Comeback Kids: Getting Through the Middle School Years
Seven strategies to help parents teach their ADHD children how to bounce back from challenges with resilience and confidence.
The middle-school years can be tough for any kid, but the typical tween issues like building social skills and getting homework done are often worse for a child with attention deficit disorder (ADHD), dyslexia, or other learning disabilities.
Take Zachary Norton, a pre-teen ADHD student who hit a wall in the sixth grade, when academic demands increased and his feeling of social alienation worsened. He had always struggled with reading comprehension but he suddenly found it much more challenging to organize and complete writing assignments. But for this ADHD child, worst of all was bullying and teasing from classmates at school.
“There was a group of kids who were relentless, calling him ‘shrimp,’ because of his size, and rejecting him every time he tried to play with them,” recalls his mom, Sally Norton, a hairdresser in Norco, California. “He would come home and berate himself. I’d hear him in his room telling himself how he’d never be good at anything. It just broke my heart.”
Things turned around in seventh grade, when Zachary enrolled in a special intervention class, in which kids teamed up to help resolve each other’s problems. He had a chance to shine — and discovered that he wasn’t the only one who was struggling socially. His mom helped out, too, by using homework strategies that have helped many kids with dyslexia or ADHD. When he wasn’t grasping written material, she read the text aloud to him — and he absorbed it more easily. Zachary seemed to bounce back from his problems and developed a feeling of competence.
The good news is that other kids with ADHD can bounce back as well. And that you can help. How? By teaching your child to be resilient, says Robert Brooks, Ph.D., psychologist on the staff of Harvard Medical School and coauthor of Raising Resilient Children (McGraw-Hill). According to Brooks, resilient children have skills and feelings in common. They feel appreciated. They can set goals and empathize with others. These skills and feelings help them succeed when others may be derailed by self-doubt. Here’s how you can develop the quality of resilience in your child.
1. Focus on His Strengths
Resilient kids are aware of their weaknesses, but they look past them and focus on their strengths. It’s their strengths that buoy them during the tough times, when they are teased or when they fail a test. It’s hard for ADHD children to focus on their strengths when they are often reminded of their shortcomings. That’s why it’s important for parents to help ADD kids build self-esteem through constructive and consistent praise.
“By focusing on your child’s strengths — or what I call ‘islands of competence’ — you’re not letting ADHD define your child,” says Brooks. “Your child should see himself as someone who has areas impaired by ADHD, but also as someone who has areas of competence. I tell kids that all of us are better at some things than others — some people run fast, some people run slow; some read fluently, others stumble over words. The key is working on our weaknesses while exercising the things we’re good at.”
After years of misbehaving on the school playground and zoning out in class, Calvin Marshall, now 13, of La Habra, California, was diagnosed with ADHD at age nine. Although some things have improved since his diagnosis-he has developed a couple of close friendships — his mom, Wendy Marshall, makes a point of acknowledging his strengths. “Calvin is a master at remembering where I parked the car at the mall,” she says. “It’s a simple thing, but I can’t remember and he can. He’s great at reading maps, too. Whenever we go to the zoo or an amusement park, I hand him the map and he gets us where we need to go.”
Calvin is also insightful about his friends and is very patient with younger children. “He just earned a merit badge in Boy Scouts by teaching the Tiger Cub Scouts about fossils, something that fascinates him,” says his mom. Reminding Calvin of what he does well boosts his self-confidence.
2. Give Credit for Her Successes
Even after children find things they’re good at, they may be reluctant to acknowledge their own successes. Always look for opportunities to place credit where credit is due — squarely on your child’s shoulders.
“Children with ADHD often have low self-esteem, so, when they’re successful at something, they typically say, ‘Oh, I just got lucky,'” says Brooks. “But if they don’t take the credit they deserve, they may not feel equipped to tackle a tough problem the next time out.”
Despite her struggles at school, Alex Dupont, 17, is a talented artist and a superb swimmer with a strong work ethic. After years of being pulled out of class and reprimanded for bad behavior, “Alex hates drawing attention, even if it’s for positive reasons,” says her mom, Andrea, who works in real estate in Syosset, New York.
Andrea makes sure Alex knows she is responsible for her successes. “Alex has achieved pretty good grades throughout high school, without special-education services,” says Dupont. “She’s starting to apply to colleges on her own, and I’m sure that, once she graduates and gets a job, she will outshine everybody. And I tell her so.”
“If your ADHD children dismiss their successes, or say that they were just lucky, you can help by honestly telling them what they did well,” says Brooks. “Say something like, ‘You succeeded because you worked hard.’ Let your kids know they have the ability to succeed.”
3. Help Him Solve a Problem
Every time you say, “You should have tried harder,” or “You’re not concentrating enough,” or “Why can’t you be more like so-and-so?” you’re setting up your child to fail. A better approach? Turn a mistake into an opportunity to teach problem-solving.
Knowing how to find solutions is a key component of the resilient mindset. Instead of critiquing your child, work with him. You might say, “I see you’re having trouble focusing or staying in control. Maybe we can figure out what will work.”
“Let your child know you’re willing to help him with problem-solving,” says Brooks. “That offers him hope.”
When Zach Norton was teased by his classmates in sixth grade, his mom role-played social scenarios with him, figuring out strategies to deal with verbal abuse. Their solution? Composing smart responses to throw back at his tormentors. “It didn’t solve everything, but he no longer just sat there and took it,” she says.
