Self Esteem

It’s a Man’s World — But Not If You Have ADHD

Boys with ADHD would do well to learn a few lessons from their female counterparts, says this ADHD expert. Here, he offers tips on how to help your boy work hard and do what it takes to succeed.

A little boy makes a silly face — it's always comedy hour around him.
A little boy makes a silly face — it's always comedy hour around him.

As a nation, we should be proud of our young women. They’re the granddaughters of feminism — whether they realize it or not — and they’ve struggled for equality.

Women now account for 60 percent of U.S. college graduations. They enter college at a higher rate than men and drop out less often. Girls get higher grades than boys in middle and high school, and they report liking school more. Women and girls haven’t broken through every glass ceiling, but they’re on their way.

Boys are raised to operate under the old rules of male entitlement, which isn’t turning out so well. In my office, this is apparent among the ADHD crowd. When I compare male and female clients of equal ability or disability, girls with ADHD outperform boys hands down. Girls seem empowered by an idea we’ve ingrained in our daughters — work harder and better, or you’ll be trampled by men on the road of life.

Boys get a very different message from society. It’s confusing and hard for them to decipher, because American society isn’t clear about what it means to be male. What boys seem to hear is, “You’re a guy. You’ve got it made.” That’s a dangerous message for anyone to hear, and for boys with attention deficit, who are neurologically prone to cutting corners, it’s worse.

The secret to raising stronger boys is to observe what has worked in raising a generation of successful, self-reliant girls, and to adopt that model in raising our sons. Teach boys to work hard for what they get in life, and to expect nothing to be handed to them that they have not earned. When your son has ADHD, double down on that formula.

[Download: Your Free Guide to Debunking Annoying ADHD Myths]

Here are a few guidelines that I’ve developed over 24 years of clinical practice. Parents can apply them at any point in their son’s life, but the sooner you start, the better the outcome will be.

1. Master beneficence. Give in a way that helps your son become more successful and independent. Too many families give sons too much stuff (toys, phones, money, cars, video games, trips, tuition) with no clear expectations in return. Then they wonder why their sons grow up feeling and acting entitled.

Parents of kids with ADHD are prone to indulgence, perhaps because they feel sorry for their child, want to give him an edge over non-ADHD kids, or think high expectations are more trouble for kids with attention deficit than they’re worth. Instead, expect your son to live as you do, by the sweat of his brow, so he learns the value of money, and the effort it takes to get what you want in life.

2. Don’t enable him. The opposite of beneficence is enabling, and it comes in all shapes and sizes. You may be enabling your son by doing too much for him, by not setting high expectations, or by failing to reward and punish behavior. Enabling can mean overlooking dishonesty or poor treatment of others, paying off bad debt, or letting ADHD become an excuse rather than an explanation. Accountability is important in raising all kids. It is the core element of parenting kids with ADHD.

[The Danger of “Boys Will Be Boys”]

3. Treat video games as dessert. I was an early gamer, back when a couple hours of play took a roll of quarters. In the 35 years since, I’ve come to see the cost of free, unlimited video play, and it’s high. ADHD boys love this technology because video games are all give and no take. Parents are enamored of games because many use them as an electronic babysitter.

Unfortunately, most games give players the cognitive and emotional sensation of having accomplished something great without having accomplished anything. This plays straight into the neurology of ADHD boys, who like exciting, easy, cost-free solutions, leading to overplaying and distraction from (or avoidance of) life tasks. From the first day your son holds a controller in his hand, teach him that gaming is like dessert — a great way to round out a healthy meal — and regulate and limit game play as you would ration a chocolate cake.

4. Sign him up for family therapy. When it comes to treatment, it’s best to engage boys and young men in a family-based therapy — with the client and, preferably, both parents. I’ve seen exceptions, but most ADHD boys are doers, not talkers, so one-on-one talk therapy isn’t their bag.

If your boy wants to have individual sessions, ask him to hold that thought until his life is reorganized in family therapy. This works well for reluctant or non-talkative boys because it requires little of them. For the young adult crowd, “family” may mean dating partners or close friends, who should also be included to maximize success. How much do I believe in this approach? I don’t accept any young men in individual therapy for ADHD until after the family phase is complete.

[About a Boy (and Teen) with ADHD]

Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., is a member of the ADDitude ADHD Medical Review Panel.