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10 Things to Know if Someone You Love Has ADHD

10. Believe it or not, the "mess" is "organized."

Key points

  • ADHD behaviors are often misperceived as disrespectful, lazy, careless, self-absorbed, or rude. 
  • For people with ADHD, it can be overwhelming and frustrating to be interrupted, distracted, or questioned during a conversation.
  • It is scientifically proven that fidgeting and movement can improve and increase focus for people with ADHD.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or ADHD is one of the most misunderstood diagnoses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). As a mental health professional who specializes in ADHD, I find myself constantly educating people about ADHD behaviors that are often perceived as disrespectful, lazy, careless, self-absorbed, and rude.

Advocating for the individual with ADHD can sometimes be a frustrating experience, but imagine being the one who is constantly misunderstood and misjudged. Imagine having to explain daily that your words and actions were misconstrued. Now, imagine people not believing you when you do. Whether you're a friend, family member, or significant other, it can be illuminating, helpful, and worthwhile to dive a little deeper into the behaviors that frustrate you. We both know that they're more than worth it.

1. Try not to interrupt when they're explaining or thinking.

One of the hallmark executive functioning deficits in ADHD is working memory. Working memory is a skill that lets us hold onto or retain small amounts of information in our minds while executing another task—for example, remembering directions while driving to the intended destination. It's the kind of memory that allows us to maintain a train of thought. When working memory is impaired, it can be overwhelming and frustrating when one is interrupted, distracted, or questioned during a conversation. Their train of thought can be lost, sometimes temporarily, sometimes permanently. Paradoxically, this is often the reason people with ADHD will interrupt you! They are acutely aware that if they do not tell you the information that pops up in their mind at that very moment, they may not be able to inform you of it again.

Tip: If you love someone with ADHD, try to master the art of "awkward silence," as we do in therapy. Science says silence becomes awkward for humans at around the four-second mark. I say live dangerously, practice patience, and wait 10 seconds for them to gather their thoughts.

2. Visual reminders and Post-It notes are your friends.

Forgetful behavior is also one of the top complaints from loved ones about ADHD. "They lost their cell phone," "lost their AirPods," "lost their keys," "forgot their homework," "missed the deadline," and "didn't pay the bill on time" are all common and frustrating occurrences.

It's best to pair a visual reminder on or around the task that is supposed to be performed. The use of multiple reminders and mediums is better. For example, if they forget their homework at home or school, it's best to attach a permanent reminder on the zipper of their backpack. I recommend using pictures instead of words for children. Technology in apps and trackers can also help locate missing items such as cell phones, keys, AirPods, and glasses. Post-It note reminders at a desk, laptop, or door can also help. Finally, having a routine is probably the most beneficial technique. Designate a high-traffic area of the house to place their most essential belongings when they return from work or school.

3. Avoid making requests when they're engaged in an activity.

This is a frequent cause of an argument or flash of anger in an ADHD household. The loved one will make a request of the person with ADHD when they are engaged in another activity like watching a TV show. The loved one will then expect the person with ADHD to stop and respond to the request immediately. The person with ADHD is typically irritated by the interruption, and the loved one is confused as to why the transition is so difficult. It's best to wait until the person is finished before requesting anything. If that's not possible, wait for a commercial break, text them the request, hand them a Post-It, or knock on the door before asking. They'll appreciate the effort.

4. Listening looks different.

"The teacher says they're not paying attention and doodling in class"; "They don't make eye contact when they talk to me"; or "They're fidgeting with something or moving around when I talk to them." These behaviors are often misinterpreted as "rude" or "disrespectful." It is scientifically proven that fidgeting and movement can improve and increase focus for people with ADHD. Also, people with ADHD will report feeling overwhelmed and overstimulated by consistent eye contact. They will need to avert their eyes to focus on conversation content and not be distracted by evaluating facial expressions.

5. Rejection sensitivity dysphoria, or RSD, is real and a symptom of ADHD.

RSD, an emotional dysregulation symptom of ADHD, is common; however, you won't find it in the DSM. RSD is defined as "a triggered, wordless emotional pain that occurs after an actual or perceived loss of approval, love, or respect."

In an interview, the ADHD specialist who coined the term, William Dodson, M.D., explained:

The pain is so primitive and overwhelming that people struggle to find any words to describe it... In reaction, these individuals often either become people pleasers or withdraw and abandon their own goals out of fear of failure. The other most common way of protecting oneself from the extreme pain of RSD is to give up trying anything new unless one is assured of quick and complete success. The notion of trying and failing or being turned down is just too painful to risk. They don't go on dates. They don't apply for jobs. They don't speak in meetings or make their ideas and needs known to anyone.

6. They perceive and evaluate time differently than you do.

Being chronically late, taking too long to get ready, waiting until the last minute to begin something… sound familiar? A 2019 review of the ADHD literature found that children, adolescents, and adults with ADHD exhibit issues with time management due to their perception of time and executive functioning deficits. Inattention to time can cause a host of problems at school, home, or in a relationship. Purchasing a visual timer is a great time-management resource for your loved one.

7. They may tire easily.

I often compare the ADHD brain to a Formula One car. These brains are built for high speed and increased power. The overactive ADHD brain becomes exhausted and depleted more quickly than neurotypical brains. These minds are often moving at 100 mph, not to mention that managing executive function deficits is a full-time job. Try to be patient with their energy levels. Suggest taking a break or nap, having a snack, engaging in a quick meditation, or doing an activity that they are passionate about to help refuel and restore their quickly depleted reserves.

8. They may struggle to express their thoughts and feelings accurately.

Sometimes people with ADHD can be unfairly characterized as "abrasive" or "insensitive" to the needs and feelings of others due to their issues with communication. Impulse-control issues are characteristic of ADHD. Words can be blurted out without thinking, jokes can be said without forethought, and conversation "filters" can be nonexistent. It's also common to witness people with ADHD struggling to find the right words or to assign the correct label to a feeling when explaining themselves.

Before you assume anything, ask them clarifying questions. For example, “Did you mean_______?”

9. Group interactions can be overwhelming and stressful.

Imagine that your eyes were like an iPhone camera in "burst mode," taking hundreds of high-speed photos at any given moment. If you were alone, you could probably process the information without anxiety. But imagine that it happened when you were in a group while trying to focus on listening and following the conversation. Now imagine that while you were trying to listen, you also had to consciously filter out and ignore sensory distractions, reply to the people talking to you, and monitor if you're talking too much or too little, all while trying to regulate the anxiety created by the awareness of every component involved in a single social interaction.

Overwhelmed? That's exactly how they feel. These issues can all serve as deterrents to joining group gatherings for people with ADHD. Be compassionate with your loved ones; sometimes they won't have the energy to join in on the fun or stay at the party for too long.

10. Believe it or not, the "mess" is "organized."

I like to call it organized chaos. It can be exceptionally frustrating to witness the disorganization and clutter. Still, more times than not, the person with ADHD has a purpose for that pile and can tell you precisely what all of the mess entails. Word to the wise: Don't rearrange it or "organize" it for them. You may be well-intentioned, but the loved one with ADHD won't appreciate the effort. It's best to offer help or suggest an alternative place for their belongings.

Facebook/LinkedIn image: Marmolejos/Shutterstock


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