4. Share Your Own Struggles
Let your children know about your struggles, so they don’t feel alone in theirs. You don’t have to share intimate details of marital squabbles, financial worries, or the promotion you didn’t get at work. But you can find age-appropriate ways to let your children know that you make mistakes and, sometimes, fail. Kids with ADHD face challenges every day, and, if everyone around them seems to be struggle-free, they’ll feel alone and incompetent.
“We often want to communicate only good things to our children,” says Margaret Beale Spencer, Ph.D., professor of applied psychology and human development at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. “But your kids learn how to deal with adversity by watching you do it.”
Wendy Marshall gave her son a closeup look at her less-than-perfect self recently, when they drove to see the space shuttle land at Edwards Air Force Base. “I’m on the freeway, it’s 5:15 a.m., and the shuttle was due to land at 5:30,” says Wendy. “I could see cars pulled over, but I said to Calvin, ‘We won’t pull over until we hear the sonic boom.’ Well, duh! Which travels faster-light or sound? We heard the sonic boom and pulled over, but the shuttle, of course, had already landed. I had made a stupid mistake and told him so. But we had a good time anyway. We saw a beautiful desert sunrise on our way, and had a terrific breakfast together on the way home. He saw me fail, but we both dealt with it.”
Brooks believes teachers can alleviate children’s fear of failure by admitting their own. “On the first day of school, I recommend that teachers ask the class, ‘Who thinks they’re going to make a mistake and not understand something this year?’ Before a child can raise his hand, the teacher raises hers. Letting kids know that everyone makes mistakes removes some of the fear attached to making them.”
5. Teach Her to Stick with It
You set the best example for your child by not giving up when confronting hurdles of your own-whether they be problems at work or advocating for your child at school. Often this is about not taking “no” for an answer. “Recently, we had to switch insurance plans, and the new insurer insisted that my daughter, Amanda [Stickley], could get her prescription from our family doctor, not the psychiatrist,” says Mary Godfrey, of Moore, South Carolina. “It took six months of negotiating, but we won the battle.”
“I let Amanda in on my struggles to help her,” says Mary. “I am always meeting with the school and teachers to make sure everyone is on the same page regarding any special accommodations that need to be made. Because she is aware that I’m working for her, and that I’m determined to find a solution, she’s learning about self-advocacy and never giving up.”
“Parents should impress on their kids that they will do anything to help them,” says Beale Spencer.
When Mary saw that her daughter lacked the confidence to make friends at school, she encouraged Amanda to take up a sport that she liked and, as it turned out, was good at-horseback riding. Her new hobby was a confidence booster, and it wasn’t long before Amanda befriended several classmates.
Lisa Kuhen-Murru, of Chagrin Falls, Ohio, went to the mat for her son, Brent. Teachers seemed to take joy in writing “poor effort” or “weak work” on Brent’s papers — even ones he’d worked on for hours. “I went to an IEP meeting,” says Lisa, “and showed the team what my son had written next to one of their comments: ‘Brent, you suck,’ next to a drawing of a sad face. That spoke volumes and no one wrote a nasty comment — just the number grade — on his work for the rest of the year.”
6. Help Your Child Help Others
Children with ADHD need people they can depend on, and they also need people who depend on them. “It’s enormously helpful for a child to feel useful, as a contributing member of his family,” says Suniya Luthar, Ph.D., professor of clinical and developmental psychology at Columbia University, who has studied resilience in different socioeconomic groups. “In fact, research shows that this is one way in which children of lower socioeconomic groups are more resilient than those in upper classes. They are asked to do chores, pitch in, do their part to keep the family afloat, all of which gives them a sense of competence.”
Beyond informal “helping out” at home or at school, community service makes kids feel needed and competent. “Research shows that a very important part of feeling resilient is making a positive difference in the lives of others,” says Brooks. “I’m a big advocate of things like walks for hunger and AIDS, especially for ADHD kids, who are naturally very active. They can collect money, set goals for themselves, and know that they did something good for others. That makes them feel more competent.”
7. Be There for Your Child
Let your child know you love her, believe in her, and want to help her. It sounds obvious, but reinforcing these feelings each day might be the single most important thing you can do to develop a resilient child.
“Every child needs at least one grownup who is deeply invested in his welfare,” says Luthar. “Coping skills, intelligence, and other qualities are important for resilience, but they rest on the assumption that someone is shoring up the child.”
While it’s good to be physically present when your child encounters a situation that he can’t deal with, it’s even better to instill rules and guidelines to use when you’re not there. When he finds himself in a difficult situation, he needs a foundation of appropriate behaviors to rely on.
“Scientists call it ‘monitoring,’ and kids call it ‘hassling,'” says Beale Spencer. “But being ‘hassled’ by your parents is a good thing.” Research has shown that, the more kids believe their parents are monitoring their behavior, the less likely they are to act inappropriately in difficult situations. This is especially important for kids with ADHD, who often retreat into a hard shell, or even become physically aggressive, due to the negative feedback they receive from teachers and classmates.
“When you’re advocating for your child, you’re demonstrating how to deal with issues without pushing, slapping, or hitting,” says Beale Spencer. “Your child learns by example how to deal with his problems.”
Although these strategies can help your child face the challenges of ADHD, don’t forget that he already has the most important thing he needs to become resilient: you.