Are Negative Thoughts Making It Hard to Stay Positive for Your Child with ADHD?

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Returning to school this January has proven to be even more challenging than usual for many kids with ADHD and their parents. While the difficulty isn’t unexpected, it’s still not easy to cope with your child’s low motivation for schoolwork and, in some cases, uptick in oppositional behavior at home.

There are plenty of strategies that parents can use to help their kids get motivated and stay engaged in school. I’ve shared many of these strategies in previous posts, and they can be real game changers when they’re used effectively. But sometimes before jumping into action, it can be important for parents to stop and consider the types of thoughts they are having about their child’s difficulties – and how these thoughts might be adding an additional layer of stress to the situation.  

When your child has ADHD, it can often feel like their behavior or academic performance at any given moment will make or break their likelihood of success in the future. It’s incredibly common for parents to have thoughts like, “My child can’t even focus on what the teacher is saying for five minutes, so how is she ever going to be able to sit through a lecture in college?” or “My child is late for everything and it doesn’t even seem to bother him. He’s never going to be able to hold down a job.” While these kinds of thoughts are perfectly normal, they aren’t helpful. They can make situations feel much more dire than they actually are and can cause you to lose sight of the big picture.

In cognitive behavioral therapy, the term catastrophizing is used to describe thoughts that take a difficult current situation and use it to predict things that may go terribly wrong in the future. Catastrophizing can make you feel hopeless and overwhelmed by everyday events. The good news is that when you change these thought patterns, you can actually improve your mood, feel more optimistic about the future, and start taking steps that will actually help improve a situation at the moment when it is happening.

So, how do you stop catastrophizing (or at least make it something that you do less often)? Start by noticing these thoughts when they happen. Many negative thought patterns are so automatic that we don’t even notice how frequently they occur. You might be surprised to realize how often you’re catastrophizing throughout the day.

Once you’ve started noticing these thoughts, the next step is to reframe them from something negative and future-oriented to something realistic and focused on the present moment. For example, if you have the thought, “My child is late for everything and it doesn’t seem to bother him. He’ll never be able to hold down a job as an adult,” you might reframe it into something more helpful like, “My child’s ADHD makes it hard for him to get places on time on his own, but with help from me and other people in his life, he is able to be on time for the things that are important. He has many years to mature and find strategies that work for him before he becomes an adult with work responsibilities.”

Reframing a negative thought doesn’t mean pretending a problem isn’t real. It just puts the problem in perspective and encourages you to focus on the present moment instead of a “worst case scenario” future.  When you work on reframing your negative thoughts consistently, you’ll find yourself catastrophizing less often over time. And, when you catastrophize less, you’ll be able to use tools and strategies more effectively to help your child manage their ADHD now and in the future.



Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.


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