My guest this week is Brendan Mahan. He is an internationally recognized ADHD and Executive Function expert, a highly engaging, sought-after speaker, and the host of the “ADHD Essentials” podcast. A former teacher, mental health counselor, and principal, Brendan helps individuals, families, schools, and businesses manage the challenges of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and neurodiversity through an approach that blends education, collaborative problem solving, and accountability with compassion, humor, a focus on strengths and growth, and his trademark Wall of Awful model.
In this episode, Brendan and I discuss some of the major challenges parents and families face when a member of the family has ADHD and ways to support them and celebrate their strengths. Brendan tells us about the Wall of Awful and how this philosophy can help people with ADHD approach difficult tasks in a more positive way. Learn more about Brendan here.
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Top issues or challenges for parenting a child with ADHD or a related diagnosis
- Parents and family members not being able to control their own emotions
- This takes a lot of practice and patience but in order to help a child with ADHD, you must have control of your own emotions and not rise to their level of stress at the moment.
- So much of the distress and the anxiety that we experience in those moments has nothing to do with what is actually happening in the moment
- Instead, the anxiety is based on our fear projections of what the future is going to bring
- Focusing too much on the gap in skills rather than celebrating their strengths
- It is common for ADHD or neurodivergent children to hear mostly negative feedback because they don’t fall in line easily like others and that is because they don’t experience the world in the same way, not because they are lazy or disobedient
Why being more positive is helpful for everyone
- When our emotions lean more positively, we can treat our child with more respect, understanding, and dignity
- We show more support for them through our positive words versus focusing on their deficits
- No child or adult for that matter has ever improved in any area of their lives by constantly being told how awful they are and how negligent they are or how poorly they do something
The Wall of Awful
- The Wall of Awful is the emotional barrier that grows out of repeated failure, and it prevents us from taking risks and initiating tasks
- ADHD people and really neurodiverse people, in general, have bigger walls and more walls, simply because they tend to fail more for lots of different reasons, depending on what neurodiversity challenge they face
- An example of a Wall of Awful would be doing math or doing homework in the evenings
- If that is something a child has failed at repeatedly they experience a wall between them and the task that makes it hard for them to get started
- A Wall of Awful is built with many bricks, each time a child feels like a failure, feels guilt, feels unloved, feels self-conscious, etc. it adds another brick to the wall
How do you get past the Wall of Awful?
- The only way through is to climb the wall or create a door
- Climbing it means that you’re sitting with those emotions, and you’re kind of navigating and dealing with them
- Putting a door in it, on the other hand, is just changing your emotional state. Things that are calming or confidence-inducing can help
- Music can help, taking a walk, watching a few minutes of a funny show, etc.
- The goal for parents is to support the child by helping them recognize when that wall is keeping them from doing something and helping them take the steps to climb it or make a door
- It is important not to rush this process, that only makes them feel more anxious and makes the wall bigger
Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Most common family issues with ADHD … 00:15:00
The Wall Of Awful …00:24:00
Overcoming the Wall of Awful … 00:33:07
Episode Wrap up … 00:44:00
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Hi everyone, welcome to the show, I am Dr. Nicole, and on today’s episode, we’re talking about the challenges of parenting children with ADHD and related issues. No child comes with an instruction manual, as much as we might want them to as parents, but it can feel especially tricky to know how best to support a child with executive function issues and other kinds of challenges that happen for kids when they have a diagnosis like ADHD.
I find that there are also some major emotional barriers that can get in the way for these kids, and I don’t think those are talked about nearly enough. In fact, our guest today talks about something he calls the Wall of Awful, which I think provides a really valuable perspective on what’s really getting in the way more than anything else and how we can best support that. To give us his perspective on how parents can best support kids with these challenges, I’ve invited Brendan Mahan on the show today. Let me tell you a bit about him.
He is an internationally recognized ADHD and Executive Function expert, a highly engaging, sought-after speaker, and the host of the “ADHD Essentials” podcast. A former teacher, mental health counselor and principal, Brendan helps individuals, families, schools, and businesses manage the challenges of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and neurodiversity through an approach that blends education, collaborative problem solving and accountability with compassion, humor, a focus on strengths and growth, and his trademark Wall of Awful model. Brendan, it’s so great to have you with us today. Welcome!
Thank you for having me on, I’m excited to be here!
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
So let’s start out with talking about your journey. I mean you’ve been a teacher, a principal, a mental health counselor. How did you come to really get interested in and focused specifically on the needs of people with ADHD and their parents and their teachers?
