Love, Actually! The Feedback Your Child Needs Most
Research shows that the most effective therapy for kids with ADHD is endorsing, supporting, and loving who they are, no matter what.
It is one of life’s great ironies that our sense of self comes mostly from others.
As children, we learn who we are and how we are valued by the feedback we receive from other people. If we do something and others respond with warmth, admiration, and pleasure, we think of that action as reflecting the good part of ourselves. If, on the other hand, we do something and it is met with disapproval or withdrawal of love, we have been bad and we must not do it again.
How Kids with ADHD Are Perceived and Judged
There are three basic ways in which this feedback loop goes wrong for children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). The first is that kids with ADHD rarely behave the same way consistently enough to get a consistent stream of feedback. Sometimes they are empathic and other times self-absorbed. If they find something interesting, they can achieve anything but they cannot do 20 minutes of homework without a meltdown. It can be hard to develop a singular sense of self while evoking contradictory feedback.
The second way things go wrong is when children receive feedback based on neurotypical expectations. While neurodiverse children are trying to discover themselves and what the world values in them, there is a fire hose of feedback telling them they should be like other children. The world tells them that having ADHD means they have “bad brains” and belong on the short bus.
These expectations are often expressed with questions that start with “Why.” “Why” questions demand a justification for failure or falling short: “Why did you get a D when you are smart enough to get an A?” or “Why did you do something so impulsive when you’ve already made this same mistake before?” Parents and others may not say it in so many words, but “Why” questions make a statement that says, “You are not the child I wanted or expected.” Pressure to conform to neurotypical expectations leads to shame. If guilt is the painful gut feeling about what we have done, then shame is that same feeling about who we are. Shame is the only emotion that wants to stay hidden.
The third way that feedback goes awry is based in the wiring of the ADHD nervous system. A child with ADHD can do anything when he or she is interested, but can’t get engaged with tasks based on their importance, which is key to the neurotypical nervous system. The inability to do what a situation demands is the single biggest problem of having an ADHD nervous system. People with ADHD discover that they can substitute urgency for importance, waiting until the last moment to meet a deadline.
The Essential Rx for Growing Up Happy and Confident
So, given all of this, what should we do for our children with ADHD? As parents, teachers, counselors, friends, and families, here are some invaluable ways we can be helpful to our diverse children.
- We must give them feedback that is loving, consistent, and accurate.
- We must be aware of the power of our words to heal or to wound our children.
- We must be patient with our loved ones. Establishing a sense of self is a process that usually takes decades to accomplish. We must keep our eyes on the prize that, at times, may seem out of reach.
- We must become cheerleaders for our children. Families with lots of financial and emotional resources have an easier time of doing this. They can pay for assessments, tutors, therapy, and private schools. Resources are not, however, as important as they might seem. Having an advocate for the child and adult with ADHD is more important. It would be great if the advocates were two parents, but they can include anyone — a teacher, a grandparent, a coach, or youth leader. The advocate always remembers that the child with ADHD is a good person who tries hard. The advocate believes in the innate goodness and worthiness of the child. The advocate does not let the child fight the battle alone.
- Children with ADHD do not need anyone to point out their shortcomings. They have plenty of that. They need someone to catch them doing something right. They need someone to be the vessel that holds the memory of them as a good, hardworking, lovable person, even when they themselves have lost that vision. They need someone who says, “I know you are a good and capable person. Something is standing in your way to keep you from achieving what you want to accomplish. We are going to work together to figure it out and overcome it.”
- We must let our children know that we will love them and respect them as they are, in all of their glorious difference. This is the only weapon we have to fight the shame children feel about who they are. We have to “come out of the closet” about who we are. In doing so, we find that we are not alone. There are a lot of people going through our struggles, and we can gain guidance and support from them. This is why communities like ADDA, CHADD and ADDitude are valuable.
- We must build communities in which we can safely tell our stories and hear others’ stories. This is where pride comes from, and pride is the only antidote to shame.
WILLIAM W. DODSON, M.D., LF-APA, is a board-certified adult psychiatrist who has specialized in adults with ADHD for the last 25 years. Dr. Dodson has been on the faculties of Georgetown University and the University of Colorado Health Sciences Center. He has a private practice in Greenwood Village, Colorado. He is also a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Specialist Panel.