ADHD - Not an Excuse but an Explanation
As previously outlined in the first post in our ADHD series, ADHD is not a disorder of attention but a disorder of regulation; a skill that stems from executive functioning. When considering ADHD, it is important to consider how often throughout the day children and teens are asked to internally regulate. Here are just a few examples:
The alarm goes off; it is a cold winter morning, and the teen has to get up knowing they have a full day of tests, sports practice, and homework. The teen feels a sense of dread and wants to stay home and relax. Regulation is needed to control the feeling of frustration and initiate the task of getting up and doing all the things. What might it look like if the teen has a regulation deficit? The teen may have difficulty initiating the task of getting out of bed and starting the process. The teen may have difficulty controlling the frustration and appear extremely irritable and hostile.
The child sits in school and is asked to sit on the floor with peers for a morning meeting. The child is asked to regulate attention on the teacher despite consistent wiggling and movement around them from their classmates. The child is asked to regulate their motor movements and implement self-control to stay in an acceptable seated position. This might look like the child having difficulty waiting her turn and interrupting, losing important instruction given by the teacher or lots of fidgeting.
The teen is home from a long day of school and is asked to regulate motivation and initiate tasks that need completion including after school chores and homework. Trouble with this might look like a teen on the couch who has not started their tasks after multiple reminders and prompts.
The teen is given a multistep semester long project and is asked to regulate their ability to see time. The teen is asked to organize the project in order to plan ahead, seeing into the future, and working towards a larger goal. The teen is asked to identify how long each task in the project will take in order to plan out a timeline for completion. Having difficulty with regulating time, a deficit may look like a teen who is scrambling at the last minute with late nights to complete the assignment.
The child is asked to regulate their emotion and display flexibility when expecting an afterschool activity to be their only commitment and is then asked to run multiple errands before going home. Having difficulty regulating may look like a child in tears or being angry. It may even look like a child who refuses to get out of the car or stomps around while running the errand.
The teen is asked to regulate their emotions when noticing on social media that their friends attended an event without them. The teen is asked to use self-regulation skills to control emotions that feel overwhelming and big - emotions that impact their self-esteem and confidence at school and around their peers. Difficulty regulating may look like increased isolation, hostile words towards parents, impulsive action taken towards friends (think posting angry posts on Instagram), or lots of crying and distorted thoughts (I am always alone; no one likes me, etc).
All of these examples are situations children and teens face on a daily basis whether they have ADHD or not. The difference is that when a child or teen is diagnosed with ADHD, these moments of needed regulation will present with increased difficulty. These examples could go on for multiple blog posts because the ability to regulate is critical to success socially and academically.
To truly understand ADHD and its impact on our kids, it is necessary to identify how many times throughout the day they are asked to regulate - attention, emotions, time, thoughts, and motivation. Imagine experiencing a sense of frustration and failure when regulation is difficult throughout the day - multiple times a day. To help our students maintain a sense of self-worth and to increase our compassion and understanding as we parent and teach them, it is vital to externalize the ADHD and separate it from our children and our teen’s identity.
How do we do that? We begin to recognize that these moments throughout the day are difficult and we begin to verbalize why. It may sound like this:
He is having trouble initiating this task - it is difficult to pivot from this activity to homework. I am asking him to engage in an act of self-regulation.
She is having difficulty regulating her attention on what I am saying right now. I am asking her to engage in an act of self-regulation.
First we begin to identify and understand how ADHD impacts the overall ability to regulate. As we increase our understanding, we begin to recognize that ADHD is not an excuse, but it IS an explanation. And once we understand that, we are able to provide helpful strategies for self-regulation with compassion and empathy. However, these strategies will always be secondary to an increased understanding of ADHD and its impact on our kids.
Laura Waller, MS, LPC, NCC, ADHD-CCSP
Licensed Profesional Counselor