Psycom recently sat down with perhaps the most well-known and well-respected attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) expert on the planet. Edward (Ned) Hallowell, MD (along with his co-author Dr. John Ratey) literally wrote the book on ADHD/ADD more than two decades ago.

Now considered a classic, that book Driven to Distraction, broke new ground and became a national bestseller. But before it was published in 1994 few people knew much if anything about ADHD or ADD (predominantly inattentive type). Today most people have heard of ADHD but it is still widely misunderstood.

Edward Hallowell, MD

Dr. Hallowell, 71, has nearly 100,000 followers on TikTok(@nedtalks).

Dr. Hallowell (and Dr. Ratey) wrote their new book, ADHD 2.0: New Science and Essential Strategies for Thriving with Distraction—from Childhood Through Adulthood to dispel persistent myths (i.e., ADHD isn’t a real medical condition; people with ADHD are just lazy) about ADHD and raise awareness about the many positives!

As Dr. Hallowell told me recently, “We want the world to know that ADHD is cool—it really is. In the book, we showcase the amazing skills and abilities that people with ADHD have so if you, a loved one, or your child is struggling you’ll feel inspired rather than defeated.”

The book also contains the latest science plus tips and guidance to help parents (and adults with ADHD) maximize the benefits and minimize the challenges. Dr. Hallowell is well aware of these difficulties. He, too, has ADHD (and so do two of his three children). But in his view, ADHD can be a superpower.

“ADHD is a powerful force, but it needs to be harnessed. If mastered it brings out abilities that can’t be taught or bought and is often the lifeblood of creativity,” he says. “Creativity is impulsivity gone right. It is just one of the many gifts—and I do mean gifts—people with ADHD tend to have. The trick is discovering and building on those gifts.”

We posed some FAQs from the parents of kids with ADHD to Dr. Hallowell. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation:

Is ADHD A Mental Illness?

ADHD is not a mental illness. The CDC defines it as a neurodevelopmental disorder. ADHD is a terrible term. It’s inaccurate and stigmatizing. ADHD is a complex condition that exists on a spectrum and generally impacts the parts of the brain that control the ability to plan, focus, and execute. I see it as a trait and have proposed a name change to reflect ADHD more accurately.

ADHD should not be viewed as a disease or a deficit disorder. People with ADHD do not have a deficit of attention. What we have is an abundance of attention—more attention than we can cope with, in fact. The challenge is learning to control it.

A Better Name for ADHD

A more accurate description of ADHD is variable attention stimulus trait or VAST. I’d like ADHD to be viewed as a way of being in the world which, with the right support, can be a wonderful way of being. Instead, ADHD is looked at through the lens of pathology and negativity. I’m on a mission to change that and a new name would help to accomplish that goal.

ADHD is full of a lot of good stuff and if you learn how to properly manage it, it can take you far in life. If you don’t, it can ruin your life with pain and needless suffering. So many successful people have ADHD and I’d like to get the word out about them.

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Kary Mullis, the Nobel-prize-winning scientist who developed the PCR test used to detect COVID-19, had ADHD. There are surgeons, self-made millionaires, actors like Justin Timberlake, and Wall Street commodity traders with ADHD.

David Neelman, founder and CEO of JetBlue Airways, also has ADHD. Mr. Neelman says the key to success is being unconventional. He told me his ability to “look at things differently” led him to develop the electronic ticketing system widely used by airlines today. “No one had ever thought of going ticketless but to me, it was a very obvious thing.”

Mr. Neelman’s story helps illustrate the upside of ADHD. When you have ADHD boredom is your kryptonite. Our minds are constantly racing in search of stimulation. A lot of terrific ideas come out of that curiosity and the drive to create.

How Do I Get My Child Diagnosed with ADHD?

The most tell-tale sign of ADHD is unexplained underachievement. So, if you have a child you know is bright, hardworking, and curious but underperforming, bring it to your pediatrician’s attention.

ADHD 2.0 by Ned Hallowell, MD

Ask your pediatrician or school guidance counselor to refer you to a qualified ADHD clinician but you should know that there aren’t that many doctors out there who really understand ADHD and they admit that to me all the time. (A lot of teachers and school administrators don’t really understand it either!)

Part of the problem is a lack of child psychiatrists. (To become a child psychiatrist, you need an extra two years of training so all child psychiatrists can treat adults but adult psychiatrists can’t treat children if they haven’t had the additional training.)

Unless you live in the New York/Connecticut/New Jersey area or Seattle, LA, or Chicago there are enormous ADHD deserts across the country. If you live near a university with a medical school, get in touch with their psychiatry department and ask them if they have someone who specializes in ADHD. Most likely they will. If that person is all booked up, ask for a referral to someone else. Most of the time this can be a very good way to find a high-quality practitioner.

