Over the winter break, I had the honor of speaking to and leading an ADHD workshop with the parent support group at The Charles Armstrong School in Belmont, CA. The parent group invited me to speak having learned about my work as an advocate for young people with ADHD, and having read my guide - Embracing Your ADHD.
The Charles Armstrong School is a private school that educates young students with dyslexia, ADHD, and other learning disabilities. For the parents, my workshop provided an opportunity to better understand what young people with ADHD, or ADDYTeens as I call us, experience and need from their parents. Consider that explaining ADHD to someone who does not have it is a bit like trying to describe the scent of a rose to someone who has never seen a flower.
What ADDYTeens experience with "their ADHD" is complex and difficult to articulate and explain. Happily, I was able to enlighten these two dozen parents by sharing my findings and observations about students with ADHD, their habits, behaviors and needs for academic achievements.
Not every ADDYTeen has a parent with ADHD. For those without ADHD, especially parents of ADDYTeens, understanding and relating to this disorder can be challenging and often frustrating. Sadly, ADDYTeens are often unhappy, ashamed of their condition and reticent to talk, and this may be frightening to parents. Parents, finding it challenging to manage your own emotions regarding your ADDYTeen is really not something to be ashamed of. Each parent in the workshop wants to help their ADDYTeens cope and thrive with their unique mind and way of learning, but sometimes "helping" can unintentionally make matters worse.
The Charles Armstrong parents all experienced this first hand, and they worry for their kids; they want them to be successful and happy. So, to help the Charles Armstrong Parent Group and those of you reading this blog post, I put together a "Top 10 List" of things ADDYTeens really want their parents to understand.
Be Candid, be Honest. Parents of ADDYTeens need to have candid communication with their children. Parents should explain that living, learning and thriving with a disability will be challenging but not impossible, like it may seem at times. Sugar coating your child's difficulties and limitations is not productive. If your kid had Asthma or needed a hearing aid, you would not hesitate to be candid with your kid that they had to adapt to their circumstances. Rather than avoiding such conversations, I suggest a proactive tactic to focus on how you as a family can work on improving their ability to cope and thrive with their ADHD through new habits and skills.
We are ALL Unique: ADHD manifests differently in every ADDYTeen. You can see I tend to write "their ADHD" when referring to any one person. Each ADDYTeen is different and has a distinctive set of skills, strengths and weaknesses. Some of us are more hyper, some more inattentive (I'm both), and that manifests differently by person. It is not wise to "generalize" about ADHD with your ADDYTeen, but to help your child discover and then articulate what "works" best for them. Ultimately, ADDYTeens need to advocate for themselves and articulate what they need to teachers, to administrators and in life generally speaking.
ADHD is not ALL Bad. Simply put, having ADHD is not a "good" thing, and candidly it's no picnic. That said, every disorder creates limitations - and also opens up new opportunities for enlightenment, creativity, performance and capabilities. Yes, there is a huge stigma affecting ADDYTeens. Having cognitive and behavioral disadvantages that characterize ADHD often brings with it a sense of shame. We tend only to focus on the negative and not the positive qualities of ADHD. ADDYTeens are creative and talented, empathetic and inventive, energetic and highly verbal. Finding stimulating activities is a crucial part of enabling ADDYTeens to find their passion and help identify some constructive habits. There are many high achieving ADDYTeens, who like me succeed because not despite their ADHD. I am a stronger, more capable person because I have been forced to adapt to my ADHD, and those in the Parents Group attending my workshop made clear to me that they also want their ADDYTeens to be more open about their ADHD.
We ALL Run our own Race: Each ADDYTeen is running their own race in life. Its very dangerous for your ADDYTeen to compare themselves to kids without ADHD, and it's imperative you as parents do not do this either. Having ADHD is like running a foot race when you are the only runner wearing a giant backpack filled with rocks. Clearly, winning is unlikely if you define winning only as coming in "first". On the other hand, if you define winning as competing in a challenge and completing that challenge, then two things become clear. First, it doesn't matter which student in their class comes in "first" or has the best grades or academic achievements. Second, it's not possible to ever win if you do not "suit up" for the race. You can help your ADDYTeen redefine what winning really means in life - what it means to be brave and courageous. Help your ADDYTeen suit up for life's challenges and show courage by racing knowing others may come in first. We all run our own race. Help your ADDYTeen understand that winning means doing their personal best and they have to take ownership in setting their bar high so they can get big wins. I am running my own race, none of my friends have published a guide of any type, let alone one already read by thousands worldwide. My friends were not invited to speak at the Charles Armstrong school. They may have scored higher on the SAT, but that in only one measure of success.