So I started in college as a psych major. And one of the things that happen to psych majors is they think they have all of the disorders that they learn about. That wasn’t me. I wasn’t someone who is like, “Oh, maybe I’m bipolar. Maybe I have autism” or whatever. The only one that made sense to me was ADHD. I was like “That thing seems like a thing I have, but I must be just doing that psych major thing”. So I kind of blew it off. And then I became a teacher and I understood the kids who had ADHD in a way that none of the other teachers did, in a way that their parents didn’t. I can remember very vividly having a conversation with a mom. I had known her kid for, I don’t know, maybe 3 weeks. It was like the first quiz came back and he bombed it, and he had missed a couple of assignments and I just called right away and was like, “I just want to give you the heads up so this doesn’t become a bigger problem than it is already.” And the mom was like, “Oh I’m so sorry about my kid…”, blah, blah, blah. I was like “You don’t need to apologize. This is how I see your kid: He is a kid who is trying really hard and just kind of can’t pull it off. He seems to me like he’s a good kid. He just isn’t always executing perfectly, right?” And she started crying because it had taken her and her husband and their family and their counselor years to figure out what I figured out in 3 weeks.
And it’s because that’s me. I get it, because I have ADHD. So as my career continued, and even my career history sort of says I have ADHD, right? How many different jobs did you just list off? Like yeah, this guy’s got ADHD, he’s bounced a lot. Both because stuff gets less interesting, I’m like “Ah, I can do this job. Now I don’t want to anymore.” That’s in there.
And also, there are pieces of that job that I can’t do. I struggled as a teacher. There’s a lot of paperwork in teaching, and I was an English teacher, so I taught paperwork. Secret: I started in undergrad as a psych major, and then I graduated with a degree in creative writing. So I went through English major for a little while there too. So I have those ADHD traits because I have the disorder, obviously. And that’s kind of why I wound up working with people who have ADHD.
For a little while, I was working with a counselor/coach person back before that was a cool thing to do. And I remember him saying to me “You understand ADHD at a level and a degree that most people can’t even come close to. So probably, you have it. It makes sense that you have it.” And then I started doing workshops and I developed the Wall of Awful and all that kind of stuff. But that’s really why I work with ADHD folks. It’s because I have it. And also, the coaching side of it, the entrepreneur side of that is ADHD-friendly as an approach.
As an entrepreneur, I can design my career and my business to have as much forgiveness as I need it to have. If I work for someone else and I screw up enough and then they don’t trust me or don’t like me, they fire me and everything is gone, right? Like I’m not making any money any more because I’ve been let go. I know, I’ve had that happen. But I’m my boss. So clients hire me and they can fire me, and that’s all well and good, but you’re one client. I have other clients and I don’t suddenly have no money because one client fired me. The person who is judging how well I’m doing what I’m doing is me. So right now, due to COVID, there are a lot of emails that I have received that I have not replied to because I’m homeschooling my kids during COVID. I literally mean homeschooling. I’m developing the curriculum, I’m executing the curriculum, I’m doing all of it. They’re in sixth grade. Sixth grade is the level that I taught. I knew some of that curriculum anyway, so I was like back when COVID started, we didn’t know what was happening with it. We didn’t know how deadly or dangerous or overwhelming it was going to be. My wife and I were like “We can probably just do this on our own. And my kids were already having some anxiety around school prior to COVID. So it was a way to get a break from that, kind of dig deep into figuring out what was going on there. They’re going back to school next year. I’m sure the anxiety will spike again, but so is my kid, so he knows it’s coming and is ready to navigate it. That’s because we homeschooled during COVID and did a lot of mental health work during the time. But not replying to those emails, I’m not going to get fired over it. I’m not going to fire me. I just get to say, “Alright, I may have missed some clients” or maybe I didn’t, because they’re going to summer camp. And as soon as they go to summer camp, I have a lot of emails to reply to because I will be able to. I will have the space and the time and the energy to do it. When I say space, I usually mean brain space, just so your listeners know.
But that’s kind of what brings me to ADHD, it’s why I ended up going into the entrepreneur world. A lot of it started with workshops and presentations, and I Was a teacher, so that’s easy for me. I know how to build that stuff and design curriculum. I was never one of the teachers that could talk in front of a bunch of 12 year-olds, but couldn’t handle talking in front of adults. It was the same for me, which is helpful.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Well, and I think it’s so helpful because often, one of the challenges that comes up both for parents and professionals, whether it’s teachers, administrators or even therapists, people working with these kids is if they don’t struggle with these things, it’s difficult for them to take a perspective of understanding what’s going on. And I think that’s one of the biggest challenges, even in my work of trying to help shift parents’ perspectives or help them understand what’s happening. It can be so tough, especially if the parent or the teacher themselves is really strong in some of these areas, right? And it can be so difficult for them to get inside what might be going on in the child’s head to see how that might be different.
