Pretend Play at School: Helping My ADHD Son Get Real

Q: "My eight-year-old son has a vivid imagination—he loves to pretend he is a pirate, a superhero, or a dinosaur. I’ve never worried about his pretend play, until his teacher said he was doing it a lot in her classroom. I’ve always loved his creative little mind, and I thought he would just outgrow it. What should I do?"
The Experts | posted by Michele Novotni, Ph.D.
girls drawing together

Help your child hold onto his creativity when the outside world says enough is enough.

Michelle Novotni, Ph.D.

A: Children and adults with attention deficit disorder are creative, out-of-the-box thinkers. But there are limits. As a parent, you should answer the following questions:

1) Does your ADHD child know the difference between pretend and reality? If the answer is no, have him evaluated by a psychologist/psychiatrist to rule out the possibility of a thought disorder.

2) Is your child able to read the social cues to know when and where it is appropriate to pretend? If not, help him figure out when creative play is acceptable.

Sharpening his ability to pick up on social cues is also important for his success in the classroom and at home. This way, he will be able to determine when a classmate or a teacher finds his super-hero antics inappropriate or confusing.

A good exercise is to have your son watch people's faces on TV, with the volume off. Ask him to identify their emotions. Start with "happy," "sad," and "mad" and branch out to "annoyed," "frustrated," and "impatient." Also do a "social autopsy" after he plays with friends or visits with family to help him pick up on cues he may have missed.

Remember that many kids with ADHD may exhibit a developmental delay of two to three years. So while his intense fascination with Batman and the Green Hornet may be different from most eight-year-olds, it is appropriate for a child of five or six.

Encouraging your child's creativity while teaching him where and when to exercise it is a balancing act for parents. I remember a poem a child wrote after being punished for not coloring "correctly" at school. She colored the grass purple, the sky yellow, and the sun pink. She was proud of her work, but the teacher reprimanded her for choosing unrealistic colors. In her poem, she wrote about how difficult it was to follow the teacher's directions. "It felt like all my creativity was being wrung out of me."

Your job — and it's a tough one — is to help your child hold onto his creativity when the outside world says enough is enough.

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