Other ways to find a qualified ADHD clinician: ask other people you know who are the parents of kids with ADHD, join a Facebook support group, or ask your school psychologist.

What Is The Best Way to Explain ADHD to A Recently-Diagnosed Child?

I recommend using a strength-based model. Don’t use language that might make ADHD seem dangerous or scary. My favorite analogy is to compare the brain of a child with ADHD to a Ferrari. Here’s a sample script: I have great news. You have an amazing brain. It’s like a Ferrari one of the world’s fastest and most powerful race cars but there’s one problem…you have bicycle brakes so you can’t slow down or stop when you need to. But here’s the good news: I’m a brake specialist.

We will work together to build your breaks, so you’ll be able to stop when you need to and win those races. It won’t happen overnight, but I’ll help you get there, and you’ll do just fine.

Kids buy into this and feel good about themselves. Never explain it as a disorder that needs treatment.

What’s Your Advice About Stimulant Medication?

Every parent tells me they don’t want to put their kid on medication. They don’t want to send the message that a pill is the way to solve their problems and they worry that stimulants are a gateway drug and will lead to future drug addiction.

First of all, stimulant medication—Ritalin and Adderall are the go-tos—have been with us for a very long time. Methylphenidate (Ritalin) was first marketed as Ritalin in 1954 but had been in use in a different form since 1937. The research is quite clear that stimulants are effective when used appropriately and as prescribed. They are tried and true.

Unfortunately, the media sensationalizes the problems surrounding stimulant medication. Yes, the medication can be misused but you never hear the good news. Here’s what’s true—stimulant medication saves lives. How? By preventing people from struggling so much to function that they lose hope.

Not wanting to take medication is rooted in ignorance and wrong information or both. I understand the hesitation, but there is no harm in doing a trial of medication. If it doesn’t work—not everyone responds to stimulants—or if your child has undesirable side effects your doctor can reduce the dose or discontinue it. On the other hand, if you don’t try it, you’ll never know if it could have helped your child be more successful.

With regards to being a gateway drug. Here is the truth. If you have untreated ADHD you are at greater risk of abusing drugs or alcohol. Treatment reduces the risk. It’s statistically true that children with ADHD are more likely to abuse substances but what’s driving that is the ADHD itself NOT the medication.

(*Note: Some people, including Dr. Hallowell are not stimulant responsive. “Coffee/caffeine is the stimulant medication that works best for me,” he told me, raising the coffee cup that accompanies him wherever he goes.)

Stimulant medication works by stimulating the breaks to work better. ADHD brains don’t need more stimulation, but the breaks do. The medication works by slowing down the racing brain so it can focus and concentrate better.

If you really aren’t ready to go the medication route, you can try adding an hour of daily exercise, but it needs to be vigorous movement. One hour of the right kind of exercise can provide four hours of improved attention and focus. Exercise encourages the production of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin in the brain which play roles in regulating the attention system. The effects are similar to medication (methylphenidate).1

To be clear, is stimulant medication necessary to treat ADHD? No. It’s just one tool in a toolbox but for 80% of people that have ADHD it’s a very effective tool, so why not try it?

Will My Child Eventually Outgrow ADHD?

ADHD is one of the most common neurodevelopmental problems in children. The worldwide prevalence of ADHD in children is estimated to be five percent (in the US, 6.1 million children, ages 2 to 17, have the diagnosis) but that number is likely higher because so many people that have it have learned to cope with the symptoms.2 ADHD cannot be cured and it is not something you outgrow. ADHD is always there but many people learn how to cope with their worse symptoms so ADHD may appear to be less of an issue.

The reality is that too many people go undiagnosed. It’s sad to think about the hardship and struggle that could have been avoided.

Is ADHD Caused By Bad Parenting?

We still don’t’ know for certain how ADHD develops but it’s definitely not from bad parenting or eating too much sugar. Research shows that genetics and heredity are contributing factors—most children with ADHD have at least one close relative with ADHD—but researchers are looking into specific genes as well as environmental toxins that may be linked to ADHD.3

That’s not to say that parenting doesn’t impact ADHD. People with ADHD are extremely sensitive to criticism and if all they hear from mom and dad is what they are doing wrong, they feel ashamed and their self-image suffers.4

How Do You Discipline A Child with ADHD?

Letting go of the impulse to correct behavior is tough but what they need most are sympathy and understanding. ADHD impulsiveness can lead to not-so-great decisions but instead of using the traditional consequences and discipline model, show them sympathy and understanding so they will feel no shame.

