The Adventurous Child–Turning ADHD from a Deficit to a Benefit

Usually I write about problems that I’ve helped kids solve, but the outcome of the following case is still in doubt.

Peter, the child involved, is a young man of 17 with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. He’s got a lot of the usual signs. He can’t do homework without a TV or music blaring, he fidgets and bounces around the room, has trouble keeping focused, and despite his intelligence and genuinely sweet nature, gets in a lot of trouble. He has poor grades, hangs out with kids who take advantage of him, tries drugs, gets in car accidents.

A lot of kids with ADHD are risk takers, prone to acting before they think things through. In much of Peter’s life, this is a liability, but in one area, it makes all the difference in a positive way. Peter is an artist, and he’s shockingly, dazzlingly good—imaginative, unconventional, daring. He can draw for hours with intense concentration. Artistically, he takes risks and follows adventurous impulses—and it works for him.

I want to help Peter turn his ADHD into a positive in other parts of his life, too, but there is one more factor to contend with—Peter’s parents.

Because they see it’s hard for him to conform, they don’t set boundaries. When Peter was arrested for speeding, his father persuaded the officer to tear up the ticket. When Peter’s history teacher complained about missing assignments, which Peter was capable of doing, his mother talked the teacher into letting him do make up work.

Both parents blamed Peter’s experiments with drugs on Peter’s friends—without helping him see that having those friends was also a choice he was responsible for.

Part of my treatment of Peter has to include helping his parents realize that by sparing their son from taking responsibility for his actions, they are robbing him of the chance to learn from his mistakes. Peter needs to know that his actions have consequences. Risky behavior gets to be less risky if you are intelligent—which Peter is. He can learn to make more accurate predictions about outcomes. But only if he’s allowed to discover what the outcomes really are.

With the right kind of help—especially from his parents—Peter could easily be one of those kids who struggles in high school but as an adult turns attention deficit disorder into attention deficit benefit. Occupations that carry a high level of risk but also reward—being an actor or artist, a trader or entrepreneur—suit intelligent risk takers. I’ve known some CEOs who, if they didn’t have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, would have wound up as accountants—adding up the pluses and minuses of every decision, and ending up paralyzed by the minuses.

But with ADHD you don’t see the obstacles, you just see the goals and work toward them.

That’s what I want for Peter.

6 tips for cultivating a sense of adventure while advocating caution

  • Some children are naturally cautious. Others, given a cliff and a bicycle, combine the two in truly hair-raising ways. When dealing with an adventurous child, the trick is keeping both the spirit of adventure and the child alive.
  • Set boundaries, but not too many.
  • Let natural consequences—barring extreme injury—take their course.
  • Teach your child to think a plan of action through to its consequences: “What will happen if you do that?” and “Is it worth what it will cost you?”
  • Help teachers see the child’s strengths, but make sure the child knows he has to obey rules made for his—and other’s—well being.
  • Do encourage a willingness to take chances, voice an unpopular opinion, follow an unconventional path.
  • Help your child develop the good character to avoid behaviors that are not just risky but unkind, dishonest or unhealthy.


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