If we’re strong in things like time management and emotional regulation or organization or whatever it might be, we take that for granted, and we think “Well, everybody’s good at that. What’s the big deal? If you’re not doing this, it’s because you don’t want to, you’re lazy” or whatever. So I think the value that you bring to the conversation around all of this is that you understand the perspective because you live it and that’s a really powerful way then to help bridge what I see as this gap between kids who are experiencing these things and the adults in their life who really aren’t understanding what it’s like to be in their brain and their body.
Yeah. And I’m also good at remembering when I was a kid and what that felt like. I call it empathic time traveling. I can kind of shift back to like “I remember when I was 15 and what that was like.” And those practices have helped me be able to shift my perspective. The stuff that I can’t even relate to. The Wall of Awful, which you’ve already mentioned, is definitely me trying to help parents understand what’s going on with their kids. And I’ll play with that in a minute. But one thing that I think is important for everyone to understand right now, which has nothing to do with ADHD but has everything to do with raising kids during a pandemic, is that our kids are not experiencing the same world that we experienced.
One of the things I struggle in with my own kids — I have identical twin sons who are 12 years old. One of the things I struggle with with them and I’ve gotten better at it is they just don’t trust authority. They don’t like authority, they don’t trust authority, they think everyone has bad intentions. That’s not how I grew up. I grew up like “If they’re an authority, listen to them, they know what’s going on, they’re better than you, more experienced than you”, to the point that when I saw people in authority doing it wrong, it really ticked me off. That drove me nuts because when I was younger, my naive perspective was like “But you’re supposed to know what you’re doing. You’re in a position of authority. Even if you’re just my boss at the supermarket”, my first job, “I’m still aggravated that you don’t understand what people’s needs are.”
But my kids are growing up in a world where authority has kind of failed them in a lot of ways. The country — I’ve lived in the United States, the country is at odds pretty heavily with itself, we got hit by a global pandemic that was not responded to effectively initially, and it was pretty obvious that it wasn’t going to be responded to effectively, even though we knew what the facts were.
All of that stuff, not to mention the fact that my kids just had teachers fail them. One of my kids got bullied and nothing happened about it until I stepped in because I went to the school. My kids know, you talk to the teacher, you talk to the principal, you talk to people in charge. We went through all that stuff, it didn’t have any impact until I talked directly with the parent of the kid who was bullying my kids and then it stopped.
So they also saw other elements that were much more personal, not all-encompassing. Failure at a high level for leadership. I work with parents. I run online parent coaching groups of parents. A lot of their kids are talking to me about how their kids don’t seem to have the kind of respect for authority that they expect of their children, and they’re not sure why. And I’m like it’s because it’s been a really long however many years of political conflict in our country. That means they’re hearing messages of “This leader is not good enough.” It doesn’t matter what side of the political spectrum you’re on, you’re still hearing about how all the leaders suck, except for the ones that you like. Then there’s another voice saying, “No, they all suck except for the ones I like.” Kids are kind of filtering this and hearing this in the background. And then they’re seeing where things are not working, and they’re going “Oh, I guess leaders really suck. And people are greedy/out for themselves/don’t care”, or whatever story they tell themselves.
So I think it’s important to recognize that our kids are growing up in a world that’s very different from the world we lived in. So if they are responding to things differently, some of it might be that. It doesn’t have to be ADHD as the reason. Because a lot of my ADHD parents are like “It must just be ADHD that’s making them so oppositional.” I’m like maybe, but that doesn’t have to be what’s going on. What about all this other stuff?
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Right. It could also be what age and developmental level they’re at right? You said your boys are 12. My kids are 14 through 21. We have to take that into account too. They’ve hit some of those developmental levels where their sort of job or task in those phases of development is to push back, to question, and that can be uncomfortable for us and it can be challenging, I think because you combine some of those very normal developmental kinds of things with some of the emotional and behavioral regulation challenges that come with having ADHD or having some other challenges, and that can make for a really interesting time too.
Yeah. I like it when parents ask me about that stuff, and I often respond with “Yeah, that’s supposed to happen.” And then they’re just like, “What?” Like I respond in this very, “Eh, of course” way. I give it immediate permission, immediate forgiveness and then we kind of rearrange perspectives from there.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
So this issue of it being challenging for parents who don’t have these difficulties themselves to understand or take the perspective of what’s going on with their child, that certainly is one of the things that is tough for these families and for parents. I’m curious about what are some of the other top issues or challenges or things that you see going on in families where a child has ADHD or a related diagnosis, and parents are trying to handle that?