Here’s an example of how to reframe your response to undesirable behavior:

Instead of saying:
You broke Mrs. Brown’s window, no video games for a week.

Try this instead:
You broke Mrs. Brown’s window with that rock because you have a Ferrari/powerful brain and bicycle breaks. I know you didn’t mean to be destructive, but your breaks failed you. There’s work to be done on strengthening the brakes but we’ll get there, and I’ll help you.

Be sure your child understands how to respond appropriately. In this context, he should apologize to Mrs. Brown and replace the broken window. This approach also shows him he can trust you. You want him to see you as the person to go to when there’s a problem. What you don’t want is for him to avoid you and withhold information because he fears punishment and more shame.

The Impact of ADHD on Parents

A note about the impact of raising a child with ADHD. Though not often acknowledged, it’s tough on many marriages—especially if you and your spouse don’t agree about how to respond to ADHD-related behavior issues.

When you’re in the weeds of raising a child with ADHD, it can help to know how other families have overcome their ADHD-related struggles. My book has plenty of compelling real-life ADHD success stories. For more parenting tips, consider subscribing to my YouTube Channel (#NedTalks) or watch my TikTok videos—there are several for kids. TikTok’s short videos are the ideal way to deliver information to the ADHD brain!

Understanding the disorder, accepting the challenges, and learning how to cope with the most difficult symptoms (i.e., hyperactivity and impulsivity), can be a game-changer.

How Can I Help My Child with ADHD?

Kids with ADHD hear a lot of negative feedback. Find opportunities to catch them doing good and when your patience starts to wane remember they aren’t giving you are a hard time, they are having a hard time. Build their confidence by finding ways for them to be successful. Here are a few ideas:

Give Your Child with ADHD Creative Outlets

It doesn’t matter what it is: cooking, building, gardening, writing, etc. All people with ADHD need creative outlets—they really do and this is an often overlooked tool for helping with ADHD symptoms. My creative outlet is writing. One of the reasons I’ve written so many books (20) is that when I don’t have a book to work on, I get depressed. People with ADHD are driven by a need to create. It gives them an outlet for their energy and a place to focus their attention.

Create Systems that Help with Time Management and Organization

Another way to help your child thrive is to set them up to succeed by putting systems into play. Due to challenges in the executive functioning part of the brain, people with ADHD tend to be forgetful and disorganized. I speak from lived experience since I have ADHD, too.

Just this morning I poured grapefruit juice into my coffee instead of milk. I wasn’t paying attention. My ADHD mind was elsewhere. To avoid doing this again I moved the grapefruit juice to the opposite part of the refrigerator.

When I leave home, it’s not unusual for me to realize I’ve forgotten something as I’m sitting in the car, ready to go. I typically make several trips back into my house to retrieve important items—my wallet, the car keys, the special lunch I made that I really want to eat later, my phone charger…you get the idea. When I remember (ha!) to make a list before leaving, it really makes a positive difference!

You can do the same for your child with ADHD—create systems that help him with time management and organization.

Reassure Your Child with ADHD It’s Not Their Fault

A lot of kids who have ADHD are smart, creative, and curious but they’re also emotionally immature. They are behind their peers which impacts their ability to read social cues, play cooperatively, share, and make friends. They can be silly. They interrupt a lot and that can be really annoying to other kids.

It’s not because they’re spoiled but their ADHD puts them behind. You can help when playground problems erupt by pointing out that it’s not their fault and coaching them about what to do next time.

Here are four words important words to incorporate into your vocabulary. Use them often when explaining the world to your child with ADHD. It’s. Not. Your. Fault.

ADHD is not an excuse for taking responsibility, but it is a powerful explanation for why some things are so downright difficult. What to do about it? The solution is to first show them understanding and next, to be their coach. Teach them the skills they lack—this requires patience and persistence because it doesn’t happen overnight. Shore them up in the areas where they fail so they are freed up to put their full effort into areas where they flourish.

What happens if ADHD isn’t treated?

Without treatment children with ADHD can become adults with ADHD who struggle in their careers and sometimes, because of impulsivity and poor time management and organizational skills have financial problems and difficulties in relationships.

ADHD rarely exists alone. It’s highly comorbid with a number of mental health challenges like anxiety and depression. Adults with untreated ADHD are also highly vulnerable to mood disorders and substance abuse issues.

Identifying, treating, and accepting ADHD early on is the key to maximizing the benefits of this fascinating and wonderful and frustrating, and difficult trait.

ADHD Resources

There are plenty of excellent ADHD resources in ADHD 2.0. Here are a few for you:

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Last Updated: Jun 11, 2021