“If I don’t try, I can’t fail!” and “If I can’t do it right, why bother at all?” are common refrains I hear from ADHD kids who come into my office. What is this unwillingness to try really about? Laziness, boredom, self-criticism? No, I don’t believe so. When children and teens with ADHD don’t want to make efforts or take risks, it’s usually because they have too limiting beliefs about themselves. Either they think they mostly fail and want to avoid more defeats or they think that it’s not acceptable for them to make mistakes. In both cases, the result is inaction.
Kids with ADHD usually have grown up with a series of negative comments about that are labeled “constructive feedback.” Actually these statements feel anything but constructive. One 10 year-old boy told me “There’s nothing good about feedback. It’s usually bad.” Even parental or teacher redirections are interpreted by kids and their concrete thinking as them being wrong, bad or improper. Avoidance and perfectionism can then emerge as coping mechanisms.
Children and especially teens with ADHD can be expert avoiders. Tired of feeling wrong or doing poorly in school more often than not, they just give up. Perfectionism in kids with ADHD usually comes from feeling like they are never good enough. It can stop them from starting anything, especially writing, before they even begin. Sometimes they will agonize for hours which will delay them even more. How can we keep your sons and daughters engaged and willing to attempt things?
- Acknowledge past mistakes as something that happened but aren’t who they are. Since learning means messing up, regrouping and doing things anyway, investigate the details of what occurred with the original mistake.
- Ask questions with no blame and a neutral tone of voice like you are a detective: “What happens when you sit down for a test in biology? I saw you study at home. . . What might have helped you before the test that you now know based on your experience?”
- Break tasks down into smaller, more manageable parts. When something seems overwhelming, difficult or uninteresting, start small. Together, choose some fun activities that can be used as incentives. “Instead of creating all 5 paragraphs of your book report, let’s just work on the first one. Then we can play a game of cards and do the second.” Your assistance and even sometimes just your presence, can be the difference between doing nothing and starting something.
- Be open about the mistakes you make. Talk about them and what you did to deal with your errors. By doing this, you not only model your own flaws and problem-solving skills but also the shared human experience of having foibles in the first place.
- Practice self-forgiveness and accountability. Let your kids see how you do this and verbalize it for them as well. Watching you shows that they can do it too.
Addressing these challenges takes time. Be patient with yourself and your ADHD child or teen. If you notice that you are frustrated, take some space, regroup and try again later when you are calmer. Remember, any negativity from you about avoidance and perfectionism only make them stronger.