How to Make the Most of Your Child's ADHD

Identifying traits can make it easier to manage behavior.


Edward Hallowell is a psychiatrist with ADHD himself whose latest book, Superparenting for ADD (Random House, $25), is aimed at convincing parents, teachers, and kids that attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (or attention deficit disorder) is a trait, not a disability. I asked Ned what's new; here's an edited version of our conversation.

Edward M. Hallowell, M.D.
Book cover. SuperParenting for ADD: An Innovative Approach to Raising Your Distracted Child. by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D.

You say the medical model of ADHD as a disease distorts the truth of what it's like to live with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Why is that?

The diagnosis of ADHD can be devastating. I have this disability: I need treatment and medication. I think the only real disability is shame and loss of hope, and we in mental health have been creating that. What my coauthor, Peter Jensen, and I want to do is blow up that model and replace it with one that's full of hope and excitement. My kid who is in 10th grade, his teacher asked them to write down adjectives that describe them and then circle the three that applied the most. My son circled creative, athletic, and ADD. That's the way it ought to be. We ought to be helping all kids find out what are their talents and strengths and what's getting in the way of developing those strengths.

In fact, all three of your children have ADHD, and you do, too. It sounds like you see it as a real plus.

I wouldn't trade it for the world. If you manage it right, it's great, because we live in an ADHD world. We live in a world of sound bites and fast attention changes. On the other hand, this is a condition that can get you into a lot of trouble if you don't learn to deal with it properly. The prisons are full of people who have undiagnosed ADHD. How can parent s manage their child's ADHD properly?

Love is the first step. It may sound obvious, but these kids don't get loved enough. They get reprimanded and treated; they go through the day and it's one negative experience after the other. They often don't get it because they're hard to love. They're forgetful, they're oppositional, they're defiant. But as a parent, you've got to be the one who absolutely champions them. We don't have double-blind experiments on love, because it takes 18 years to get results. But I've been treating this for 25 years, and I can tell you with absolute authority, if you hang in there, you'll get great results. I was surprised to see you recommend that parents pay for an online trait assessment at by educator and entrepreneur Kathy Kolbe. That costs $25 to $50. Why should parents pony up?

I rarely tout people as much as I've touted her in this book, and I don't have a financial arrangement with her at all. I just think it's absolutely revolutionary. It really helps identify your natural way of solving problems. School rewards one way of doing it, but that's not the only way or the best way. It helps kids understand themselves in emotionally and morally neutral terms. With these kids, the moral diagnosis is often "bad" or "lazy" or "needs to try harder." Instead, we need to get into how to get the best results given this kid's natural way of doing things. So you're saying that evaluating a person's instinctive styles or strengths using the four modes of Fact Finder, Follow Thru, Quick Start, and Implementor can help a kid come up with useful workarounds, particularly at school. Clearly, a lot of ADHD kids are Quick Starters and not so good at Follow Thru! How does th is work?

Teachers are absolutely the opposite of ADHD kids in traits. So I tell kids that if they want to do something at school, instead of just impulsively doing it, raise your hand, and say, "Teacher, I have thought about this, and I have a plan." It doesn't matter what you say next; you'll be able to do it. It's in the teacher's repertoire that they want you to have considered what to do and have a plan for it. So you can say, "Let's build sand castles," or "Let's cancel math today." She might say, "Why do you want to do that?" but you're ready. It's going against the kids' natural way, but if they don't learn how to go against their natural way, they'll be in trouble. This thing of railing against the system, trying to make the schools change—all that does is produce sound and fury but no change. You remember your first-grade teacher giving you a hug, and say that warm connection was enough to keep you trying in school, despite the fact that you were awful at reading.

I ended up majoring in English at Harvard. It didn't matter that I was at the bottom of my class at reading at first grade. If somebody notices the progress you're making, it connects you to the group. Most of kids who get into trouble get into trouble because they don't feel connected. They feel dissed. They feel left out. That connection is not only good for the child; it's good for the whole group. Want more of the latest thinking on ADHD? I recently wrote about how the Brits are now recommending parent training rather than Ritalin for many kids, and earlier this year I interviewed Ned Hallowell about how adults with ADHD can improve their performance at work. New brain research suggests that some ADHD symptoms may be caused by slower development.

Finally, here's a good resource for parents whose kids have ADHD.