Where Are My Keys, and Why Did I Say That?
Where did I put my keys? I’m late again. I just have no motivation. I can’t get myself to start that project. Why did I say that? I can’t stop fidgeting. I swore I was going to stop biting my nails. I’ve been staring at this same page in this book for 20 minutes. How do I tell her I didn’t hear a thing she just said? I have started five projects today and accomplished nothing. If you have ADHD, or know someone close to you who does, these statements are all too familiar.
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, doesn’t get the credit it deserves. It’s overly diagnosed, and poorly understood. Just because everyone and their brother thinks they have ADHD doesn’t mean they do; however, it does seem to be a “disorder” that is growing in intensity year after year. The positive thing about increased diagnosis is that it gets more attention now (no pun intended) which means more medical and nonmedical treatment options. The problem with overdiagnosis is the disorder isn’t really being taken as seriously as it should. If you know people who struggle to maintain attention sometimes, that’s not ADHD. If you yourself or someone you know lives in a total chaotic space, never turns assignments or work projects in on time, is always late to meetings or appointments, drops things a lot, interrupts conversations, can’t wait in line, starts talking out loud but in the middle of a conversation that they started in their head, and then has a whole lot of anxiety around all of it, that’s ADHD. Now, those same people are also usually super creative, mechanical, resilient, spontaneous, generous, empathetic, risk takers, outside-the-box thinkers, and they are probably the first to be invited to the party (because they are hilarious).
Actually, I take issue with calling it a “disorder.” There’s nothing wrong with the brains inside the heads of people who have ADHD; they are simply wired differently. Unfortunately, we live in a pretty conventional society which doesn’t always allow for “different.” Our school systems are not set up super well to help these students learn the way that works best for them, and many kiddos get lost in the shuffle. The school systems are trying, mostly. They are creating 504 plans to allow for accommodations, putting wobbly stools in classrooms, allowing for breathing boards and fidgets and hot passes, and even adjusting curriculum to allow for extra “brain breaks.” Rome wasn’t built in a day, and this won’t be quickly fixed either.
What I want to offer are some key points in the life of a person with ADHD and maybe some tools you haven’t tried yet. If the next few paragraphs find you nodding your head saying “Yep, tried that, and that, and that, with no success,” you might not be alone. ADHD requires a significant amount of trial and error; while people with ADHD all have similar symptoms, they don’t all have the same solutions. They are as individual as the snowflakes that fall in late December (bonus points if you can name that tune). I could talk for days about this, but I’ll keep it as brief as I can for those of us that have to sit in the front and constantly hear “Ya with me?” Kudos for sticking with me this long!
ADHD is a situation that requires a change in behavioral practices. Thank goodness our brains have something called neuroplasticity, which means our automatic behaviors can be learned and forgotten based on the firing and rewiring of neural networks in the brain. Those with ADHD can create new healthy habits and leave behind old, nonhelpful habits such as being late, being forgetful, and poor task performance; it just takes some extra work. ADHD is a discrepancy between ability and performance, according to Dr. David Nowell, PhD. I couldn’t agree more. What we have to do is close the gap.
Ask yourself, “What is the one thing I would fix if I could.” If you are talking about yourself, maybe you would like to try to be early for appointments, or at least, not chronically late. Dr. Nowell would say your issue lies at the point of performance. Your point of performance is the moment the behavior is impacted, either positively or negatively. What stops you from leaving on time? Is it that you didn’t get up early enough? Probably not. Is it that you didn’t allow yourself enough time to shower, grab a protein bar and get out the door? Probably not. Is it because as you were walking by the tv, you heard Judge Judy say, “I eat morons like you for breakfast. You’re gonna be crying before this is over,” and it stopped you in your tracks? Maaaaayyybbeeeeee.
So, you set your alarm, got up on time, showered; everything was going so well. Dang it, Judy! That was the point of the performance. Getting in the car and leaving on time. How do we avoid distractions? Turns out, people with ADHD don’t talk to themselves as much as people without ADHD. Their internal dialogue is less, which allows for more external stimuli to wreak havoc on their ability to focus on the task at hand. We have to create external cues to keep the ball rolling. So, in the getting out the door example, turn the tv off. Schedule alarms in your phone or reminders to alert your brain where you should be in your morning routine. Alarm 1: In the shower by 7am. Alarm 2: Get out of the shower. Alarm 3: You should be downstairs by now. Alarm 4: You are getting in the car. Is this a lot of extra work? Yep. Will it help you leave on time? Maybe. That’s the goal.
This alarm system can work for your teenager as well. It can also work for evening and nighttime routines for your younger kids. You set your alarms as a reminder to make sure they are working on homework, showering, brushing their teeth, reading ONE book, and lights out. Now. This new system isn’t a magic wand and it won’t work like pixie dust; but, with time, that neuroplasticity I mentioned earlier comes in handy. With practice and consistent use, we can change our habitual patterns.
What about that focus on the homework? They be drummin’ with their pencils, yelling out some weird Tik Tok verbiage that’s all the rage, seeing how many raisins they can stick up their nose, spinning around in their chair, ripping up tiny pieces of paper and and playing spit wad basketball with a ramekin, and turning their m’s and w’s into tiny butts on their papers (that’s what my 6-year-old twins did, anyway). Begin a mindfulness practice. Try allowing them to work for 20 minutes, and after they have made some progress, they get to watch a screen of some sort for 10 minutes. Set repeating alarms for 20 and 10 minutes, alternating work and play. Allow their brains to stop for something that they find stimulating as a reward for 20 minutes of hard homework. Are they fidgety? Allow some sort of fidget, as long as it isn’t too distracting to those around them. Fidget toys shouldn’t make too much noise and they shouldn’t require focus. Their brains move fast; they need activity around them that moves at similar speeds. Allow them to listen to music. I know a lot of people have trouble with this one. Turns out, the ADHD brain responds well to music in conjunction with mental tasks. If music with words is too much, pick some study tunes. Spotify and YouTube have some great “study time” playlists. Don’t forget about all those extra deep breaths they need to be taking. Sending extra oxygen to the brain is IMPORTANT.
What about those impulsive behaviors? For smaller kids, playing games like Red Light, Green Light can help teach them to stop in their tracks. The overall goal is to help them learn to pause, and think through their actions. This takes time, for sure. But parenting isn’t a race, it is a steady marathon, jogging toward the end result of a successful and contributing member of your community. Repetition is key. Tape a paper “pause” button on their Trapper Keeper, reminding them to “pause” themselves and think through the consequences of their behavior. Adults, this might not be a terrible idea for you too. Are you a blurter? I say things and then think, “Oh my gosh why did I just say that?!” I probably need to tape a paper “pause” button to my forehead.
This doesn’t scratch even the top coat on the many layered surfaces of ADHD and tools for success; but, I’ve probably lost 3/4 of you by now. While we don’t all have ADHD, our new technological advances have had an impact on our regular attention spans for reading. I’ll leave you with this:
1. Begin thinking about your or your loved one’s point of performance and where the deficit lies.
2. Think outside the typical ADHD box and find some nontypical behavior modifications. If
starting tasks is hard, find a good reward system that works for you.
3. Remember that habits are learned, and consistency is key.
4. Working around ADHD takes effort, but success can be had.
5. Don’t forget all those positive attributes people with ADHD have, and use those positive qualities to improve in areas which you see as deficits.
Now, where are those keys?