Did you know that neurotypical people get a boost of happy brain chemicals from a job well done? Clean the house? Here’s some dopamine for you! The combination of serotonin and dopamine helps you feel proud of yourself and motivated to do the task again. But if you are neurodiverse, you don’t get that boost. Have ADHD and clean the house? Nothing, we got nothing for you says your brain.
This is why those with ADHD can seem so disorganized to everyone else. It isn’t just that they don’t know how to clean something (though executive function problems can make it worse) it is that their brain doesn’t reward them for a job well done. Neurotransmitters and brain chemicals like dopamine and serotonin don’t function the same in the ADHD brain.
Years ago, I read a parenting theory that encouraged parents to not praise their kids. It stated that you want them to build their own internal sense of self and accomplishment, instead of an exterior one. And that idea might be just fine if your child is neurotypical. I don’t know. But I do know that for many people with ADHD, another person’s praise is a way to get dopamine that you do not get from regular accomplishments.
What it looks like as an adult
I realized when my oldest was diagnosed with ADHD that I have it too, so I’m going to give you an example from my own life. I do not get a hit of dopamine for cleaning the house, but if my husband praises my efforts, that might help my brain feel better about the work. Incidentally, my husband is more likely to praise my cooking than my cleaning. I don’t know if that is why, but over the years I have become a much better cook. My cleaning skills have not improved all that much.
Why am I telling you this? Because I want you to know how important it is to praise your ADHD child’s efforts. What you praise, they will cultivate. Praise their cooking? You are likely going to get more brownies to eat. Praise their writing? They will likely write more. Their brains need your praise so they can reward themselves with happy brain chemicals.
Praise is essential
Do you need to praise every effort? Don’t some things create their own good feelings? Eating cookies creates its own dopamine but baking them doesn’t. This is one reason that cutting the game short and just eating the cookie dough is so appealing to some of us. Sugar and chocolate make our brains feel happy. We get the reward without the work.
Some work just won’t make happy brain chemicals. Finishing a worksheet in math? The ADHD brain says “Great, there will probably just be another one tomorrow.” The ADHD brain also doesn’t usually want your random useless praise. Earning 50 stickers on a chart for doing 50 math worksheets feels pointless. What it appreciates is being told exactly what it did right. “Wow, you figured out how to work that hard word problem! I’m proud of you!” Is the kind of praise they need. Specific and encouraging.
What if praise is hard to give?
But what if your child never seems to actually finish the worksheet or get all the way to the end of the spelling list? If this is a barrier to praising your child, you need to rethink what you are doing. Consider shortening the assignments. If the spelling list is half as long, can they do better? What if they only do half the math page today? Then can you praise their work? Consider if you need to slow down or use another program.
If you don’t have things to praise your child for, you need to create them. Can you add music, drama, or art to your homeschool day? Sometimes it is easier to praise our children’s efforts in art than math because there are no wrong answers in art. ADHD kids are also creative and often love the outlet that art provides.
Whatever you do, it is important that you realize that your ADHD child needs your support to create the happy brain chemicals they need. Without them, they are prone to depression and anxiety. So, create ways to praise and encourage your ADHD child every day.
Want to give me a hit of dopamine? Leave a comment or write a review of our programs! I love hearing from readers!
About the Author
Laura Sowdon, OTR/L is an occupational therapist, writer, speaker, educator and creator of the Five Senses Literature Lessons homeschool curriculum. She has worked as an occupational therapist with children in public and private schools, as well as private practice. Laura has taught and managed homeschool co-ops as well as homeschooling her own three children. Laura is dedicated to the idea of educating children at a pace that aligns with brain and physical development milestones and respects neurodiversity in all its forms.