The Flip Sides of ADHD: Balancing the Challenges and Strengths

If you’re the parent of a child with ADHD, you’ve probably wondered how she can simultaneously have the memory of an elephant and the absentmindness of someone typing on her smartphone. Her backpack may look like a small tornado passed through, but her baseball card collection is organized to the nth degree.

Understanding Flip-Side Traits

Many parents are familiar with the diagnostic symptoms of ADHD — inattention, impulsivity, hyperactivity — but you’ve likely also seen traits in your child that are baffling because they are at opposite ends of a spectrum. We’ve come to call such challenge-and-strength pairings “flip-side traits.” These paradoxical twins often lead parents and teachers alike to look on with confusion. How can a child be remarkably skilled and remarkably weak in the same area? Flip-side traits help to explain this seeming paradox in the characteristics of individuals with ADHD.

When we use this term, we are not simply highlighting a positive aspect of a particular challenge; rather, we are stating that the opposing challenge and strength both exist within the same individual. A child with ADHD may, for example, have difficulty sustaining attention while also possessing a notable ability to hyperfocus on certain tasks.

The most common flip-side traits we see in children with ADHD are:

  • Easily Distracted and Hyperfocused
  • Fixated and Creative
  • Lacking Inhibition and Showing Courage
  • Disorganized and Very Organized
  • Procrastinating and Being Impatient
  • Having Lots of Energy and No Energy
  • Forgetful and Having an Extraordinary Memory
  • Passionate Interests and No Interests
  • Irritable and Tender-hearted
  • Worried and Not Worried Enough
  • Rejecting Help and Giving Help

What do flip-side traits look like in a child?

If you take a moment and consider your child, you’ll undoubtedly recognize many of these pairings. A child who is easily distracted during math class may be hyperfocused on the basketball court. Your daughter may consistently forget to turn in her homework but is able to remember every detail of the Battle of Gettysburg. Perhaps she is frustratingly disorganized but has every friend’s phone number accurately entered into her cell phone. Or she may fret over small mistakes she made on a homework assignment but remain completely nonchalant about a critical exam that is nearing.

How can the characteristics of ADHD be both challenges and strengths?

It helps to understand that children with ADHD do everything to the extreme; whatever they do, they do it big. Your child’s anger may be huge, but her love is even bigger. Her meltdowns might be epic, but so are her hugs. She may not be able to focus on homework for 2 minutes, but she can build a Lego tower for 2 hours. These dualities occur at a neurological level for your child, and the behavioral pairings are simply the external expressions of this hardwiring.

Research by Dr. Nora Voltow at the National Institutes of Health has shown that there is reduced activity in the dopamine reward system of individuals diagnosed with ADHD, and this neurological state causes them to be less responsive to activities that are not “inherently rewarding.” Such insight helps to explain why your child will spend hours on stimulating activities but quickly become distracted with less novel tasks. Those interests that provide an immediate reward — like the rapid action of a video game, for example — stimulate the dopamine system, and she will, in turn, feel engaged and attentive. Tasks that are uninteresting create a higher hurdle for activating the neurological reward centers, and as a result, are less likely to hold your child’s attention for a sufficient length of time to enable her to learn a new skill.

Leveraging Flip-Side Traits

Children with ADHD are, in a manner of speaking, experts on their own brains. They know what it feels like to be themselves, and if you ask, they will give you examples of the flip-side traits they experience. We help children understand these dualities by teaching them that their brains “light up” when they’re doing something exciting, and that these activities feel rewarding because of what is occurring neurologically.

Your child will immediately understand why she can pay attention to a 3-hour basketball game, but a 50-minute history class can’t hold her attention for 5 minutes. It is not because she is “bad at history,” as she may have previously claimed. It is because basketball lights up her brain in a way that a lecture does not. The key to helping your child with this situation is to put strategies in place to enable her to do well in classes that are not inherently stimulating.

Below are two examples of flip-side traits that often cause a lot of frustration for parents and children alike. You can use these strategies to teach your child how to gain control over the characteristics of her ADHD and boost her learning in the process.

Easily Distracted and Hyperfocused

Hyperfocusing causes children with ADHD to get so fixated on a task or idea that they become oblivious to everything else. They may not even hear a parent calling their name. To balance your child’s ability to focus so intently on a preferred task with her difficulty attending to nonpreferred tasks, begin by creating an optimal work area and routine with her.

  • Find a workspace that fits your child’s learning style, like sitting in a chair at the kitchen table or an exercise ball at her desk.
  • Minimize distractions — but remember that what is distracting to you may not be to your child.
  • Build in movement breaks, such as jumping jacks, going on a swing, or running around the yard.
  • Break tasks down into manageable chunks. By dividing assignments or chores into components, it’s easier for your child to see what needs to be done. This organizational strategy, in turn, reduces the sense of feeling overwhelmed. This will allow her to successfully complete the task and retain the information.
  • Set an alarm to ring at predetermined times to disrupt your child’s hyperfocused state. (The alarm must be outside of arm’s reach and loud enough to demand her attention or she may ignore it.)
  • Use her hyperfocus as a strength and maximize her attention by blending preferred activities with nonpreferred activities. For example, if your child must complete a school project, encourage her to choose an area of interest that she is passionate about, like basketball or horses.

Forgetful and Having an Extraordinary Memory

Memory challenges are common among children with ADHD. At times, your child may recall detailed information without any problem, while at others, she is maddeningly forgetful. Sometimes, teachers and parents misjudge these difficulties as demonstrating a lack of motivation or irresponsibility.

If your child experiences such inconsistencies of memory, you can help her develop the skills to “light up” her brain so that mundane tasks will also be ingrained into routine and memory.

  • Follow up your conversations with written lists so that your child will have visual cues to reference. It’s even better if she creates the list for herself — and she can do this on paper, on her phone, or even the bathroom mirror!
  • Encourage your child to rely on visual practices: using a day planner, taking notes on a phone, or taking pictures of tasks that need to be done.
  • Help her to incorporate learning necessary (but less engaging) information with activities that are inherently more interesting to her. For example, she can memorize math facts while shooting baskets, or she can create rhymes as she learns the names of African countries.
  • As with the prior flip-side traits, breaking tasks down into manageable chunks is also effective for a forgetfulness-and-memory pairing.

We love it when children, teens, parents, and educators see the seeming paradoxes of ADHD in a new light. Frustration turns into a sense of discovery and endless possibility. The happiest and most successful adults with ADHD understand their flip-side traits and are, in fact, driven by the positives!

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Sources:

Dodson, W. (n.d.). Secrets of the ADHD brain. Retrieved September 5, 2015, from ADDitude.

Identifying brain differences in people with ADHD. (2009, September 11). Retrieved September 5, 2015, from NPR.

Volkow, N., Wang, G., et al. (2009, September 9). Evaluating dopamine reward pathway in ADHD: Clinical implications. Retrieved September 5, 2015, from U.S. National Library of Medicine.