By MARGARITA TARTAKOVSKY, M.S.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) impacts a person’s ability to focus on work or a project in order to get things done. Instead, a person with ADHD’s attention is divided, resulting in many people feeling like they’re just spinning their wheels.
The other month we looked at unsuccessful strategies for adults with ADHD.
This month experts reveal fruitless tactics for kids with ADHD. Some of these approaches aren’t just ineffective; they can exacerbate symptoms or impede progress.
1. Unsuccessful Strategy: Assuming ADHD is a motivation problem.
Some people assume that kids with ADHD are lazy or don’t have the motivation to work hard, according to Mark Bertin, MD, a board certified developmental behavioral pediatrician and author of The Family ADHD Solution. “There’s a subtle — or not so subtle — message that if [kids] tried harder or just got their act together, everything would be fine,” Dr. Bertin said.
However, as he said, ADHD is “no less volitional than someone with a learning disorder, a physical disability or even asthma or diabetes.” ADHD affects executive function, hindering impulse control, organization, focus, planning and time management, he said.
In fact, kids with ADHD often are working harder than others. “In reality, both parents and children managing ADHD are probably exhausted from the near constant effort to compensate.”
2. Unsuccessful Strategy: Not using the term ADHD.
Some parents worry that using the term ADHD will somehow hurt or stigmatize their child, according to Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D, a psychologist who treats ADHD and a clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “On the contrary, if you do not explain to them what ADHD is, someone else will,” he said. And, unfortunately, there are many damaging myths surrounding ADHD.
3. Unsuccessful Strategy: Lowering your expectations.
Kids with ADHD aren’t doomed or destined to be unsuccessful. As Olivardia said, “What would have happened if Michael Phelps’s mother lowered her expectations as to what her son could achieve? What if Thomas Edison’s parents followed his teachers’ advice that he was ‘too stupid to learn’?” Kids with ADHD can be successful students and have productive careers, he said. “The key is being mindful and strategic, getting proper treatment and support, and guiding them toward their passions.”
4. Unsuccessful Strategy: Expecting kids to fix themselves.
Kids with ADHD have a difficult time with decision-making and planning. So it’s unhelpful to expect a child to just figure it out, Bertin said. It’s important for kids – teens included — and parents to work together. For instance, therapy interventions that exclude parents may decelerate progress, he said. “Parents don’t cause ADHD and they aren’t doing anything wrong just because a child misbehaves, yet they are the driving force for change,” he said.
5. Unsuccessful Strategy: Removing recess or time outside.
Sometimes parents and teachers will punish kids with ADHD by restricting recess or outdoor time. But this is a bad idea. When a child is hyperactive or misbehaving, running around outside actually helps, Olivardia said. Research has found that when kids with ADHD spend time in natural environments, they’re calmer, can concentrate better and follow directions.
6. Unsuccessful Strategy: Relying on medication as a cure-all.
Medications are highly effective for treating ADHD. But they don’t work for everyone. “Some people’s bodies don’t tolerate them, and others don’t want to take them,” Bertin said. Comorbid diagnoses – which are common in ADHD — such as anxiety disorders or learning disabilities don’t respond to these medications, he said. They also don’t eliminate executive function issues. “Only a comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach to ADHD fully addresses the effects of this complex medical disorder,” he said.
7. Unsuccessful Strategy: Believing everything you read (or hear).
Myths about ADHD abound. And they can be harmful. For instance, the myth that poor parenting causes ADHD might dissuade parents from seeking treatment, Bertin said. “They avoid treatment because they are worried they’ll be judged for ‘medicating’ their children — although no one says families ‘medicate’ their kids when they treat an infection with antibiotics; even word choice matters,” he said.
8. Unsuccessful Strategy: Telling a child to stop fidgeting.
Fidgeting actually helps kids with ADHD focus, Olivardia said. For instance, maybe your child chews gum or shakes their leg, he said. “Finding a fidget that does not disrupt others should be the goal, not eliminating the fidgeting all together,” he said. Olivardia mentioned the book Fidget to Focus, which reveals the science of fidgeting.
9. Unsuccessful Strategy: Ignoring your needs.
ADHD doesn’t just affect the person diagnosed. It affects the entire family, Bertin said. “Parents of children with ADHD report higher levels of stress, anxiety, depression, marital strife, divorce, and lack of confidence in their own parenting skills,” he said. Practice good self-care and seek professional help when you need it, he said. “We need to take care of ourselves to be able to maintain long-term behavioral plans, flexible decision making, and to remain as wise and calm as possible throughout the day.”
Strategies that Do Work for Kids with ADHD
Educate kids about ADHD.
Let them know that this is simply how their brain is wired, Olivardia said. “It carries with it strengths, but also carries weaknesses and pitfalls, like any brain,” he said. Let them know about successful people with ADHD.
Focus on executive function.
According to Bertin, contrary to its name, ADHD goes beyond attention, hyperactivity or impulsivity. Again, it’s a disorder of executive function. (He’s written an extensive piece on this.) That’s why when thinking about a child’s challenges, he suggested asking the question: “How might executive function be involved?” “From not handing in projects to being overly reactive when angry, all the way to sleep problems or overeating, recognizing the impact of ADHD allows for targeted and more effective planning,” he said.
Focus on the positive.
Positive feedback is important for fostering a healthy self-image in kids, Bertin said. Praise kids for small successes, engage them in enjoyable activities and stress reward systems over punishment, when possible, he said. This doesn’t mean ignoring inappropriate behavior, not correcting problems or not guiding kids through certain tasks. But it does mean emphasizing positivity. “Meeting a child where they are developmentally [and] emphasizing positive experiences increases their motivation in the long run and cultivates both confidence and well-being,” Bertin said.