Jami Demuth is the mother of three children, ages 12, 14, and 16 -- all of whom have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Her parenting strategy? She encourages them to find ways to use their ADHD symptoms to their advantage.
“I tell my kids all the time, [ADHD] is your greatest superpower,” says Demuth. “And I believe that 100%. Yes, there are some challenges that come along with it. ... But overall, it being a superpower certainly outweighs those challenges.”
This may not be the case for all kids. And it's always important to manage the symptoms of ADHD. But often, recognizing positive traits and helping your child focus on them can build confidence and teach them to overcome obstacles.
Positive Traits of ADHD
ADHD usually shows up in three main ways: inattentiveness; hyperactivity and/or impulsivity; or a combination of those symptoms.
There are certainly downsides to having excess energy or being easily distracted. But some children can benefit from ADHD behaviors like:
Flexibility. People with ADHD tend to think about many options at once. This sometimes means they're less likely to become set on one choice. They may be open to different ideas and other ways of doing things.
Adaptability and resilience. Because of their symptoms, kids with ADHD often have to figure out ways to adapt to their environments. This teaches them coping skills and helps them bounce back from challenges.
Creativity. Children with ADHD tend to be extra-imaginative. So they might daydream or get sidetracked. But they also may notice what most others don't. This creativity can help them come up with new ideas and solve problems.
Energy. When children with ADHD get motivated about something, they can focus a lot of energy on it. They're driven to succeed at things they find especially interesting. In fact, it may be hard to distract them from their favorite activity.
Enthusiasm. Kids with ADHD usually have big personalities and are rarely boring to be around. This lively behavior can make them become popular with their peers.
ADHD affects each of Demuth's kids differently. For example, she finds that her middle child's enthusiasm and energy boost his self-assurance. These qualities have helped him make friends and be socially successful at school.
All three of her children, she says, are good at creating thoughtful connections and coming up with original ideas.
“They're such outside-the-box thinkers," she says.
All Kids Are Different
Each child with ADHD has a different set of symptoms. And those symptoms can range from mild to intense. That's one reason it's important to treat all kinds of ADHD.
“If the negative impacts of the behavior far outweigh the positives, then you're never going to see the positive aspects,” says Max Wiznitzer, MD, a pediatric neurologist at Rainbow Babies and Children's Hospital in Cleveland, OH.
But it's important to emphasize good behavior when possible, he says.
“If they develop good habits, their ADHD isn't going to negatively impact them in the same manner as if they had bad habits only,” says Wiznitzer, who's also co-chair of the professional advisory board of Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD).
How Parents Can Help
How can parents help their children use their ADHD symptoms for good? First, make sure you focus on what your kids can do, rather than what they can't.
As a parent, it's easy to pay more attention to what children do wrong, Demuth says. But since kids with ADHD get so many negative messages about their condition, it's important for parents to provide encouragement.
“I think you really need to catch yourself. Don't start out with a negative thing, like their room being messy,” she says. “Highlight those times when you catch them doing good.”
Wiznitzer suggests that parents make a list of their child's particular strengths, then identify which of those are related to ADHD. This will help you understand which traits your child can use to help them succeed.
Parents can also encourage good behavior with:
A reward system. Reward your child when they do something right. Depending on your kid and what they achieve, the reward could be anything from a star on a behavior chart to cold, hard cash.
Behavior boundaries. Some kids with ADHD may be popular with peers because of their energetic personalities. But in excess, this can lead to “class clown” behavior or push others away. Parents should encourage their child's vibrant personality while making sure they understand when to pull back, like when they're in the classroom.
A focus on feedback. Parents aren't always aware of how well their child is coping outside the home. If they stop getting invited to friends' gatherings, or you start getting calls from teachers, their behavior could be crossing a line. It might be time to step up treatment or talk to them about boundaries. But if they get praise for their behavior, they're likely managing their symptoms well. Encourage them to keep up the good work.
With any of these strategies, Wiznitzer says, follow the three basic rules for parenting kids with ADHD: “structure, routine, and consistency.”