Wednesday, January 04, 2006

ADHD: The Blind Leading the Blind

Two nights ago I asked my thirteen year old daughter for help. I told her I needed her to get me two things from upstairs, but when she asked what they were my mind went blank. I stood there and wrestled with my thoughts to remember what the heck I needed her to get. Soon the neurons in my mind recalled each other's location and I remembered what items I needed, but when I made sure I had her attention I forgot them again so quickly I didn't have a chance to say what they were. She just laughed and laughed. I could have felt frustrated. I certainly felt sheepish, but instead I laughed along with her.

I mention this only so you know what type of brain we're working with here when I tell you that last week a reader named Bekah asked me for advice. She shared with me how frustrated she felt when her son, who has ADHD, became frustrated whenever he encountered problems. She wanted to know what she could do to help him. I believe the working theory was that since I had AD/HD I was infinitely qualified to give advice on the subject. Unfortunately for me, I am overqualified.

AD/HD and frustration go hand in hand. Sometimes, what we seek is just a bit beyond our memory's reach, like when we go to the store and forget why we're there. Other times, there is something obvious we have overlooked that will provide a ready solution to the problem. At worst, we have inexplicably forgotten something important that has caused mishaps at work or school or home. It is no wonder some non-AD/HD people hold us in contempt and treat us as stupid. However, we don't need outside influences to shape our self-esteem for the worse. We are usually our own harshest critics. I watch this at work in my seven year old daughter.

Sometime before Christmas she sheepishly pulled out a math test and showed it to me. The teacher wanted her to work out the mistakes and turn the test back in. Most notable amidst the mistakes was 1+1=0. My daughter berated herself for being stupid as she squirmed by my side and averted her gaze. The beginnings of self-loathing had begun its creep into her developing mind, and I sat stunned for a moment not because she had jotted down the wrong answer to the most fundamental mathematical equation in the world, but because she was developing self-loathing despite all the love and support we gave her. I was looking at myself.

Bekah wanted to know what her son expected of her in moments like this. Obviously individual needs may vary, but our children are not so different from we who have carried ADD into adulthood. A little love, respect, and forgiveness can soften the sting of failure, and perhaps a nice hug, but no amount of hugging will undo the damage. Take my old boss, Jerry, for example. If he had started snuggling me when I pasted the sports photo upside down on the front page not only would I have been alarmed and embarrassed, but his beard would have been chafing. No, instead he kept a secret dossier of all my mistakes and presented them during my three month review as a testimony of my uselessness. He compiled evidence in hopes it would get me terminated. Nice guy. The AD/HD person learns over time to expect ridicule, chastisement, contempt, and dismissal. How different things would have been if he had approached me months before and had a good laugh with me over the doofy upside down photo. Bekah's boy and my daughter need a wiser approach.

I knew that I couldn't hug my daughter's feelings of disappointment away. She was a bright, intelligent kid who has been well aware of what one plus one equals for several years. This mistake was a crushing blow to her ego despite it being a simple case of subtracting instead of adding. So I put my arm around her and agreed with her that it was a stupid mistake, but then I suggested she had probably been distracted when taking the test. I suggested with full confidence that she knew what the answers were and should quickly correct the mistakes. Only when she came back with a corrected paper did I help her laugh at the mistakes. Making light of the errors after she corrected them helped her accept her momentary limitations but not hate herself because of them.

The trick to disciplining the adhd child without destroying their self-esteem seems to be the same trick to supporting them when they grow frustrated with themselves. Teach them how to control negative behavior, teach them they will have negative behavior but they are OK, and teach them about their positive skills and find ways to encourage that behavior. It doesn't hurt to help them laugh at their mistakes instead of beating themselves up over them, either. Incidentally, this is the same advice I have learned to give myself.

I hope the advice was helpful. This is, of course, one shining moment out of many less stellar ones, but I like to believe I'm on the right track. But what do I know? After all this time I still don't remember what I wanted my other daughter to get for me.

technorati tags: , , , , , ,