The name Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) makes many practitioners and researchers uncomfortable, including world-renowned ADHD authorities, Drs. Edward Hallowell and John J. Ratey. Both doctors have the condition and agree that the “D” for Deficit is inaccurate and insulting. They prefer to use Variable Attention Stimulus Trait (VAST), a more precise, constructive and less offensive term, which takes into account the condition’s two key traits: an abundance of wandering attention and a search for stimulation.
Hallowell and Ratey understand that ADHD can be “an asset and special power that can enhance your life” or a “potential demon that can ruin it.” In their new book, ADHD 2.0, they concentrate on how to maximize the benefits of having variable attention and a need for stimulation.
“ADHD is a good-news diagnosis. Once you know you have it and learn to manage it properly, your life can only get better.”
When talking to kids with ADHD, Hallowell tells them, “I have great news for you. Your mind runs like a race car with bicycle brakes. The brakes aren’t strong enough to control your brain, but we can strengthen your brakes.”
This analogy re-frames the diagnosis, placing it in a positive context: We’re here to unwrap your gifts, not treat your disability. In this context, kids can learn to understand their symptoms better, appreciate what they can do instead of beating themselves up about what they can’t do, and grasp the importance of boosting their resilience, and building on their creativity, spark and vigor.
How to “Strengthen the Brakes”
Following are positive strategies and life skills Hallowell and Ratey offer to help parents appreciate the upside of ADHD and support their kids in unlocking their potential.
- Tap into the healing power of connection.
Creating and maintaining positive social connections is “free, fun, and good for you,” says Hallowell. He explains that a lack of connection is especially harmful for kids with ADHD, who commonly feel left out, alone, misunderstood, beaten down, and plagued by negativity.
Not only is living in a state of disconnection distracting, Hallowell clarifies, but social isolation is as dangerous a risk factor for early death and disease as high blood pressure, obesity, smoking, and genetics. On the other hand, improving your social network is five times more powerful than taking prescription medication and three times as helpful as quitting smoking. “People who live a richly connected life live longer.”
- Create an environment to enhance the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit inherent in the ADHD brain.
Surround yourself with the elements you need to thrive: the right friendships, groups, career, community, and partner. “Be with people who like you, value you, have fun with you and bring you positivity,” stresses Hallowell.
Whether at home, at school or in the workplace, “stay away from those who insult and de-value you and from the ugly environments that shame, ridicule, and humiliate you, and make you feel you have to prove you can do it.”
- Find your right difficult and throw your heart and soul into it.
People with ADHD may not be good at a lot of things, says Hallowell, but they’re generally really good at something. “The thing that’s difficult that you have a talent for” is what he terms your right difficult — a challenging creative outlet that forces your attention to work overtime, is where your growth skyrockets, and is where you can build a satisfying career. He and Ratey suggest using behavior assessments to discover the activities and work best suited to your strengths.
- Use exercise and play to increase focus, motivation, memory and emotional wellbeing.
Ratey stresses that all kids learn and behave better when they’re physically active and encourages play and movement before, during and after school. He emphasizes that vigorous play and exercise—chase games, tag, running, calisthenics, jumping jacks, stretching, yoga, dancing—activate the parts of the brain that stimulate attention, sharpen focus, decrease impulsivity and agitation, improve balance and coordination, and even aid in cooperation.
- Respect medication and understand its true benefits.
Ratey acknowledges that many parents are fearful of medications and dislike the idea of giving their kids “drugs.” He explains that drugs to treat ADHD can be extremely useful, have minimal side effects, and that a trial of meds is totally reversible.
Urging parents to shift their view of what ADHD drugs can do, Ratey explains that medication prescribed by knowledgeable clinicians can be as powerful a life-changer for kids as eyeglasses for those with vision problems.
This article is based on an ADDitude webinar, ADHD Clarified: New Research and Essential Strategies for Thriving with ADHD, by Edward Hallowell, MD and John Ratey, MD. Eve Kessler, Esq., a former criminal appellate lawyer, is Executive Director of SPED*NET Wilton (CT), www.spednetwilton.org, and a Contributing Editor of SmartKids