I think a lot of it is parents not seeing the systemic nature of it and the relational nature of it. Is your kid anxious because they’re anxious? Or is your kid anxious because you’re anxious? And are you anxious because you’re anxious? Or are you anxious because your kid is anxious? And how do you respond when your kid gets anxious? Because to me, everything is anxiety. That’s just what it all is. It all boils down to anxiety in my head. So our kid has a homework assignment. Let’s say they’re actually upset and anxious about homework. So they get really anxious and they storm off, scream “I don’t want to do it”, put headphones on, put their hoods up and try to hide. Mom and dad see this behavior, and then mom and dad snap at the kid because mom or dad get anxious. For lots of reasons. The most basic is: Unless you anchor yourself in that moment, you are going to raise the level of anxiety that is highest in your vicinity. So if your kid is flying up to an anxiety level of 7, you’re going to meet them at a 7, unless you intentionally anchor yourself and try to stay in that pocket of calm and balance.
Or you might fly up to an 8 or a 9 because your kid is on a 7, and you go there automatically, and then somewhere in the back of your mind, you’re worrying, and you’re like “Does this mean my kid can never have a job? Does this mean my kid is going to die in a gutter?” And that kind of stuff happens too, which is, it’s about raising a healthy, well-adjusted 26 year-old, right?
Even Dr. Nicole isn’t there yet. So we’re going to be okay. Give your kids time. Development is not like a fine wine where you just age gradually over years, and it’s in this uniform pattern. That’s not how any kind of development works. Development is like stuff is flat, and then all of a sudden it spikes, and then it dips a little bit, and then it spikes again, and then it’s flat. And it’s these really quick shifts and changes. It’s just not true that your kid is 6 and they’re 7 and now they’re a year more mature. That’s not how it works. It’s how we want it to work, but it’s not really how it works. We can generally say they’re 7, this is kind of what we expect them to be like. But your mileage may vary in lots of different ways. Not the least of which is things like ADHD or Giftedness where we have this sort of asymmetrical, asynchronous development.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Well and I think to your point there about what we do as parents, so much of the distress and the anxiety that we experience in those moments has nothing to do with what is actually happening in the moment, but it’s us conducting future time travel in that moment, in our minds of exactly what you said, “Oh my gosh, what is going to happen to them later on?”, right?
So the three year old is throwing the temper tantrum about not wanting to do X, Y, or Z thing they’re told to do, and in our minds, we fly ahead to “What if they’re still throwing tantrums like this when they’re 18?” Or the kid is 12 and not getting the homework assignment done, and putting the hood up and storming off, and we go “Oh my gosh, he is never going to be able to hold a job when he is an adult.”, and our anxiety, we get worked up and respond to the child in the moment, not based on what’s happening there, but based on our fear projections of what the future is going to bring, not realizing exactly what you said: Wait a second. We’ve got a whole lot of time here to help prepare them and work through these things, and help them develop the emotional and behavioral regulation to be able to do that. My 12 year old isn’t going off to grad school right now, tomorrow. My 3 year old is not going to get a job tomorrow. But we act in those moments like that’s what’s happening, right?
Yeah. We’re always looking at the gap, right? We’re always looking at the gap between where our kid is and where we think they should be, which is like the expectations we would have of a 35 year old, and it doesn’t make sense because they’re 10, 12, 18. But what we often don’t look at is the growth. And I’d really like to encourage people to mind the growth. Don’t mind the gap. And some of that growth can be hard to see, unless you pay attention for it, and then it becomes a lot easier. But a gap is really easy to see, because growth can be something like “My kid pitched 7 fits last week, and they only pitched 6 fits this week.” That’s really hard to notice. Or “My kid pitched 7 fits this week and 7 fits last week, but the 7 fits last week were full of F-bombs, and the 7 fits this week, they controlled their language more effectively.” It could be that too. And it’s tricky to see those kinds of things unless you’re trying to find it. And you find what you look for. So stop looking at the gap and start looking at the growth.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I love that. For all of you listening, that to me is a huge take away from this. I love what you just said. Mind the growth, not the gap. And I think that probably gets into another thing that’s fairly common across the board in families where one or more people have ADHD, which is the focus on the negatives or the gaps, as opposed to the focus on the strengths and the abilities and what’s going well, and I see that a lot.
Yeah. And a lot of that comes out of a cultural frame that doesn’t really work, that isn’t actually that useful, which is looking for why things are bad, and why that person isn’t good enough, and trying to find fault. Because our brains are negatively biased, and that’s okay.
