped him over and taught him the backstroke.”

Michael showed swimming prowess on his back, then on his front, side, and every way in between. But in the classroom, he floundered. An inability to concentrate was his biggest problem.

“I was told by one of his teachers that he couldn’t focus on anything,” says Debbie. She consulted a doctor, and nine-year-old Michael was diagnosed with ADHD.

“That just hit my heart,” says Debbie. “It made me want to prove everyone wrong. I knew that, if I collaborated with Michael, he could achieve anything he set his mind to.”

Debbie, who had taught middle school for more than two decades, began working closely with Michael’s school to get him the extra attention he needed. “Whenever a teacher would say, ‘Michael can’t do this,’ I’d counter with, ‘Well, what are you doing to help him?’” she recalls.

After Michael kept grabbing a classmate’s paper, Debbie suggested that he be seated at his own table. When he moaned about how much he hated reading, she started handing him the sports section of the paper or books about sports. Noticing that Michael’s attention strayed during math, she hired a tutor and encouraged him to use word problems tailored to Michael’s interests: “How long would it take to swim 500 meters if you swim three meters per second?”

At swim meets, Debbie helped Michael stay focused by reminding him to consider the consequences of his behavior. She recalls the time when 10-year-old Michael came in second and got so upset that he ripped off his goggles and threw them angrily onto the pool deck.

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During their drive home, she told him that sportsmanship counted as much as winning. “We came up with a signal I could give him from the stands,” she says. “I’d form a ‘C’ with my hand, which stood for ‘compose yourself.’ Every time I saw him getting frustrated, I’d give him the sign. Once, he gave me the ‘C’ when I got stressed while making dinner. You never know what’s sinking in until the tables are turned!”

Debbie used various strategies to keep Michael in line. Over time, as his love of swimming grew, she was delighted to see that he was developing self-discipline. “For the past 10 years, at least, he’s never missed a practice,” she says. “Even on Christmas, the pool is the first place we go, and he’s happy to be there.”

Debbie also made sure to listen to her son. In the sixth grade, he told her he wanted to stop taking his stimulant medication. Despite serious misgivings, she agreed to let him stop — and he did fine. Michael’s busy schedule of practices and meets imposed so much structure on his life that he was able to stay focused without medication.

Debbie and Michael didn’t see eye to eye on every challenge that came his way, but he always understood the role she played in his swimming success. Immediately after being awarded his first gold medal at Athens, he stepped off the winner’s platform and walked to the stands, to hand Debbie a bouquet and the garland that crowned his head. That moment is vivid in Debbie’s memory. “I was so happy, I was in tears,” she recalls.

Michael now attends the University of Michigan, where he’s majoring in sports marketing, while training for the 2008 Olympics. Debbie has become the principal of Windsor Mill middle school in Baltimore, Maryland. She applies what she learned raising Michael to all of her students, whether or not they have ADHD. “All kids can fail us at times,” she says. “But if you work with them, nine times out of 10, they’ll make you proud.”

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

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