How to get an ADHD kid to take the first step: admit there is a problem

Attention Deficit Disorder affects every type of intellect. It often accompanies other learning challenges, and it may exacerbate the effects of those challenges. Often misunderstood, attention deficit, both with and without hyperactivity, is complex. I frequently hear adults complain about how their child couldn’t possibly be affected by an attention deficit because the child can clearly sit and play a video game or read a book for hours on end. And yet, it is not simply about whether or not a child can sit still. It plays a role in whether or not a child can get started on a task, complete a task, understand directions, and follow through with plans. It takes a toll on the development of executive functioning skills, and for many children, it creates some serious cognitive dissonance.

Sometimes it is hard for kids to admit they're having a problem with attention. My son, for instance, literally thought he was crazy. He could not figure out why he would start a task and then not be able to finish it. No matter how much he wanted to, he just couldn't bringing himself to follow the steps given for a long-term project. And yet, he was able to memorize his trombone part after hearing it once or twice. He could not understand why when he read he often forgot what happened from the beginning of the page to the end, and yet, when he was little, he was able to listen to a book two or three times and memorize it. This is a kid who generally has wanted to be helpful, but if he hasn’t done what you ask in the minute you ask him, hours later he is sure you never asked and is hurt that you think he has been inconsiderate. His ADD diagnosis actually gave him hope for breaking away from its chains.

Kids often need to be taught both how to ask for help and accept help. In my son's case, he wasn’t diagnosed with ADD until he was 14, so Middle School was quite difficult. It took a bout of depression for him to finally tell us what was going on. For years, he simply chose not to share how difficult school and even life really were. He assumed that he should know how to cope, that he should know what to do, or that perhaps everyone was just like him. Once he found out what was getting in his way, he became highly motivated to try a variety of methods to help him better cope with the demands being made on his executive functioning skills. He struggles with ADD-related issues and with taking advice, but he has worked hard to succeed because he feels more confident that he can.

Some kids have not hit the wall hard enough yet to understand the long term effects of their reticence to accept and make changes. For whatever reason, they cannot see that if they do not modify their behavior now, it will be that much more difficult later to do. Granted, this is true for most adolescents. They see themselves as immortal, unable to be affected by normal consequences; they live by, "that will never happen to me". They do not want to be criticized for being different or for being frustrating to others. Getting them to recognize and own their foibles needs to be presented not as an acceptance of deficit, but rather as acceptance of fallibility, something that we all have.

Kids need to be taught how to commit to working towards a goal in a very concrete way. Outside help may be an essential intrusion- a tough pill to swallow…..but commitment is a life skill they can absolutely master. As parents, we can use things like cell phones, drivers licenses, new video games, etc. as carrots for participation in the process. And they need carrots. Any sort of planning is challenging their sensibilities — we are forcing them to utilize and recognize their weaknesses. As a result, we have to be the consistent ones. We have to set aside time every week, if not every day, to force the planning and force the follow through. This is not a subject taught in school. Your involvement is how they will learn.