Guest Expert

Taking ADHD/LD from Stress to De-Stress

ADHD/LD and Stress

Kids with ADHD are constantly stressed by demands that put them in overdrive. They wonder why school is so hard – so frustrating – so maddening. Depending on the research, anywhere from 30-50% of these kids also have specific learning disabilities (SLD) in addition to ADHD. While many may know they “have it,” most do not have a good understanding of ADHD or their other diagnoses.

As a result, these kids don't understand why they face challenges everyday that look really easy for other kids, but are major hurdles for them. So they respond in predicable ways:

  1. They think they are stupid, or
  2. They try to hide their struggles. Generally, they do this by “acting up and acting out” (e.g. arguing, challenging, acting silly, negating the importance of the task); or “acting in” (e.g. withdrawing, getting teary, going to the nurse, skipping school, looking sad)

What they don't do is grab this invisible bull by the horns and wrestle it to the ground. Why? Because they don't know what's causing the difficulty, and they don't believe they can do anything about it. In short, they are not in control of their own academic destiny.

Why is this important? When people don't believe they have any control over the factors that threaten their physical or psychological safety, they are under stress.

Good stress gets us ready for a challenge. It says, “don't sweat this (literally) – we can handle this. We see the problem and know how to solve it – so hunker down and make this threat go away!”

Bad stress sends our brains the message that “unless you get out of here now, something bad is going to happen.” The kids that I've described above are under chronic, bad stress.

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In a simplified way, this is what the Stress Process looks like:

  1. Stress creates hormones that help us deal with things that we perceive as threats to survival.
  2. One of these hormones is cortisol.
  3. The right amount of cortisol helps to create additional chemical changes that put our brains and bodies in balance.
  4. Too much stress creates too much cortisol, and “BAM!” the whole system is out of whack.
  5. In a protective move, the brain actually attempts to re-calibrate itself to deal with this imbalance so that the stressor seems less harmful. The primitive or “old brain” – the one that is responsible for survival – goes into high gear.
  6. Meanwhile, the “new brain” (the pre-frontal cortex), which is responsible for the executive functions that help us plan and learn, takes a back seat to the survival brain.
  7. The result is continuous stress – caused by the reality or the perception that tasks are too difficult – which leads to changes in brain chemistry that have a negative impact on memory and learning.

Here's the good news. Teaching kids about their conditions (SLD and/or ADHD) helps them relieve stress by getting a sense of power over these impediments. When kids learn strategies that lead to increased success, they get a greater sense of control, experience less stress, and avoid the cumulative toxicity that impairs brain function. In other words, the continuous stress cycle is a reversible process!

When parents, teachers, other professionals – and most importantly the kids, themselves – understand this phenomenon, they can identify new ways to interpret students' efforts to “escape” stressful situations. Behaviors that are oppositional or defiant will no longer be misread and mislabeled as rude or disrespectful.

There are many things you can do to help your kids understand the nature and the consequences of their ADHD/LD.  See my book for suggestions on talking with your kids, and helping them understand what they can do to work through or around their disabilities. You may also read Keath Low's article on 5 Talking Points your Kids needs to know about ADHD, or Diane Dempster's 3 Tips in Parenting ADHD.

In addition, here are some suggestions that you might try:

  1. Teach your kids to identify potential impediments. Ask them to consider what might be getting in the way of doing their work. Jump-start your child's thinking by suggesting such things as:
    • competing events (family activities, friends call, texting, new video game, etc.)
    • lack of adequate place to study
    • inadequate prior preparation or skills
    • a negative attitude (this is not necessary, I can't do math, I'll never need to know this, etc).
    • health factors (I'm sick; I'm tired)
  2. Teach your kids to identify potential enhancers, such as what might make it more likely that they will do their work. You can empower them by suggesting self-talk such as:
    • I have confidence in my ability
    • I feel competent in this skill
    • I am committed to learning this because…
    • I have what it takes to complete this task, such as materials, sources of information, people supports; parents, tutor, other kids
  3. Turn ADHD distress into de-stress by using the Language of Success. De-emphasize PRAISE and emphasize SELF-APPRAISAL. You can encourage self-evaluation by asking:
    • How do you think you did?
    • Are you satisfied with this?
    • What goal were you working on?
    • Did you achieve your goal?

In all of these suggestions, make an effort to focus on the process more than the product. This can make learning a safer, more satisfying experience for students. These strategies should help to make your ADHD kid's learning less stressful, lessen anxiety, and build competence and confidence. I encourage you to add to this list and pass it on to others, and invite you to email your ideas to me via my website at

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