Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Most Important Thing You Can Give Your Child with ADHD

by Terry Dickson, MD, ACG, CPCC
If you are like so many parents I have interviewed over the years, you no doubt have felt the frustration of having to repeat yourself many times, of raising a child who is easily distracted and doesn’t listen well, of endless homework battles and poor school performance of a child you know is very capable and intelligent. You may also have a difficult time being patient with the child who gets frustrated easily, having frequent meltdowns and perceiving everything as being unfair.

As challenging as kids with ADHD can be, they are not unlike other kids in that they need to know that they are important and accepted. They often have experienced being reprimanded time and time again for their behaviors. They are often misunderstood as being lazy or unmotivated or irresponsible. So they fear being rejected and they need to know that they are valuable to you.

It is so easy to focus on the negative consequences of your child’s behavior; he or she hears numerous complaints about getting a D or F in class. But how often does the same child receive positive comments for things going well? Are our expectations for these kids unreasonable? Are we spending too much time trying to put out fires and not enough time teaching them skills to help them overcome ADHD traits?

I learned the answers to these questions the hard way over the last few years. I became increasingly aware of ways in which I actually hindered my relationship with my children by having unreasonable expectations for them. I was unaware of how I was unintentionally making them feel worse about themselves.

When I was a teenager, school was extremely important for me, perhaps too important. In part, I based my self-worth on making good grades and being on the honor roll. Perhaps because I had undiagnosed ADHD and it was more difficult for me to focus and complete assignments, I compensated by working even harder to keep my grades up.

Before I had kids of my own, I had already envisioned them accomplishing the things I wish I could have accomplished. I dreamed they would be excellent students and high achievers. I even had colleges picked out for them! I envisioned my children as students rather than real people. I didn’t know my children would be diagnosed with ADHD and be greatly challenged with school. One had a learning style that didn’t even lend itself to a regular classroom; although extremely intelligent, that child performed very poorly in the standard school setting.

What was my reaction? It was generally negative: “Why can’t you try harder?” I had so much experience working with people who struggled with the same issues in my clinical practice, but when it came to my own children, I was unable to be objective.

Over the years, I learned an important lesson: The most important thing I could give to my children is unconditional love. It is the kind of love that never goes away. It is bestowed not because of something a person does; rather it is there just because of who a person is.

If you’ve struggled with giving your child unconditional love, here is what you can do:

•    Think of love as an action, not a feeling. Feelings are something we get from others and if we stop getting them, we often react by changing our behavior somehow. If someone has to do something or act in a certain way to receive your love, that love is conditional.
•    Love yourself unconditionally, too. Let yourself be human, capable of making mistakes.
•    Your child needs and wants your total acceptance. This means that what he or she thinks and feels must be heard, honored and respected even if you don’t agree.
•    Separate your child from the behavior. Children need to be loved for who they are, not for what they do. You may not like their behavior, but it can’t change your love for them. It is so easy to shut down emotionally because of inappropriate behavior; make a cognitive choice to love your child anyway.
•    Appreciate the uniqueness of each of your children.
•    Do whatever is needed to encourage your child to believe in himself or herself.
•    Exercise forgiveness and admit when you make a mistake too.
•    Create an atmosphere of good communication and trust.

So go make a difference in your child’s life!


Terry M. Dickson, MD, ACG, CPCC, is the founder and director of The Behavioral Medicine Clinic of NW Michigan that has served and supported children, adolescents, and adults with ADHD for over eleven years. He has been a principal study investigator for several clinical ADHD medication trials. He is also a graduate of the ADD Coach Academy and the Coaches Training Institute. Diagnosed with ADHD as an adult, Dr. Dickson speaks regularly on ADHD and has been interviewed locally and nationally on radio, television, and CHADD’s Ask the Expert online. Dr. Dickson and his wife of 32 years have two teenage children, both of whom have ADHD. This blog post originally appeared in the June 2014 issue of Attention magazine.


  1. Thanks. Always good to be reminded of this.

  2. thank you for this article. I think that a lot of times I am too tough on my own self and that makes me even tougher on my son. (8 y.o w/ ADHD, ODD, OCD) and it causes for me to give more attention to the negative and not acknowledge enough of the positive. My son has no self esteem or confidence which I believe now is even more apparent and beginning to show in his choices and words. Man, its sooo Hard!! I will admit I struggle when I am melting down to remember that it is the behavior and not my son who is the disappointment. but I feel like all his struggles are my personal problems and responsibilities. "its because I am not doing enough to make him better that he continues to get worse" (my daily thoughts)

  3. My son has really bad ADHD. It has been really hard for my wife and I to help him focus and get things done. We are looking for tips and things we can do to help him out. This article was perfect and exactly what we needed. Thanks for taking the time to put this up.