ADDYTeens have Emotions on Steroids: ADDYTeens have a hard time articulating their thoughts and feelings and learning how to do so will at first be overwhelming and stressful. Similarly, ADDYTeens have a hard time regulating their emotions, as any parent of an ADDYTeen already knows. I like to say that we ADDYTeens have "emotions on steroids" because we not only feel many emotions at once, but each feeling is amplified. Recognizing that you are not the target of all of these emotions will help you relationship with your ADDYTeen. Also make note: medication can affect emotions and paying attention to this will help improve family harmony.
ADHD is not Temporary: ADHD is biological, its part of one's physiology, it is not something you grow out of but ADHD is something you can learn to manage. How you learn, act, think and live changes over time as you mature and grow. Like freckles that fade over time, ADHD is a part of you but can become less dominant in your life as you learn to cope. Using self- care techniques, organizational skills, and coping mechanisms enables a person with ADHD to better manage their ADHD. Once your ADDYTeen learns what adaptations work, their ADHD becomes more manageable, so much so that you are able to thrive regardless of how your brain works. When ADHD is not actively managed or worse still disregarded, it will take over your life. As I like to say, you are not your disorder! With proper adaptation, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and love and support from parents, ADHD is completely manageable and can become an orderly disorder.
Control the Controllables: As an elite goalkeeper traveling the state for tournaments, I learned quickly that I was not going to stop every ball and mistakes would be made on the field. I learned that with ADHD, there is a great similarity. My advice to both ADDYTeens and their parents is this: do what you can, when you can, to the best of your abilities. Whatever is left can be put on the back burner and can be tackled another day.
Boundaries are Helpful, Structure is Great: ADDYTeens will grow to appreciate structure and time management as a powerful and proactive approach to coping with ADHD. For those of us who are easily distracted, it is really vital to set goals and organize your time in and out of school. Time management is a major form of adaption since ADHD is characterized by challenges with executive functions. Time management helps like a brace on your injured knee, it's a form of support and reduces stress. Help your child plan for his or her future, one hour, day, week, month or a year at a time.Working with your child to set goals is a core aspect of creating opportunities for achievement. Experiencing successes leads to more success. Experiencing failure can lead to more failure and a lost spirit to "suit up". It is vital to create an understanding with your child that structure and forming good habits reduces stress. Thus, video games, TV, phones, and other distractions really need to be limited to ensure your child uses their time and energy wisely.
Medication fosters Adaptation: Medication enables your child to adapt to their hyperactivity or inattentiveness, but it does not "cure" ADHD. I like to say that medication is 30% of the solution, adaption is 70%. Medication allows your child to get on the same "level" as their peers without ADHD, but requires an extra effort, that 70%, to really thrive and hold their own to achieve success. Medication works well for me, but it's not "easy" as it has side effects (such as feeling edgy, loss of appetite, etc.) so it's good to find a balance that works for your child. I have adjusted my medication many times and now have a better sense of when I need it and when I can go without it. Parents: it's very important for you to be candid with your kids when explaining that medication is useful in many cases, and there is no stigma to taking it. If your kid has Asthma, you would not hesitate to get an inhaler for them, would you? If you think ADHD and Asthma have a fundamentally different affect on your kid's daily life, then you may not really understand what your kid is experiencing.
Be Parents, not Teachers or Coaches. What your ADDYTeen needs most of all is for you to love, support, accept them and help them find the environment and resources to perform at their personal best. Trying to teach or instruct your ADDYTeen is not typically effective and may harm your relationship. Playing too many roles -- other than loving and supporting Parent -- reduces your effectiveness in helping your child achieve and adapt to their ADHD. Explain to your kid that extra help is more than okay, it's great! Tutors, teachers and older students are available to help your kid with classwork and homework and coping socially. Finding a positive role model for your ADDYTeen will help them accept and ultimately embrace their ADHD, and this will reduce the shame or stigma of having ADHD. As I mentioned to the group, everyone in Alameda High School knew I had ADHD, they also knew I was Yearbook Editor in Chief, played Goalkeeper and was a diligent student. I felt support from my family and that gave me great confidence. Most everyone and certainly every teacher I have at the University of Puget Sound also knows I have ADHD. I feel absolutely no shame or stigma knowing I have a unique mind.
Much of this information is covered in my guide, Embracing Your ADHD, which is available for free on my website www.ADDYTeen.com. If you have questions, or would like me to speak at your school, send me an email. If you like this post or my others, share it with your family and friends.
We ADDYTeens need to spark a conversation, make sure we stand up for ourselves and not feel shame in how our bodies developed. You can adapt to and thrive with your ADHD, but you have to suit up if you want to win your race.