This particular blog post is near and dear to my heart which is why I’ll probably do some similar posts later on about preparing your ADHD student for college or coping mechanisms vs. ADHD medication. My husband has textbook ADHD, characterized by symptoms like a lack of motivation, larger than life emotions, and poor impulse control. While it may seem like I’m ragging on him a little, I hope that by the end of the series of ADHD articles, I’ll have been able to convey a little bit of my new perspective on this taboo disorder. A significant number of people have ADHD (or ADD which lacks the aspect of hyperactivity). And it is often seen as a disability. And while it’s true that my husband faces challenges that I don’t struggle with, he also has a myriad of gifts.
For today though, let’s talk about some of the unique struggles that these students face.
So what is ADHD?
What is ADD vs. ADHD? When is it appropriate to take ADHD medication? Is ADHD a learning disability? These are a lot of the questions that were going through my head when we first started considering the idea that Conner (my husband) had ADHD. I know these are a lot of the questions moms face as their boys hit elementary school. Girls can be diagnosed with the same”disability,” but boys are three times more likely to be diagnosed. Is this because boys are often misdiagnosed due to the rigid school culture? I have opinions on that one, but I digress. I could (and might) create a completely separate article just on that topic alone.
So when you picture someone with ADHD, I’ve found that many people have the same image in their head. They see a little boy bouncing up and down in their seats, grabbing at the students around him, being labeled as a bully that can’t keep his hands to himself, and being constantly disciplined by teachers. Mothers and fathers with hyper little boys, please know that I see you, I hear you, and I feel you. This has been hard on your student, but it’s also hard on you. Besides all the pain of watching your child struggle through labels and low self esteem, it can also be exhausting. Don’t feel bad for feeling exhausted.
Let’s talk dopamine.
What does dopamine do for a person? Dopamine helps a person regulate their emotions and deals directly with motivation. I like to think of it as a very helpful front desk assistant. Our brain’s little front desk assistant takes in all the information from all of our senses and filters what gets put into our conscious mind and takes up our time. Our front desk assistant can help us view situations in new perspectives when things aren’t working out exactly as they should. And they also keep up a good image when things feel like they’re tanking behind the scenes. This assistant makes the to-do lists and prioritizes according to importance. Beyond that, this assistant gets the old boss up and running. Trust me, in our brains, things would very quickly fall apart without our amazing front desk, dopamine.
I want to take you through a little journey inside the life of your ADHD student. Imagine trying to learn algebra while simultaneously taking in the scratchy feel of your shirt tag, the smell of outside lingering on the kid next to you from recess triggering all sorts of excited emotions, and hearing a dog bark in the distance.
Imagine seeing your friend sitting next to you, and you’re suddenly filled with this overwhelming desire to see what their hair feels like, and this is no normal emotion. It’s gnawing, over-powering, and with no front desk assistant, your hands are already moving towards your friend’s hair, just to see. This, of course, draws attention from your teacher who is desperately trying to teach a room full of students about math they don’t necessarily want to learn. You get in trouble, again, even though you really didn’t mean to distract anyone or make the teacher mad.
Your friend also gets in trouble which means your friend doesn’t really want to sit with you at lunch. You’re used to this though. Sure, friends have fights, but you can’t help but feel like people get a little tired of you. You can’t help but feel like you’re annoying.
It’s hard to think about anything else later on in English when your teacher (who was alerted at the beginning of the school year about what kind of student you are) calls you back to attention. You’re now filled with frustration because there are plenty of students in the room not paying attention. But you’re the one who gets called out because your teacher knows you have ADHD so she watches you. With everything that’s been going on throughout the day, you can’t help but retort to the teacher that, “Nobody else was paying attention to your lesson either.” This reply obviously doesn’t help your situation in the least.
While the details may differ, this comes as a normal day for many students with the ADHD disorder. While it’s easy for you and me to restrain ourselves from touching another person or to control a fair, but not-so-well-timed response to an accusation, this is not the case for your ADHD student.
Depression vs ADHD
In a world that is becoming increasingly accepting of depression, ADHD is still a taboo. It is far easier to show compassion to a student who is facing insurmountable, quiet sadness than to recognize a student who is disrupting and bouncing and disrespectful.
There may be times when you feel ready to shout, “Just pleeeeeease sit down for one second.” “Can’t you just get started on your homework? Just pick up the pencil!” But in the same way that depression is a LITERAL, PHYSICAL, CHEMICAL problem in the brain, ADHD students face the same situation with different symptoms. These symptoms are often harder to swallow in our society than sadness. To add to a difficult situation, many ADHD students find themselves with the symptoms of depression, known as “secondary depression.” Besides ADHD and depression sometimes simply going hand in hand, it’s easy to see why a student faced with dwindling friends and suspicious teachers can develop the same attitudes and low self-worth as a student with just depression.
Now let’s discuss motivation a little bit.
Beyond impulsivity and the challenges associated with that, motivation is another facet of ADHD that is difficult to comprehend for people with functioning dopamine transmitters. Motivation was an aspect I was unfamiliar with for the first part of my marriage until it hit my husband. After a series of unfortunate circumstances, my husband found himself increasingly unmotivated for a couple of months. I often heard him saying things like, “I just feel like there’s this wall in front of me.”
He could hardly get himself to crack open his laptop, let alone finish a project. I was doing a little bit of research regarding ADHD and college one day when I came across an article about motivation. I was astounded to find article after article of people saying the same thing my husband said. “I feel like I hit a wall.” “I can’t get past this wall.” I saw it over and over and decided it was time to learn a little about it.
Motivation is a chemical process.
Dopamine is absolutely critical to motivation. Motivation is often looked at as something you create with in yourself. It’s something you create out of thin air when you force yourself to fold the laundry or go to the gym. It’s not. It’s a chemical process in the brain. (If you’re interested in learning about motivation on a chemical level, I’ve found this post to be informational and simple: http://blog.idonethis.com/the-science-of-motivation-your-brain-on-dopamine/)
If those chemical processes are not functioning properly, a person finds themselves at a LITERAL, PHYSICAL, CHEMICAL wall in their brain. This isn’t something for them to “just get over.” For them, it’s literally not as simple as picking up their pencil to find it within themselves to solve a math problem. An interesting side effect that often comes up as a result is that you’ll often find your ADHD student procrastinating an assignment until the very last moment. While this is very frustrating for type A personalities such as myself, find it within yourself to let them. The time crunch often gives them the dopamine they need to accomplish the task in front of them. In an interesting way, this is an incredible coping mechanism for them. Make room for their coping mechanisms in what society has told you is the proper way to succeed.
ADHD doesn’t need to turn into an excuse to not succeed.
The purpose of this article was not to coddle your child and lull them into the idea that their brains will simply keep them from contributing to society in the same way that others can. This is not the case! Your ADHD student can succeed in school and in life. Many of the best entrepreneurs and creative minds of the world are ADHD. There are ways to cope and grow, and there are ways that you, as a parent or teacher or supporting figure, can create an environment for them to thrive and become those large minds the world looks up to. We’ll talk about ways in coming articles so stay tuned!