If you’re the parent of a child with ADHD, you’ve probably wondered how she can simultaneously have the memory of an elephant and the absentmindness of someone typing on her smartphone. Her backpack may look like a small tornado passed through, but her baseball card collection is organized to the nth degree.
Many parents are familiar with the diagnostic symptoms of ADHD — inattention, impulsivity, hyperactivity — but you’ve likely also seen traits in your child that are baffling because they are at opposite ends of a spectrum. We’ve come to call such challenge-and-strength pairings “flip-side traits." These paradoxical twins often lead parents and teachers alike to look on with confusion. How can a child be remarkably skilled and remarkably weak in the same area? Flip-side traits help to explain this seeming paradox in the characteristics of individuals with ADHD.
When we use this term, we are not simply highlighting a positive aspect of a particular challenge; rather, we are stating that the opposing challenge and strength both exist within the same individual. A child with ADHD may, for example, have difficulty sustaining attention while also possessing a notable ability to hyperfocus on certain tasks.
The most common flip-side traits we see in children with ADHD are:
If you take a moment and consider your child, you’ll undoubtedly recognize many of these pairings. A child who is easily distracted during math class may be hyperfocused on the basketball court. Your daughter may consistently forget to turn in her homework but is able to remember every detail of the Battle of Gettysburg. Perhaps she is frustratingly disorganized but has every friend’s phone number accurately entered into her cell phone. Or she may fret over small mistakes she made on a homework assignment but remain completely nonchalant about a critical exam that is nearing.
It helps to understand that children with ADHD do everything to the extreme; whatever they do, they do it big. Your child’s anger may be huge, but her love is even bigger. Her meltdowns might be epic, but so are her hugs. She may not be able to focus on homework for 2 minutes, but she can build a Lego tower for 2 hours. These dualities occur at a neurological level for your child, and the behavioral pairings are simply the external expressions of this hardwiring.
Research by Dr. Nora Voltow at the National Institutes of Health has shown that there is reduced activity in the dopamine reward system of individuals diagnosed with ADHD, and this neurological state causes them to be less responsive to activities that are not “inherently rewarding." Such insight helps to explain why your child will spend hours on stimulating activities but quickly become distracted with less novel tasks. Those interests that provide an immediate reward — like the rapid action of a video game, for example — stimulate the dopamine system, and she will, in turn, feel engaged and attentive. Tasks that are uninteresting create a higher hurdle for activating the neurological reward centers, and as a result, are less likely to hold your child’s attention for a sufficient length of time to enable her to learn a new skill.
Children with ADHD are, in a manner of speaking, experts on their own brains. They know what it feels like to be themselves, and if you ask, they will give you examples of the flip-side traits they experience. We help children understand these dualities by teaching them that their brains “light up" when they’re doing something exciting, and that these activities feel rewarding because of what is occurring neurologically.
Your child will immediately understand why she can pay attention to a 3-hour basketball game, but a 50-minute history class can’t hold her attention for 5 minutes. It is not because she is “bad at history," as she may have previously claimed. It is because basketball lights up her brain in a way that a lecture does not. The key to helping your child with this situation is to put strategies in place to enable her to do well in classes that are not inherently stimulating.
Below are two examples of flip-side traits that often cause a lot of frustration for parents and children alike. You can use these strategies to teach your child how to gain control over the characteristics of her ADHD and boost her learning in the process.
Hyperfocusing causes children with ADHD to get so fixated on a task or idea that they become oblivious to everything else. They may not even hear a parent calling their name. To balance your child’s ability to focus so intently on a preferred task with her difficulty attending to nonpreferred tasks, begin by creating an optimal work area and routine with her.
Memory challenges are common among children with ADHD. At times, your child may recall detailed information without any problem, while at others, she is maddeningly forgetful. Sometimes, teachers and parents misjudge these difficulties as demonstrating a lack of motivation or irresponsibility.
If your child experiences such inconsistencies of memory, you can help her develop the skills to “light up" her brain so that mundane tasks will also be ingrained into routine and memory.
We love it when children, teens, parents, and educators see the seeming paradoxes of ADHD in a new light. Frustration turns into a sense of discovery and endless possibility. The happiest and most successful adults with ADHD understand their flip-side traits and are, in fact, driven by the positives!
Follow this link to find additional free resources to navigate ADHD, where you can ask questions and read expert-written articles.
Dodson, W. (n.d.). Secrets of the ADHD brain. Retrieved September 5, 2015, from ADDitude.
Identifying brain differences in people with ADHD. (2009, September 11). Retrieved September 5, 2015, from NPR.
Volkow, N., Wang, G., et al. (2009, September 9). Evaluating dopamine reward pathway in ADHD: Clinical implications. Retrieved September 5, 2015, from U.S. National Library of Medicine.