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ADHD and "Honest Lies"

People with ADHD can be prone to problematic processing.

Years ago there was a popular ad campaign for a large audio/video tape manufacturer: "Is it live or is it Memorex?" The gist of this provocative marketing message was that the tapes were so good at replicating real images, voices, and sounds that they were indistinguishable from live sounds and images.

The sad truth for many who struggle with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is that within communication, it is similarly hard to know, at times, what is for real and what is not. This applies to not only what those with ADHD say but what others around them also hear. Due to their executive functioning and processing challenges, people with ADHD can be prone to problematic processing and communication. This often leaves them having questionable authenticity in the eyes of others, and at times, even in how they view themselves.

Tragically such miscommunications and misunderstandings can make the speakers be quite unfairly labeled as lying, untrustworthy, or manipulative, or in other ways as negative throughout their lives. Yes, those with ADHD, like anyone else, can indeed be untruthful, manipulative, and intentionally misleading. But for those who struggle with ADHD, their various processing issues can often be at the heart of their misleading communication problems.

For example, when people with ADHD zone out, valuable communication is lost. Even after they resume attention they still may pay the price for the initial zone out. This unfortunate added consequence often occurs from not only trying to recall what information was actually missed or exchanged but also from dealing with the associated anxiety and frustrations. Complicating matters, it becomes hard for the person with ADHD to know where to exactly attribute their communication problems. Was it misunderstanding information in the first place, seeing the negative reactions of others, feeling added communication insecurities, or, then again, having the original memory lapses and distortions? There are usually no easy answers

People with ADHD may also think what they are saying is true when it is not. They may also not actually remember what they said in the first place and then try to guess what they actually said after the fact. There may also be times where the person with ADHD knows they are not saying the truth because of the shame of "being caught in a lie" so they try to spin their way out of the situation. In this case they may even be trying to protect themselves or others even though it just makes everything even more problematic and confusing. In short, those with ADHD may have a tough time expressing themselves and being perceived in a consistent, accurate, and believable manner.

To say the least, if you don't have ADHD, communicating with someone who does can often be similarly frustrating and confusing. The resulting "Is it live or is it Memorex" feeling usually does not end up being too warm and fuzzy. So, unfortunately, those with ADHD have the burden of having to overcome the crossed signals of poorly processed perceptions and unclear verbalizations. Those who don't have ADHD but are involved in the ADHD person's life have the challenge of being on the receiving end of those confusing interactions. In short, it is not only confusing for those with ADHD to relate to others but also confusing to relate to those who have ADHD when you don't.

We all know that these communication processing problems impact children with ADHD not only academically but also in how they interact with those who try to help. The child with ADHD who forgets his or her homework and concocts a colorful account such as "My dog ate it" is a classic example. Or how about a child telling herself, and you, that a new marking period will magically take away this quarter's bad habits? Consider as well the all-too-common scenario of the justifiably frustrated teacher demanding an explanation for the missing homework and refusing to accept "I don't know" as an answer. For kids with ADHD, this type of adversarial reaction may be a green light to make something up to protect themselves. In these examples, while what may seem like lying may actually have a deceptive element, there are neurological processing challenges associated with ADHD that are often just written off as a character issue.

Similarly, I have met with many impulsive/distractible teens who genuinely agree, at least in theory, to let their parents know their whereabouts. Then all chaos breaks lose when these teens become preoccupied and fall off the parents "reachability radar" for hours. While these children may also be elusive, it is often in part because they are busy covering up their tracks from managing time that they may have generally not been able to keep track of.

Moving into the marriage realm, this is often replete with communication problems when ADHD is involved. Consider the burnt-out spouse of the ADHD adult who gets tired of hearing, "That's not what I said or meant," when, in fact, it was what was said or even meant. Again, this may not really be about lying but how spouses with ADHD genuinely process information. In response to such crossed messages, some couples may become hypervigilant to write down and sign any agreement they come to. While this can help if done in a calm and supportive manner, it can also backfire by creating a heightened atmosphere of distrust if done in an accusatory and adversarial way.

Let's also remember the bosses and employees in the world of work whose communication patterns may also be negatively impacted by ADHD. How about the "face saving" or magical thinking that occurs when the employee with ADHD, noting an impending project deadline, tells her boss that she has almost completed it when in fact she had barely started it? Or what about the ADHD-challenged boss who is a charismatic, big-picture leader but avoids making specific, detail-laden policy decisions about what she did not truly pay attention to?

As you can see, there are many ways that such ADHD-related communication "misses" can sabotage relationships. The coping strategies presented below are offered to prevent these problems from occurring and provide damage control for when they do:

If you have ADHD you can help yourself with the "Misses" by doing the following:

  • Don't beat yourself up. Being hard on yourself only compounds the problem by leaving you filled with shame.
  • Don't give yourself labels such as liar, undependable, or manipulative. Remember that while ADHD is primarily a neurological problem, it can also become a major psychological one if you give yourself such negative labels because it can influence you to live up (or down) to them.
  • Show enthusiasm for doing your best and doing the right thing wherever you can.
  • Share with others, where appropriate, those situations in which you may be prone to becoming more easily overwhelmed or confusing and misperceiving things, at times.
  • Educate others in the circles your travel by informing or reminding them about the hardwiring differences of having ADHD versus not having it.
  • Share CHADD related and other informative ADHD information and materials to help educate others.
  • Stress your sincere desire to be open and willingness to work through inevitable misunderstandings.
  • Encourage written documentation of exchanges but in a collaborative, not adversarial manner.
  • Supportively tune in to the limitations of others so you stay empathetic to those people who try to similarly tolerate and understand you.
  • If you feel the urge to lie, ask yourself how you will truly feel afterwards. This will help you to bypass your impulsive instincts.

If you don't have ADHD but know someone who does, you can help improve your relationship by considering the following:

  • Be patient and calm to help bypass your own frustrations and the emotional reactivity of the ADHDer.
  • Stay away from a punishment mentality; it will just fuel more defensiveness and lying.
  • Be internally and outwardly empathetic about the realities of the "cognitive slippage" unique to the ADHD mind.
  • Remember that the person struggling with ADHD truly does not feel good about his confusion and his own setbacks instead of falling into the trap of perceiving that he enjoys confusing or conning others.
  • Reinforce the courage of the person with ADHD to be real and own his mistakes.
  • Encourage written agreements but make sure both parties participate in developing and deciding upon them.
  • Positively reinforce the person with ADHD for making the effort to ask for information to be repeated and clarified.
  • Remind yourself of the overlooked competencies of the person with ADHD.
  • Speak from your heart and share how much you admire those competencies.
  • Remember that even those who do not have ADHD can become confusing or confused when interacting with others.
  • Be open to continuing to learn new and effective/innovative ways to communicate.
  • Remember that no one chooses to have ADHD and its associated communication challenges but choosing to be tolerant and understanding will go a long way toward helping toimprove communication.
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