Children with attention deficit disorder can be just as caring as other kids. But because of their poor impulse control and short ADHD attention spans, they sometimes come across as aloof or self-centered.
That was the case with 10-year-old Rachel (not her real name). Rachel's parents brought her to see me because they were concerned about their daughter's apparent lack of empathy. "Rachel doesn't care about anyone," they told me. "She's selfish and rude, even though we've done everything we can to help her change."
It was clear from the first few visits that Rachel was feeling hopeless about herself. She was so used to receiving help that it never occurred to her that she might be capable of caring about (or doing things for) other people. Once I helped convince her that she was capable of helping others, her outlook turned around. She became much happier.
Parents As Models
It goes without saying that children learn from what they see and experience at home. If you'd like to raise a caring, helpful child, be sure to express gratitude for jobs well done by every member of the family. "Thanks for setting the table," you might say. "You really helped me out by giving me some time to rest today," or "That kitten really purred when you petted her so gently."
Some parents worry that making a big deal about thanking a non-ADD sibling might alienate the child who has ADD. Not so. As long as you express thanks to everyone in the family, you have nothing to worry about.
Another way to teach compassion is to change the way you correct problem behavior. For example, instead of "I told you to stop - now look what happened," you might say, "You made a mistake. What can you learn from it? Together, I'm sure we can come up with a plan."
The key is to use a firm yet caring tone of voice and choice of words, rather than yelling or issuing threats or insults. Often, I urge parents to couch their disapproval in terms of puzzlement or curiosity: "Oh no, not again. I'm confused by your behavior because this is not how I see you" or "What do you imagine caused this situation?"
Make sure your child gets a chance to see you helping other people. Remember, actions speak louder than words. Saying, "I'm going to help grandma fix her garden," or "Your uncle needs my help in moving some boxes today," and then bringing your child along will teach generosity and responsibility better than any lecture can. If you're donating outgrown clothes and toys to less fortunate families, let your child help pack the boxes.
Like Rachel, many of the children who come to my office have low self-esteem and are convinced that they have little to offer to the world. On the contrary! With a little help, kids with ADHD often turn out to be more compassionate than other kids.
Some of the children I've worked with - including Rachel - have proved to be extraordinarily compassionate toward younger children. Others are good at taking care of and being loving to animals. Each time you notice and praise acts of kindness by your child, you help boost her self-esteem - and that encourages her to be even more interested in others. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So get in the habit of "catching" your child "giving back" to others. Be sure to let him hear you tell grandpa that you noticed some pretty amazing behavior that day. (Even the smallest act is worthy of praise - for example, letting someone else sit in the "best" seat in the car.)
I recall how one patient of mine began our session by informing me, "Today is Dr. Brady Day, and you get to pick the game." Being able to honor me made this girl feel good about herself. She helped me to realize that giving back to others helps all of us feel good about ourselves.
Opportunities to Help Others
As you demonstrate how you give back to the community, help your child find opportunities to do likewise.
If you're worried that your child might have trouble behaving appropriately in a conventional volunteer situation (a hospital or community center, for example), look for special situations: One nine-year-old I know became her big sister's "special assistant" in caring for a pig to be entered in a livestock show.
In another case, a preteen who had difficulty behaving in big crowds helped set up tables for an event before the guests arrived. He was ecstatic when he saw his name listed in the program under the heading "Volunteers who made tonight's event possible."
Volunteer opportunities are plentiful in most communities. Some teens I know have enjoyed working for Habitat for Humanity or for hospitals that have well-structured volunteer programs. These youngsters have told me that they really enjoy helping others and that the rewards they reap cannot be counted in dollars and cents.
At this point, you may be thinking, "But Dr. Brady, you don't know my child. He can't even get to school on time, much less become an example of altruism." Well, here's a chance to prove me wrong. My experience has convinced me that almost any child can become a sensitive, caring individual.
The key is to live your values rather than to lecture about them - and to value your child for who he is.
This article comes from the June/July 2006 issue of ADDitude.