Your ADHD Child – Selfish or Self Absorbed?
Kids with ADHD are amazing! They’re often wildly creative with great imaginations, have a wonderful sense of humor that make being around them fun, tend to be great problem-solvers, can discern a lot of options at once, and work very hard once they find what motivates them.
But certain behaviors can also be exasperating, particularly for parents. Often during a consultation, parents will tell me how their child freely interrupts others, fights to be first in line, barges into rooms without knocking, and rarely thinks to reciprocate and ask how others are doing.
And that’s when I sometimes hear the statement: “I hate to say it, but my child is really selfish!”
The ADHD Brain Functions Differently
Let me say upfront that I can understand where you’re coming from. We’re taught from an early age that taking turns, not interrupting, remembering important events, and listening twice as much as we speak all indicate good manners.
But hearing the label “selfish” also makes me cringe because with the rare exception, nothing could be further from the truth. Many kids with ADHD are highly sensitive, warm, and caring kids. They are thoughtful and have high capacity for empathy, loyalty, and generosity – the exact opposite of selfish.
The truth is that their brains just function differently. Once parents are taught how an ADHD brain differs from a non-ADHD brain, they begin to understand that “selfish” is not an accurate description of their child. Perhaps self-absorbed is a more fitting word?
How the ADHD Brain Functions
Thanks to PET and CT scans along with MRIs, researchers have found significant differences in the brains of children and teens with ADHD compared to their non-ADHD peers.
According to Dr. Sharon Saline in her excellent book What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew, size and volume of certain brain areas are smaller, thinner, and less active, which can affect attention, behaviors and emotions, memory systems, and communication between regions of the brain.
The ADHD brain matures more slowly as well. There can be a delay of up to three years, especially in the prefrontal cortex. What’s important to remember is that ADHD brains catch up in their structural development over time.
Neurotransmitters in the brain also differ in ADHD kids. Our brains need just the right amount of neurotransmitters to run smoothly and efficiently but ADHD brains end up with lower amounts than they need. That’s why you see kids struggling with paying attention, managing intense feelings, being over energetic, or not sleeping well.
5 Ways to Help Your ADHD Child Become More Other-Directed
Here are some practical ways you can help your child become less self-absorbed and more other-directed.
Practice “Do-Overs” vs. Criticizing/Blaming Your Child
Criticism is a constant reminder of how your child has messed up AGAIN. Blame teaches your child that when something goes wrong, it’s usually someone’s fault. Fault finding leads to finger pointing, a shifting of responsibility, and sometimes even lying. Blame breeds fear which can decrease your child’s self-esteem and feelings of competency. It’s not your child’s fault they sometimes can’t control what they do.
The next time your child barges through your office or bedroom door without knocking, suggest a do-over instead. Say, “Hey, let’s try that again but this time would you be willing to knock and hear my response before you come into the room?” Every “do-over” is an opportunity to stretch and grow your child’s competency and self-esteem.
Request vs. Respond
Instead of responding with “Stop being rude and interrupting your brother”, try requesting “Would you be willing to let your brother finishing telling his story before we hear yours?” Your child doesn’t mean to interrupt and labeling them as rude only adds to the shame they may already feel over having ADHD.
Many kids with ADHD have trouble thinking complete thoughts unless they say them out loud. Blurting them out is their way of remembering. By asking them nicely to refrain from doing so, you give them practice in retaining their thoughts. And if they struggle a lot with this, slide them some paper and a pen so they can write their thoughts down before they disappear.
Role Play with Your Child
Children with ADHD have difficulty monitoring their social behavior, so they may need someone to provide guidance. Role-playing with your child is an effective way to simulate situations that your child may encounter such as listening politely and not interrupting others. One way to do so is to practice during family dinner time.
Holding a tennis ball (or any object you have handy), have each family member check in about their day. No other family member is allowed to interrupt or speak unless they’re holding the tennis ball. Visually, the tennis ball serves as a cue. Each person gets a turn and others need to be respectful and quiet while that person is speaking.
Again, family meals are a great time to practice this skill. Have one person hold a tennis ball and start the conversation with something like, “Today I went to the shoe store and bought a new pair of sneakers”. The speaker hands the tennis ball to another family member who must respond to that statement and then ask a follow-up question. For example, the second person may say, “How fun, I love getting new sneakers! What color sneakers did you get?”
This second person passes the tennis ball back to the first person who replies, “I bought a white pair of sneakers” and then passes the tennis ball to a third person. This third person must now make a statement based on this answer and then ask a new question. The process continues until the idea of reciprocity in a conversation begins to take root.
Search for the Gold and Celebrate!
Remember to “search for the gold” in your child’s actions and interactions with others. Give them positive feedback when you see them succeeding at waiting their turn or reigning in their energy. Also, try reframing what you might see as negative into something positive and notice the small successes that your child with ADHD may brush aside as unimportant.
And finally, celebrate your child’s successes no matter how small! Celebration involves giving positive comments that are direct and descriptive about something your child has done. Praise works best when it is used for both efforts and accomplishments and is delivered immediately.
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