ADHD & The Legacy of Shame: Part II

Part I of this blog looked at the shame so common among ADHD children, exploring its likely origins and its impact the ADHD child’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors. Part II discusses some approaches we may find useful in helping children diminish the shame they feel about their ADHD.

What We Can Do
For the most part, teachers and parents do not address the ADHD child’s shame openly and directly. Instead, they most often address it in an implicit and indirect manner through efforts to improve academic performance. The assumption is that if grades rise, shame will fall. For some children, this is very much the case. For others, however, the very fact that adults are working so hard to “fix” them is interpreted to mean, They must think there is something very wrong with me. The result is not to lessen the shame but to deepen it.

I am convinced that if our intent is both to improve school achievement and to relieve shame, the most effective approach is to state both of these goals explicitly and to address them separately. The interventions aimed at increasing performance would seek to stimulate change in the child’s focus, self-regulation, coping, and executive functioning. Those aimed at diminishing shame would include therapy for the child but would place greatest emphasis on encouraging new thoughts and responses among those who are the source for most of the 20,000 negative messages mentioned in Part I: teachers and parents…you and me. Here are some approaches to consider.

Take A Look In The Mirror. When we become angry or judgmental towards children over issues related to their ADHD, we like to think that what we think and feel is about them. But if we are to be honest with the people we see when we look in the mirror, we must acknowledge that it is also very much about ourselves. After all, the anger and judgment originate and reside within us. They arise from beliefs, aspirations, and expectations that are solely ours. They reflect our own distress at the frustration of our own wants. And they are magnified by our own shame when other adults seem to look with disapproval at our children’s problems, especially when they appear to perceive us as the cause. However difficult it may be to acknowledge, we must recognize that a large part of the ADHD child’s shame does not originate with the child. It begins with us when we make children the instruments for meeting needs and satisfying wants that are ours more than theirs.

Accept What Is. Another approach to mitigating shame – both the child’s and our own – is to understand and approach ADHD for what it really is: not a character flaw, not a lack of willpower, not a sign of laziness, not a form of defiance, and not a smudge on the family reputation. Rather, it is a largely inherited neurobiological condition that involves the parts of the brain associated with making decisions and regulating current behavior based on anticipated future outcomes. ADHD is not a “disorder” but a human variation no less common among children than many others, including left-handedness, red-headedness, and near-sightedness. In all likelihood, it has a history that goes back more than 100,000 years and probably had a role in the survival of the human species. If we can accept ADHD for what it actually appears to be, an alternate style for responding to the environment and learning new things, then we can accept the children who have it – and thereby give those children a much greater potential to accept themselves.

Do Something Different. I have a friend and former colleague is fond of the maxim: “If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep getting what you’ve always gotten.” Or, bending the maxim to fit the topic: “If you think what you have been doing in response to a child’s ADHD has been a trigger for shame, then it may be time to try something else.” That might mean talking or teaching in a new way better matched to how a child thinks and learns. It might mean consciously avoiding anger and judgment in favor of empathy and support. Or it might mean making any among many other possible and positive changes in adult behavior – this is a problem with as many potentially good solutions as there are families. What those solutions have in common is the will to take the proverbial step of “thinking outside the box,” of seeing the box from a new and more objective vantage point that offers a different perspective and a new understanding about what is inside.

Attach. Once again, I quote Edward Hallowell: “Staying connected with others is the most important lifeline any of us has. And yet, as naturally inclined to connect as most people with ADHD are, their shame and negativity can grow so intense as to lead them to cut themselves off.” As an attachment-focused psychotherapist, I take this idea as an article of faith. I approach my work with the fundamental belief that our relationships with other people are what can bring the greatest meaning to our lives and be the greatest stimulus for change. Yet, while ADHD children need connection as much as other children, their fear of rejection and shame can be so intense that they withdraw themselves from the very people most able to help them. One of the best ways to connect with and motivate them is by approaching them in ways that help them feel safe and supported, understood and appreciated, encouraged and valued, wanted and loved. In being and working with ADHD children, it can be helpful to keep in mind something I accept as a fundamental truth about being human. Isolation hurts. Attachment heals.

Parting Thoughts
I have the impression that in recent years it has grown increasingly common for parents and teachers to become intensely distressed and reactive about the problems – and especially the academic performance – of ADHD children. As a result they put a great deal of stress on themselves to drive change things and on kids to implement it. A child who is confident and competent will experience adult demands as motivational. One who is filled with self-doubt will experience pressure as the kind of negative appraisal that begets shame.

In addition to the suggestions above, it might be worthwhile to consider one more approach that adults can take in addressing kids with ADHD. Maybe it is time to lighten up a bit… time to stop viewing grades and compliant behavior as the be-all and end-all of a child’s world…time to take a deep breath and a small step back, leaving just a bit more freedom for kids to be kids and a little more space for them to learn not only from us but also from their own mistakes. And perhaps it is time for us to keep in mind one of the most important lessons I have learned from my own experience as a teacher and a parent: that our children do not come into this world with an obligation to fulfill our visions of them. Rather, they have an inborn desire to realize their visions of themselves. One part of our job is to guide them. But another is to get out of their way.