It makes sense, it keeps us alive when we live in the savanna and the bushes rustle and that might be a sabertooth tiger, or it might be the wind. If we assume it’s the sabertooth tiger and we don’t go in the bushes, we don’t die, right? So yay. It’s not as effective for modern humans. So you have to develop some thought processes to get past it. Some of the stuff I work on with my clients in my coaching groups is I talk about our fundamental assumptions in my groups.
Everyone is doing the best they can. Everyone has good intentions. And if someone is not meeting expectations, it’s because there’s a skills deficit. It’s not because they are lazy, it’s not because they don’t care, it’s not because they hate you. It’s because there’s a skills deficit. And even if I’m wrong, even if that person genuinely hates me and wants me to die, if I start treating them like they have good intentions, and like they want to succeed and that it’s just a skills deficit, we can figure this out, they’re going to gradually not hate me anymore and not want me to die because I’m going to be treating them with respect and dignity that gets lost in the shuffle a lot of the time when we have this negative bias. So we want to have a more positive bias, but that takes effort. It requires constant readjustment and constant upkeep. I teach this stuff and I still fall into that trap every now and then of being like “Ugh!”. One of the benefits I have is when I see someone else doing that, it turns me over. If someone is like “Ugh, that kid!”, I’m immediately like “No. Here is why that kid is great and why we’re wrong in perceiving it as a negative, and this is how we need to readjust.” So if my wife gets aggravated with one of my kids, I’m immediately pivoting to “Well no, hold on, let’s be more patient.” Or if I’m out in the wild and I see some parent with their kid, I’m not going to interrupt, but I still get reminded of these things. So that more positive sort of graceful, grace-granting perspective, I think is helpful.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Yeah, and to recognize, as you just said, it’s not easy, but if we intentionally practice it, it does get easier. No child or adult for that matter has ever improved in any area of their lives by constantly being told how awful they are and how negligent they are or how poorly they do this thing, right? We even know that as adults. In our work environments, in our relationships. So this idea of us as parents or teachers or whoever, being intentional about looking for and noticing the good and the strengths. I think that’s so critical.
I want to get into this Wall of Awful because I really want you to share this with people. When I even just read that the first time I came across your work, I knew instantly what was meant by it. I thought, “What a perfect term and way of talking about that, just based on all of my years of working with kids who struggle. I thought, “Man, that really resonates.” So talk about what that is, how that came about.
Yeah. Well first, thank you for saying that. It’s meaningful to me when people find meaning in my work, so I appreciate that. The Wall of Awful grew out of me trying to explain to parents why their kids didn’t do homework. That’s the secret origin of the Wall of Awful. I could still see it. I was kind of new to doing the ADHD work. I was new enough that I was making house calls. Now I do everything over the internet. And I was over at a family’s house, and I can still see their kitchen. I can remember saying this, that’s how momentous it was in my head.
We were talking about homework, and I was like, “It’s kind of like there’s this wall of awful between your kid and their homework.” And in the back — my ADHD brain did that split screen thing that ADHD brains do sometimes where you can keep moving forward, but there’s something way more interesting happening in the back of your mind, and that happened where I was like “Oh, there’s something in here. This is the thing you need to think about and pay attention to because this is something.” And I didn’t quite know what it was yet, but I started to figure it out. And thankfully, I was in grad school at the time, so I got to play with it and flesh it out as part of my grad school work. And then I eventually started doing workshops on it.
But the way it works is that the Wall of Awful is the emotional barrier that grows out of repeated failure, and it prevents us from taking risks and initiating tasks.
Everyone has a Wall of Awful. ADHD people and really neurodiverse people in general have bigger walls and more walls, simply because they tend to fail more for lots of different reasons, depending on what neurodiversity we’re talking about. When it comes to ADHD, it’s the executive function stuff, and really, most neurodiverse stuff, it’s the executive functions.
So that’s things like planning and prioritizing, that’s things like managing your emotions, understanding how time works, initiating tasks, finishing tasks like following something through to completion, organization, prioritization, it’s that kind of stuff. It’s really executing. I almost wish they were called executing functions instead of executive functions. But it’s executing. So that’s what the Wall of Awful is. It’s this emotional barrier that we have to get past in order to initiate a task or take a risk that we have failed at repeatedly. It’s also a model that helps us think about this abstract concept of negative associations. And not only think about it, but also talk about it because it’s like a model of understanding. So I can talk to my kids or my clients in a way that feels less threatening if I say to them, “Hey I see you’re struggling with that assignment/email/whatever. Are you climbing the wall of awful?”
