Many well-meaning families and friends make mistakes when trying to support a loved one with ADHD because they misunderstand the disorder, said Terry Matlen, MSW, ACSW, a psychotherapist and ADHD coach.
For instance, some people think that ADHD is an academic problem or an issue with focusing, said Roberto Olivardia, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and clinical instructor in the department of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
In actuality, ADHD is a disorder of executive functioning, which “refers to many cognitive processes that we use to move us toward a goal.” This includes everything from prioritizing to decision-making to organizing to time management, he said.
Some people also have a hard time understanding how an incredibly smart person with ADHD can’t keep their home organized, Matlen said.
They may inadvertently minimize the person’s struggles, she said. Here’s an example: “Anyone can file papers. It’s not that difficult. Even a child can do it.”
But it’s not that individuals with ADHD don’t know how to do something. It’s that “they cannot execute what they know they have to do,” Olivardia said.
“When you understand that ADHD is a problem with executive functioning, you realize that it can cut through every domain in life.”
If you’re confused on how to support your loved one, here are five ways to help.
1. Get educated.
“Education is the most powerful form of support,” Olivardia said. Read books on ADHD, watch webinars, join a support group and attend an ADHD conference, he said.
Olivardia’s favorite books include:
- More Attention, Less Deficit by Dr. Ari Tuckman
- Driven to Distraction by Drs. Edward Hallowell and John Ratey
- Taking Charge of Adult ADHD by Dr. Russell Barkley
- 10 Simple Solutions to Adult ADD by Dr. Stephanie Sarkis
“Loved ones may find The ADHD Effect on Marriage by Melissa Orlov helpful to read since it focuses on how ADHD can affect relationships.”
He also recommended these conferences: The International Adult ADHD Conference, sponsored by the Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA), and The Annual International Conference on ADHD, sponsored by Children and Adults with ADHD (CHADD).
Spend time asking the person directly about their challenges and what having ADHD is like for them, Matlen said.
If you’re not educated about ADHD, be honest, and let the person know. Olivardia gave this example of what you might say:
“I do not pretend to know what ADHD is all about. I want you to educate me about your experience so I can better understand how your mind works. I can also educate myself. But I do not have all the answers. I do know that we approach things in a very different way, so it can be difficult to sometimes understand where you are coming from. Please do not confuse my lack of knowledge with judgment.”
Ask the person what they need, said Matlen, also author of Survival Tips for Women with AD/HD. Sometimes this might be “lending a hand or just being an empathetic friend.” It can be tremendously helpful for an adult with ADHD to share their frustrations, she said.
3. Point out their strengths.
It’s common for people with ADHD to have low self-esteem. “They need to hear positives,” Matlen said. She gave this example: “Sure, you may have trouble getting to places on time. I understand that. But there’s more to you than that. I envy your talents. You’re such a good _______ (writer, singer, cook, etc).”
4. Be a “body double.”
If the person is having a tough time accomplishing certain tasks, offer to stay with them while they work on these tasks, Matlen said. For instance, you can pay bills alongside them, she said.
5. Avoid being judgmental.
People with ADHD can be especially sensitive to being judged, because they’ve had numerous experiences where they have been judged, Olivardia said. For instance, avoid using words such as “weird, odd, strange and crazy,” he said. “What many people with ADHD hear is that they are inferior.”
Similarly, avoid offering “toxic help.” According to Matlen, this “is when someone is willing to offer help, lend a hand, but demoralizes the person in the process.” She gave these examples: “I’d be happy to help you clear out the basement, since the place is a total dump. You really have no clue how to do this, do you? Well, let me dig into this mess and get it cleared away.”
In sum, the best ways to support a loved one with ADHD include learning about the disorder, asking them what they need, emphasizing their strengths, participating in tasks alongside them and not being critical.