Stop fidgeting! Pay attention! Calm down!
I heard these phrases a lot growing up. That’s because I had (and still have) ADD. It stands for Attention Deficit Disorder. While I might quibble about the “disorder” part of the definition, I definitely agree that there’s a deficit in my attention span! As a kid, it was incredibly hard for me to sit through school, focus on homework, or stay on task for longer than fifteen minutes. I give my parents credit; raising me was no easy assignment. I’m sure there were times they wanted to strap me down just so I’d stop being so squirrely!
If you’re the mom or dad of a child with ADD, you can sympathize. You know the difficulties of living with a teenager whose brain and body are always on the move. Sometimes you feel like you just can’t keep up with them. Other times, you wonder if you’ll ever be able to enjoy a deep relationship with someone who always seems distracted.
Let me offer you some encouragement based on my own experiences growing up with ADD and working with thousands of teenagers who are wired this way.
How do you know if your child has ADD or ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder)? Before you start self-diagnosing your child, get a final opinion from a licensed and respected medical professional. There’s a danger in labeling your son or daughter with a term that may not describe them. Don’t jump too quickly for a diagnosis that will follow your teen around for the rest of his life.
However, if you suspect that your teen is dealing with ADD, here are some signs that mental health experts agree may be symptoms:
- Lack of attention to detail, or prone to careless mistakes. Maybe you’ve noticed your child can’t remember to put their name on a test, doesn’t fill in all the answers, or gets bogged down in too many details. This could be a sign of a student struggling with ADD.
- Lack of attention to the task at hand. You son will start to mow the lawn, but halfway through starts riding his bike, watering the flowers, or eating a snack, and completely forgets the original job he had started. ADD can do that to kids.
- Lack of focus in conversation. Ever been talking with your daughter, and you can tell she just isn’t listening? She might just be showing disrespect, but this could also be a sign of ADD. With ADD, it can be difficult to concentrate on what people say or to track with conversations.
- Failure to follow instructions. You’ve laid out a detailed, step-by-step guide to accomplish a certain task, but your teen veered way off course and didn’t follow your instructions at all! It could be that ADD had a part to play.
- Avoidance of activities that take mental effort. It’s not that kids with ADD are less intelligent than other people. In fact, many kids with ADD are very smart. But the wiring in their brain makes it extremely difficult for them to sit down and read a novel, watch an entire movie in one sitting, or study for more than fifteen minutes at a time. So kids with ADD tend to avoid undertakings that require a lot of mental effort.
As you read through that list, maybe you were mentally checking off each one, and it described your children perfectly. Now the question becomes, “Okay, Mark, how do I manage a child with ADD?”
While I wouldn’t advise you to rush out and stock up on Ritalin, I do suggest that you go seek medical help. God can use medicine and doctors to help kids cope with issues. I know that some parents are very hesitant about turning to prescriptions, but there is nothing wrong with combining medication and parental methods to help an ADD kid function better and enjoy a normal life. Don’t ignore the role medicine can play in the life of a child struggling with mental problems or disorders. If medication or therapy is needed, then use these tools to help your teen.
You can also help your teen deal with ADD by changing your communication habits. Instead of sitting down to talk with your teens, get up and have conversations with them while engaged in an activity. On the Heartlight ranch, I routinely take kids on horseback rides, water-skiing, or on hikes around the campus to create opportunities to talk with them. Confined to an enclosed, silent space, teens with ADD will have a hard time hearing anything you’re saying. But get their minds and bodies involved in an activity, and they’ll be open to talking with you!
Also, shorten the length of your conversations. You may have have a lot to tell your child, but realize that kids with ADD can only absorb so much information at a time. So learn to communicate in sound bites. Talk for only ten to fifteen minutes, then get up and do something else. After a while, come back for another round of conversation. Work around their attention span to speak truth into the life of your teen with ADD.
This may seem counterintuitive, but refrain from repeating yourself in a conversation. I know that sounds almost impossible to do with an ADD kid. You may feel like you have to remind them of things over and over again. But all you’ll get in return is, “I got it! I got it! Yeah, I heard you the first time!” Instead, reinforce instructions at intervals. Say it once, then come back to it again later. In this way, you’ll highlight the lessons you want to get across in a way that can be grasped and processed.
As our culture shifts, kids spend less time outside or physically engaged in activities, and more time indoors and looking at screens. Sometimes we might be suspicious our kids have ADD, but they simply have a normal amount of energy with nowhere to burn it! Mom and dad, take time out of your day to play with your kids. Toss a football around. Go on a jog. Wrestle in the living room (I don’t recommend this if your teenager is taller or stronger than you). Help them expend the energy they’ve built up throughout the day.
Also, pay attention to anxiety in your teen, as well. The pressures on today’s young people are growing exponentially, and as a result, our teenagers deal with a lot of stress. Compound this with an ADD personality, and you have a teen who is in desperate need of a way to slow down and find some rest.
Many of the teens I know who have been caught up in substance abuse tell me they’re not trying to be bad or rebellious. “I just want to feel normal”, they say. Some teens drink mouthwash before bed to help them get to sleep. Other kids smoke pot to quiet their brains. And some teenagers engage in these kinds of dangerous and destructive behaviors because they are looking for relief from anxiety and a mind that can’t stop racing.
So keep an eye out to see if your child is self-medicating. Watch your medicine cabinet. Look for signs of drug use or alcohol abuse. In place of these substances, help your child deal with the stress and concerns in their life in a healthy way. Be a sounding board and listen to what they’re telling you. Help them discover useful hobbies or pastimes that can help them cope. Provide healthy outlets for their energy and emotions.
I agree with you; raising an ADD kid should win you a medal or an award of some kind. It’s a special challenge, with a unique set of obstacles. It’s exhausting and physically demanding, but the rewards are worth it. Channeled into the right areas, your child’s boundless energy can propel him towards worthy goals and great success. People with ADD can be high achievers. So don’t give up on that teen. Don’t let their lack of focus derail your focus on them!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, located in Hallsville, Texas. For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our website. It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent. Go to www.heartlightministries.org. Or read other helpful articles by Mark, at www.markgregston.com. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173. Hear the Parenting Today’s Teens broadcast on a radio station near you, or download the podcast at www.parentingtodaysteens.org.