That feels a lot more safe than “Is this assignment intimidating to you? Are you scared? Are you anxious?” That stuff is — Ugh. But if I’m just like “Are you climbing the wall of awful?”, that feels better. And the other piece to that phrase is that there is forward progress happening if I ask, “Are you climbing the wall of awful?”, as opposed to how I misspoke at first when I said “Are you hitting the wall of awful?”. That means you stopped, right? You’re not going to keep going. But if you’re climbing it, we’re making some progress here.
So the way the wall of awful works, the way we build the wall of awful is by failing. So every time we fail on a given task — it’s not like you just have one. You’ve got lots of different ones. You might have a wall of awful from mowing the lawn, you may have a wall of awful for eating healthy, you may have a wall of awful for going to the gym, you might have a wall of awful for your self-perception, you might have a wall of awful for math, you might have a wall of awful for homework, you may have a wall of awful for email.
There are lots and lots of things you can have a wall of awful for, and sometimes they interact. Because if I have a wall of awful for math and I have a wall of awful for homework, and now I have to do math homework, it’s that much harder for me to start. So they get built in this way. Every time we fail, you get a little brick in your wall. So a little failure brick drops in your wall. But along with your failure brick, you also get a disappointment brick because you’ve disappointed yourself for messing up. And with the disappointment brick for yourself, you get more disappointment bricks, because we also get a disappointment brick for everyone whose opinion of us matters as it relates to that task. So if I don’t do my math homework, I get a disappointment brick for me, one for my math teacher, one for my mom or my dad or both, and potentially one for a classmate if it’s that kind of assignment, or a friend. So those disappointment bricks also start to fall. And when we disappoint someone, we feel like they’re going to reject us. It doesn’t matter if they do or they don’t. It doesn’t matter if they’re disappointed in us or not.
We still get those bricks.
Unless the person manages to get in ahead of it. If they get in really quick and tell us we don’t need to worry about it, those bricks might land but not be as solid or not be as big or not be as significant. So there are ways to kind of mitigate some of this. Along with the disappointment bricks, along with the rejection bricks, we get more stuff. We get guilt. I feel bad that I didn’t do the thing. We get shame. And the distinction there is that guilt is “I feel like I made a mistake.” Shame is “I feel like I am the mistake.” Guilt is a brick, shame is a block. It’s a much bigger piece of masonry, I guess. Imaginary masonry. And it’s tricky to tease guilt and shame apart for folks who have ADHD. Because if the reason I made the mistake is because I have ADHD, how do I avoid shame? It feels like I am the mistake in that case. One of the things that I like to say is that sometimes the ADHD wins. That just means that the ADHD won. I made that mistake, I have ADHD. I’m not using ADHD as an excuse, but I am using it as a reason, because I’m allowed to have ADHD. If I suddenly had trouble breathing and grabbed my inhaler and used it, no one would think poorly of me. I know because I crack jokes about this in my workshop where I’ll fake an asthma attack and then I’ll say, “I’m sorry for being too lazy and unmotivated to breathe.” And everyone thinks that’s ridiculous, but they’re happy to say “That kid is too lazy and unmotivated to do their math homework” or “That guy is too lazy and unmotivated to check his email.” That’s not what’s going on. It’s a legitimate disorder just like asthma is, except that asthma is physical, and we allow for those. Culturally, we haven’t quite reached the point where we’re allowing for mental disorders yet. We’re getting there. But I like to think of ADHD as brain asthma. Asthma makes it harder for me to execute and do the thing, so does ADHD. In one case I just don’t have enough oxygen. In the other case, I don’t have enough focus, and ironically those things work together. So I have an asthma attack, my ADHD is worse.
So we’ve got all these bricks. Rejection becomes loneliness. Anxiety drops in there really easily, we get fear, we get doubt, we get worry, there are lots of other bricks that come with these repeated failures. So your wall of awful keeps building. It is not the job of parents to keep bricks from landing in their kids’ wall of awful. Your kid is going to fail. They’re going to mess up and they’re going to get bricks in their wall. It is, however, to keep unnecessary bricks from landing in their wall. So if your kid messes up and fails, and you’re ridiculing them for that, you’re adding a whole lot of bricks that don’t need to be there, and you’re just making it harder for them to do their math homework or write an essay or whatever.
And often we do that, we ride our kids really hard in the false hope that it’s going to motivate them. There are some people who respond to that, but in my experience, it’s a minority of people who respond to that. Most folks need positive reinforcement, need support, need forgiveness, need some grace so that they can recover and do the thing again. Since typically, it’s parents interacting with their kids, the job is to learn when you’re a kid. It’s your whole entire job. So let’s make that learning as easy and as effective as possible.
