If you are a parent trying to understand what you can do to help your kids overcome the challenges of an ADHD brain, we understand the complexity. Mixed with frustration, joy, and confusion, parenting a child with ADHD can be demanding.
Elaine Taylor-Klaus and Diane Dempster explore strategies to navigate parenting a child with ADHD in their book Parenting ADHD Now!: Easy Intervention Strategies to Empower Kids with ADHD.
The following excerpt explores motivation as a tool to help your child succeed from Chapter 3, “Managing Attention”, in Parenting ADHD Now!
Nearly every parent we work with asks at some point, “Why can’t my kid just ___ ?” You can fill in the blank with a variety of phrases: get homework done? listen to me? stop talking back? get out of bed in the morning?
The reality is that they can’t just anything! The ADHD brain needs to be genuinely interested in something to take action. For people who have no real challenges with executive function, this can be one of the hardest things to understand, even though it’s simple science. When most people without the challenge of ADHD are faced with something they really don’t want to do, they simply press an imaginary “just get it done” button, and voila!—they are able to make it happen. In the ADHD brain, the challenge is that the “just get it done” button has a glass box around it! They can see it, but they have a very hard time accessing it.
The presence of a motivator is what fuels the neural pathways in the ADHD brain. Motivation is a powerful tool that helps kids with ADHD take action. Five things tend to motivate the ADHD brain, but not everyone with ADHD is motivated equally by all of them. Here are some clues to help you identify what will work for your child:
Interest. The ADHD brain seeks stimulation, and things that it finds interesting are stimulating. Parents often complain that their child won’t do anything he doesn’t want to do. To some extent, that’s because it’s not compelling enough. Students do well in classes with teachers who are engaging and in subjects they find interesting. While things that are boring are kryptonite for an ADHD brain, interest ignites a power chamber of fuel.
Urgency. People with ADHD often wait until the last minute to do things—whether it’s starting homework or getting ready to leave the house. This is because the frontal lobe of the brain (where the executive functions reside) is sluggish and isn’t properly stimulated to get things done. Urgency shifts to a different part of the brain—the primitive brain—which provides the chemical incentive to take action. Deadlines can be really effective motivators for people with ADHD.
Novelty. The ADHD brain is stimulated by things that seem new or different. This can be as simple as a distraction or as complicated as the complex changes that come with the beginning of a new school year. Many students will start off strong, motivated by new teachers, classmates, and schedules. As the school year progresses and is no longer novel, their engagement starts to wane. This is why new places to do homework or new strategies can be helpful—effectively, new is interesting.
Play/Creativity/Fun. Humans are inherently motivated by things that are fun, pleasurable or enjoyable. This is all the more true for people with ADHD, who need some kind of stimulation to engage or take action—and there is no better stimulation than something that is fun, playful, or creative. Fun can tie into other motivators, like being interesting or novel or competitive. Mostly, it’s a motivator in and of itself. Want to get a kid with ADHD to get something done? Turn it into a game, and you’re halfway home.
Competition. Competition is great way to offer the ADHD brain the stimulation it seeks. In fact, it builds on many of the other motivators. Competition usually offers the possibility of a reward and often plays to someone’s strengths. Competition can provide interest, urgency, novelty, and play. However, competition doesn’t work for everyone. For example, people who struggle with anxiety can be stressed rather than motivated by the chemical reactions that come with urgency.
As a parent, start by identifying what motivates your child and helping your child understand the role that motivation plays in her success. Over time, work with your child to identify what she sees as her motivators. Eventually, your child will learn to identify her own motivators. When that happens (when your child begins to understand the concept and create motivation tools to help herself), you’ll know you’ve taught a lifelong lesson.