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The Big Heart Approach to ADHD Acceptance & Self-Love

“Children with ADHD grow up thinking or being told they are ‘too much,’ annoying, lazy, unmotivated, not living up to their potential, difficult, frustrating, or strange. These labels and interactions with others become the basis for identity and sense of self for an adult with ADHD.”

In my career as a psychologist, I have worked with many distressed parents who have come to my office seeking help for tantrums, behavioral explosions, and moments of intense conflict. These exhausted and worried parents describe their child with ADHD as out of control, defiant, disinterested, or even manipulative. When I look at the little person or lanky teen slumped over next to the grown-ups in the room, I typically observe a range of emotions flash across their face: shame, sadness, anger, or a detached numbness to name a few.

These children have heard themselves described this way before.

The parents in my office love these children deeply and are overwhelmed, worried, sad, and confused. Much of the time, their children feel the same way — except they are beginning to carry the burden of shame about who they are and how others’ view them. This is the moment when I introduce a child with ADHD and their parent to the Big Heart discussion. It goes something like this:

Dr. Suzanne: “I am so glad that you are here because I know exactly what is going on. Let me share with you my guess and see what you think. It sounds to me like your child has a very big heart. He or she is sensitive, cares deeply, and can be reactive or get upset with themselves or you when things don’t seem to go well. It is so hard to have such a big and tender heart and to feel things so deeply. It can make you a wonderful friend, a loving brother or sister, and someone so special to be around. But, at times, it can cause a lot of pain and hurt.”

As Henry David Thoreau once said, “It is not what you look at that matters, it is what you see.” In the world of ADHD, Dr. Ned Hallowell encourages families to look beyond the challenging ADHD symptoms and see the “mirror traits,” or the positive aspects of the symptoms associated with ADHD. For example, while many individuals with ADHD “look” and act hyperactive, they can also be “seen” as energetic. Instead of being labelled stubborn, a girl or woman can be “seen” as persistent. A young man can struggle with impulsivity while also being “seen” as creative and spontaneous. Depending on where we stand, we can see different things in the mirror — and in our children.

Children and teens with ADHD, even when given a proper diagnosis and support, typically grow up hearing a significant amount of negative feedback as they navigate school, activities, friendships, and family relationships. They are told by themselves or others that they are “too much,” annoying, lazy, unmotivated, not living up to their potential, difficult, frustrating, or strange. These labels and interactions with others become the basis for identity and sense of self for an adult with ADHD. Learning to love, understand, and accept yourself is an important part of every human’s development, but adults with ADHD may have to work harder and be encouraged to do this in a more focused and systematic way.

[Additional Reading: Your Child’s Self Esteem Matters: 8 Confidence Builders for Kids with ADHD]

Below are some simple steps to help anyone with ADHD cultivate self-acceptance and self-love:

  1. Be a gentle observer. Pay attention in your daily life to how your ADHD impacts you in both challenging and helpful ways. Try to use non-judgmental language to help you observe yourself, your struggles, and your successes. By becoming a better observer, you will learn to notice and accept the multiple facets of who you are with less fear and shame.
  2. Notice judgments and shift the mirror. If you notice that you are identifying mostly negative and unpleasant things about yourself, review the list of mirror traits described by Dr. Hallowell. Do you need to shift the mirror and look at yourself from a different angle? Would a caring friend or family member have something different to say about some of those ADHD traits or about you?
  3. Do the work of self-love and acceptance — it is a practice and not a quick fix. You may have received varying amounts of negative feedback throughout your entire life. One self-help book, a day of using mantras, or memorizing the mirror traits list will not be enough. You need to put in the work each day of trying to find ways in which you can appreciate yourself and your strengths. Our brains are wired to review the negative at the end of each day. Try something different: make a list of a few things each day that make you feel good, proud, or happy. Try reviewing that list prior to going to bed vs. the typical “what went wrong during the day” list.
  4. Educate yourself and others. It is not necessarily your job to be the educator and advocate to the world for ADHD. But by having the awareness of your neurobiology and being willing to frame your actions within the context of your ADHD you decide your own narrative and how you share yourself with the world. In this way, you may become less of a victim to other people’s negative interpretations and judgments and pave the way for kinder and more accurate interpretations of yourself and others. And couldn’t we all use a little more kindness and understanding?[Read This: How to Cultivate Self-Love]
  5. Find your people. Whenever you have an opportunity to meet and befriend others with ADHD in person or online, go for it! There are lots of great TEDx speakers, bloggers, and YouTubers sharing their perspectives and experiences with ADHD. Together you can laugh, share stories, and validate both the positive and challenging aspects of having an ADHD brain.
  6. Find the space where you can be you. Whether it is on the sports field, in an art or music studio, online, or on stage… it doesn’t matter. Find a place where you can just be you — creative, disorganized, energetic, emotional, hyperactive, impulsive or spontaneous — without having to apologize or explain yourself.

ADHD Self-Love: Next Steps

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