When it comes to getting past the Wall of Awful, because I don’t want to just leave listeners going “Oh! That’s why it’s hard to do stuff! The End!”…
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Which is a really important and valuable perspective to have, and I think you articulated that really well. I think there are so many people listening who are going “Oh. I get it in a way that I didn’t get it before.” But yes, now the next question people are having is: “Okay, so you said one of the things that’s my job as the parent is to not have unnecessary bricks added there, but what else can I do?”
Right. Now it’s supporting your kid in getting past it. There are five ways people try to get past the Wall of Awful. Two of them don’t work. One of the ones that works is unhealthy. And then there are two that work. So the first one that doesn’t work is staring at the wall. Just like “That’s a really big wall!” Yeah, you’re not doing anything to get past it though. That could look like just sitting there. Like you got your math book open and you’re not doing anything. You’re just sitting there. Or you got your binders out, you’re not really doing much. The other option is to try to go around it. Which often ends in distraction. So it’s like “I’m going to do my homework, but first I want to finish this level in Minecraft” — not that Minecraft has levels, but “finish this project in Minecraft” or “I want to watch an episode of Bob’s Burgers” or something. But then one project turns into two, one episode turns into three because Netflix just keeps playing them, and you have ADHD so you don’t notice that there was a point where you could have stopped. You just got him by the dopamine roll and you’re continuing to watch SpongeBob or Bob’s Burgers or whatever. So those two strategies don’t work at all.
The other option is to smash away through the Wall of Awful. This works, but it damages relationships. So this is when you’re talking to your kid about the homework, and then all of a sudden they’re like “Fine! I’ll do my math! God! Shut up!”, and they get all angry. Or they flip their hood up and they get that teen angst thing going, where they’re still sitting in the spot or they go to their room and they’re just like “Why do I suck? What’s wrong with me? I’m the worst” that stuff. That’s still smashing. That’s still using anger to get past the wall. They’re just turning it inward instead of turning it outward, but that damages relationships, either with the person that they’re yelling at or with themselves. And adults do this too. It’s not just kids. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s only kids. Adults have walls of awful just like kids. And those three smashing, going around and staring at it are fight, flight and freeze. So it’s our stress response. It’s just the way that we respond to stress. And your kid might pick any number of them. Maybe they typically fight, but every now and then they freeze. I don’t know. I have noticed parents who are fighters typically have kids who are fighters. So that’s why you’re fighting. You’re both hitting the wall. You’re both really stressed and anxious. So try to ratchet that down.
The two ways that actually get you past it are climbing it and putting a door in. What’s tricky is climbing it looks like staring at it, and putting a door in it looks like going around it, from an outside observer. So climbing it means that you’re just sitting with those emotions, and you’re kind of navigating and dealing with them. But to an outside observer, you can’t tell. So if you have a kid that takes half an hour to get their binders out of their backpack or start up their iPad or whatever to get started on their homework, and you’re a parent that’s going to speed them along, “Look, just sit down and do your work. Here, I got your binders for you”, and then your kid snaps, that’s typically what happens after we try to speed them along, because they’re climbing the wall of awful and they’re going at their pace and you just demanded that they get to the other side right now. So then they went, “Oh, well I guess my only option is to hulk smash. I guess I have to punch a hole in this wall so that I get to the other side because you’re forcing me to”, as opposed to being patient and giving them 5, 10, 20 minutes to get to where they need to be. Or speaking to them directly about what’s going on. One of the great things about your listeners hearing this concept is that now they can teach it to their kids. This is not a hard concept. It’s rich. It’s got a lot of depth to it. There’s a lot that can be done with it but it’s not difficult to understand. So if you talk to your kids about what the Wall of Awful is, or better yet, have them listen to this episode with you, at least this piece, now everyone understands. So now when your kid is sitting there with binders and they’re not quite doing their work yet, you can go over to them and say, “Hey, are you climbing the wall of awful?” And hopefully, they say “Yeah.” Once we know we’re climbing it, it happens a lot faster. It doesn’t necessarily happen immediately, but it goes a lot quicker.” And the other thing that happens sometimes with the ADHD inattentive kids is they go “No! I just was spacing out.” You’re like “Awesome! Do your work then! I’m glad I redirected you!” Because sometimes they space out and that’s okay! They’re supposed to. It’s brain asthma. So when they’re climbing it, it looks like they’re staring at it. Because a kid might be sitting there not doing anything and not engaging with the wall, or they might be sitting there midway through a whole bunch of dread and they’re actually engaged. They look very similar.
