Attention, Hyperactivity, and Defiance
It was a cold morning in the wilderness and the boys of Evoke Group One were struggling with the basic task of stacking wood to get the morning fire going. Before this task was to begin, the boys had to wake up, pack their packs, run the organization group that distributes the daily chores, walk to the camp, place their packs in order in pack line, and stand and listen to the breakfast logistical group. “C’mon guys, we’ve stacked wood every morning for the past week. We should know this by now. Let’s get it together,” exclaimed a field staff in frustration.
I imagine that many of you reading this have had a moment like this with your child. You are rushing to get out the door to school and then to work and your child is sitting on the floor with one shoe on. “Can you please help me out and get your shoes on? I don’t understand why this is so difficult!”
The quote in the previous paragraph was uttered by one of the most experienced, thoughtful, and empathetic field staff I have ever had the pleasure of working with. Even he, with his years of experience in the wilderness working with all types of boys was having a moment and was unable to recognize that what was happening was not intentional defiance, but an overwhelm due to ADHD.
Approximately forty percent of children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) have a co-existing diagnosis of Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD). Symptoms of ADHD include inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. Signs of ODD include aggression, frequent outburst, being excessively argumentative, ignoring requests, and intentionally engaging in annoying behavior.
Children with ADHD are not trying to be difficult and defiant. This defiance is often an expression of how completely overwhelmed they are with all of the rules and regulations of their world. Children with ADHD are very curious by nature. They can’t wait to see or do interesting things and are attracted to things that are outside of the bounds of what we want them to be doing. They don’t want to stay in their seats. There is no malicious or defiant intention from these kids, they simply see all of the excitement of the world and want to explore it.
From a young age children who struggle with ADHD are often told that their behavior is wrong and that they aren’t doing what they are supposed to be doing. These kids will often internalize this and label themselves as a bad kid. “If everyone is always telling me I am doing wrong then there really is something wrong with me.” They may also react aggressively towards the people who are constantly telling them they are wrong.
How do we help these kids and ourselves? First, we must gain an awareness of the impact of ADHD. Your child is not trying to be difficult and to punish you. Your child sees the world in a different way. As the Grammy-nominated artist Joyner Lucas says on his song ADHD, “Or maybe I'm different, and maybe my ADHD got me trippin'. And maybe I'm just everything that you missin'.”
Imagine if you could see that as the beautiful gift that it is?! Your child sees the world in a different way! Celebrate that difference. Ask him to show you the beautiful way of seeing things that you may not understand. Join him in his curiosity.
Second, slow down. Your child needs fewer things to do, not more. The pace of life can make this difficult and let’s go back to the original wilderness example. After witnessing this exchange I pulled the staff aside and provided some feedback to him. I emphasized with him that it was cold and that we needed a fire. I explained that he was not being challenged by defiance but by an overload of information. I coached him to slow down by offering one task at a time. Instead of saying, “guys let’s get this fire going,” we must break it down into tasks. “Johnny could you please go grab several pieces of wood?” “Tim, please prepare the fire pan.” “Jeff, please ready the nesting and busting materials.” Affirm them for the ways they are helping instead of highlighting their lack of attention.
Finally, give yourself a break. A child with a hyperactive and inattentive mind can be challenging. You are not going to be perfect at this and you will make mistakes. Slow down, take a deep breath, forgive yourself, and apologize to your child when you do.
I hope you can see ADHD as a gift, to not confuse it and automatically label it as defiance, and to find new ways of working with your child.