“My ADHD Looks Nothing Like Your ADHD”
Our family of five includes five distinct and different ADHD diagnoses. Where one son is exploding with energy, another is lost in his thoughts. Where one reacts to frustration with overt anger, another internalizes the emotions, which festers into shame. What this means: Your assumptions about ADHD aren’t helpful; the only way to manage it is by listening to your child.
All three of my sons have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD). So do both of their parents. And most of their friends. (Kids with ADHD tend to get one another and bond.) All of this is to say I’ve seen a lot of ADHD manifestations in my time and I’ve come to realize something important: No two cases of ADHD are alike.
What works for one child with ADHD may not click with another. The ADHD accommodations that save one child at school may be unnecessary for another. The triggers, the hiccups, the challenges, and the strengths may vary so wildly in my three boys that you’d never guess they were brothers. As parents and educators, of course we need to research the diagnoses, read the textbooks, and search our support communities for answers. But, most importantly, we need to look at the individual child.
Some Children with ADHD Need to Move
Some children can’t pay attention standing still. Literally. They cannot absorb information unless they’re bouncing, fidgeting, kicking, wandering, or jumping up and down. These kids benefit from bouncy chairs, from rubber bands stretched cross their desk legs for kicking, or from open classrooms that allow them to move when they need to (otherwise, their pencils tend to break with startling frequency, and they visit the pencil sharpener every 10 minutes).
I went through a hyperactive phase in my teenage years, and it was brutal. To this day, I listen better with a fidget toy in my hands.
Some Children with ADHD Just Seem Dreamy
My middle son is a bouncer. My oldest just wanders off, looks out the window, or spaces out. I’m the same way. This brand of inattentive ADHD is often the most difficult to recognize, because these kids don’t disrupt anything. They aren’t causing a ruckus or bothering people. It’s only around test time, when they may not know all the answers, that they seem to be “underperforming.” You’d underperform, too, if you couldn’t pay attention long enough to absorb the information or to focus on the test.
Some Children with ADHD Can’t Control Their Temper, Which Stems from Poor Impulse Control
My oldest has impulse-control problems that cause him to lose his temper in rather spectacular ways. He freaks out when he’s hungry or thirsty or upset, and he refuses to back down. I also have trouble calming down once I lose my temper. My husband, on the other hand, very rarely loses his. This difficulty with self-regulation can cause major behavioral issues in the classroom, where a child with these symptoms might be branded the “bad kid,” not a child who’s neurologically unable to control their emotions, and needs space to learn how.
Some Children with ADHD Cannot Deal with Failure
My oldest bounces back quickly. My middle son simply cannot cope with any type of failure. To him, it smacks of rejection and triggers his Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria, a common symptom of ADHD that’s too often misunderstood. I had to teach him to read three separate times because of the tears and tantrums that came when he couldn’t properly pronounce letters right on the first try. This can also cause a lot of trouble in the classroom, where teachers don’t have the time to guide each child through his strong emotions.
I never had this problem;. When failure upset me, I would silently beat myself up badly, but I was too afraid of the consequences not to try again. My middle son simply becomes paralyzed and refuses to try. In a traditional school setting, he could fail simply because his ADHD brain shuts down.
Some Children with ADHD Thrive on Structure. Others Need the Opposite.
My husband and I both did very well in strict schools that demanded formal procedures, including prescribed ways of writing down homework, covering books, making headings, etc. — plus dire, clear, outlined consequences for not completing work neatly and on time. This strict adherence to order, which everyone followed, became a kind of accommodation for us.
My sons get rapidly bored and frustrated with too much structure. They need, instead, plenty of time outdoors to run, lessons they choose based on their own interests, and space to stretch out — not children in uniforms lined up in neat rows. In which environment — structured or unstructured — will your child best thrive and grow? You can answer this only by knowing your child and understanding his or her needs.
Some Children with ADHD Learn Great from Screens. Others… Not So Much.
Some ADHD brains thrive on screen time: the dynamic medium fires neurons in their brains that help them maintain interest and retain information. Learning from a screen actually helps them learn better. My oldest and middle sons work this way. Computers have been a blessing for them, as have YouTube documentaries.
My youngest, on the other hand, gets too attached to screen time. Flat-out dependent. When devices are taken from him, he weeps and throws tantrums. Six months later, he still asks for the mediocre math game we used for a while, which didn’t work very well (hence the mediocre). He can’t use screens to learn, and if he does, they can’t be game-based. On the other hand, board games do wonders for him.
Some Children with ADHD Hyperfocus to an Astounding Degree
My oldest and I hyperfocus deeply — to the point of blocking out the world and missing time. My middle son and his best friend merely develop obsessions that span days or weeks or maybe even months. My youngest only hyperfocuses, so far, on two things: screens and board games.
Michael Phelps hyperfocuses on swimming. My husband hyperfocuses on reading — and develops obsessions with other things. Figure out what triggers or inspires your child’s hyperfocus and to what degree they sink in, and try to harness it. It can be a big help when figuring out accommodations in school.
Some Children with ADHD Do All of the Above — That Doesn’t Mean They Are Intentionally Trying to Bait, Anger, Frustrate, or Disappoint You
Your child has a neurological disorder that causes them to act in certain ways. Those ways may vary. But regardless of how your child’s ADHD manifests, those symptoms are not your child’s fault. Don’t shame them. And by that I mean, don’t ever say things like, “Why don’t you pay attention when I talk to you?” or “Why can’t you try harder?” or “You’re so smart; why don’t you do better?”
If there’s one thing every child with ADHD shares in common, it’s this: they know they’re different, and they’re trying their best to fit in.
They need a supportive family to stand behind them. By knowing your child well, you support them in their journey to become a fully functional, happy, and healthy adult with ADHD. So consider the manuals, the diagnoses, and the doctors. Then listen to your child.
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Updated on October 1, 2020