I have been working with kids and teens with ADHD for over 20 years and there is one constant that I have seen: every single person has a deep seated sense of shame about having ADHD and being ‘different’ from his or her peers. Sometimes this shame is obvious: your daughter can’t seem to make friends, can’t write as well or easily as her friends and spaces out at her desk at school. Sometimes it is more hidden: your son boasts about his accomplishments at video games and basketball but hides his tests from you or procrastinates endlessly before starting homework. Either way, the shame about not being able to succeed at school or manage life tasks as well as other kids starts early in life and continues into adulthood.
School is usually the hardest domain of functioning for children and teens with ADHD. People with ADHD seem to be blind to time: they are living in the moment. Future rewards and delayed consequences don’t mean a lot to them. For example, knowing that if you apply yourself today to a boring spelling sheet will help you later next week when you have a test doesn’t really matter that much because the experience NOW is so intolerable. So, if this experience is so miserable and the end result seems intangible, why even bother? If we add to this thought that your child believes he is bad at spelling anyway and hates writing too, then the effort is truly not worth it and shame, avoidance and distraction set in.
Interestingly, even though kids with ADHD will often comment about their lack of intelligence, ADHD has nothing to do with intelligence. It is a biological disorder which is directly related to executive functioning deficits. Having difficulty writing a paper due to a lack of planning, prioritizing and organizing thoughts means your daughter can’t translate her ideas into text not that she lacks intellectual capacity. BUT, what she interprets from her struggles, is that she is ‘bad at writing.” She feels ashamed of herself; she doesn’t measure up. I bet that if you asked her to talk her way through that same history assignment, she would do a fine job. ADHD is a disorder of performance: your child or teen can’t apply what he or she knows when it is required and in the form that it is being asked. Sadly, it FEELS like failure and stupidity and can look insufficient in a typical classroom setting or at home when chores were forgotten once again.
How can you address and reduce this pervasive and sometimes debilitating feeling of shame? While there are many ways to address this issue, here are a few of the most important things you can do:
1. Make sure your child has sufficient and useful support in school. Identify his or her cognitive strengths and weaknesses, amplifying executive functions that are strong and targeting the weaker ones with appropriate interventions. Keep any supports in place after improvements are seen to make sure they stick.
2. Use this knowledge about your child’s functioning at home. If your child can’t remember things, make lists together. If your teen has a messy room, make a united plan to assist him in organizing it. Try to work on the same issue at home that he is tackling at school so he can see some progress in his functioning in both arenas.
3. Lean into your child’s strengths, noticing and praising her for what she is doing well and trying to do well. Her efforts are especially important since kids with ADHD often feel under- appreciated for how hard they try just to do what other kids do naturally.
4. Normalize ADHD behavior. We all have different types of brains that process information in unique and idiosyncratic ways whether or not we have ADHD. These differences are part of what makes people diverse, interesting and innovative. While academics might be hard for your middle-schooler now, later on she could be a terrific actress with her flair for comic timing or a stellar paramedic with her calm demeanor in crisis and spelling may not matter as much. Since kids may not talk about their challenges with each other, they often feel isolated and embarrassed by their limitations.
5. Focus on something your child enjoys or does well and amplify that. For 6-8 hours each day at school, your child is dealing with situations and tasks that are difficult for him or her. In addition to being humiliating at times, this process can be exhausting and demoralizing. Look for what is working, what makes them happy and notice that as much as, indeed more than, you pay attention to what needs improving. ADHD children and teens get plenty of this feedback at school, on the sports field and from their friends. So, if that means your son only reads books about Minecraft because that game is his current obsession, then smile, because at least he is reading.