Putting a door in it, on the other hand, is just changing your emotional state. And there are lots of ways that we can change our emotional state. Hulk smashing is an example of that. Going to anger changes your emotional state. And then you punch a hole in the wall, as opposed to having a nice door for that hole, which is much healthier. So ways to change your emotional state are things like music. Music is a great one. If you ever watch, there are videos on YouTube of romantic comedies with no soundtrack, and they immediately become stalker flicks. You don’t know how to feel. The music tells us this is romantic. But if you put horror movie music behind that guy holding a boombox outside a window, it gets creepy fast. So one option is music. Listen to Eye of the Tiger when you want to go to the gym, or I don’t know, Frank Sinatra because you’re trying to write a paper or something. Or the Hall of the Mountain King. Some symphonies and stuff because that’s even better. Often, words are distracting for productivity. But that kind of stuff is helpful when it comes to shifting your emotional state. Another option is to watch Bob’s Burgers. That’s valid. We just don’t want to watch 6 episodes. But if watching an episode of Bob’s Burgers is going to make you feel like you just hung out with some friends and you’re feeling more capable and entertained and in good spirits, then you can go and do your homework or write that email — fantastic. Do that.
Something that I like to do when I’m trying to write and trying to be like Captain Successful guy is I’ll just listen to podcasts of successful people talking about how they became successful. And that helps me when I’m the building land of my business, trying to do something new or try something else. So there are lots of ways to change your emotional state. Go somewhere else. Maybe you’re having trouble working in the kitchen, but if you go into your den that will work. Or out on your porch, or to a coffee shop now that COVID is finally wrapping up, and it’s becoming safe again.
That’s another choice. Spending time and working with other people is a good way. There are plenty of folks who do Zoom meetings over the Internet and they don’t talk to each other. They just work together. So they’re both paying bills or making dentist appointments or checking email, or one person is paying their bills and the other person is cleaning an office, whatever makes sense, that’s valid. That’s a way to do it. That kind of adult study hall type stuff. So those are kind of the big pictures on how to get past it.
Again: Staring at it, trying to go around it doesn’t work. You’re never going to go around it. It’s a metaphor and it’s infinitely wide. I know because I made it up. You’re not going around this thing. Hulk smashing will get you past it. Just getting really angry, but that’s not going to be healthy in the long run. And then climbing it or putting a door in it are the ways to get past it that are most effective, but they serve different purposes. Climbing the wall is a really good long-term strategy. It’s going to make it easier to navigate this kind of wall in the future because you’ve already climbed it once, so you’re a little bit stronger now, you have better strategies. Putting a door in it is going to help you get past the wall, close to immediately. Like within the next 5-10 minutes, you’re going to get through this wall. But it doesn’t necessarily help with the long-term stuff. So if all you ever do is put a door in it, it’s going to stay hard, but you’ve got to have the time and the energy to climb it. So you kind of have to pick which of those two is a better strategy given where you are at that moment.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
I love it because it gives such practical — and in a really visual way. I am picturing this as you’re talking about it, which is so helpful, I think, to get attuned to what might be going on for a kid in those situations. And I think one of the frustrations that so many adults have is “Why doesn’t he just tell me?”, and it’s like first of all, many kids, with or without ADHD aren’t even really aware of what’s going on with their own emotional experience, especially in the moment, let alone have the communication capabilities to do that. Let’s face it: Many adults are not good at talking about how they’re feeling. So if we say “Well just tell me how you’re feeling”, they may not know, they may not be aware, they might not be able to talk about it in that moment. So for us to be able to have this framework for understanding what’s probably going on there so that we can step in and support in a meaningful and healthy and appropriate way, I think that’s just so powerful.
Thank you. And before we pivot out of this or deeper into it, or whatever, I do want to throw a word of caution to your audience that the Wall of Awful is really a trauma model. That’s really what’s going on. It’s trauma by a million little cuts, as opposed to “I was assaulted/witnessed a murder” or something, but it’s still a trauma model. So when you’re talking to your kids about this, you’ve got to be ready for that, because they could disclose something that they haven’t disclosed previously that you’re not aware of. It could be bullying at school, it could be — I’m not going to be the least bit surprised if we have a whole lot of kids struggling with homework next year because all homework is going to do, potentially, is dredge up all the anxieties of living through a global pandemic and doing so much virtual schooling.
So potentially, homework is going to be a really big challenge area for a whole lot of kids in the coming year. Just be ready for that, and don’t blow that off. You can’t be like “Oh, well you survived it for a whole year, you’re fine, do your homework.” That’s not really how it works. So many bricks got placed in so many walls of awful over the course of this past school year. And no one’s fault. Not because teachers were doing anything wrong, not because kids were doing anything wrong, not because parents were doing anything wrong. Just because we were living through a global trauma effect that we’re still living though and will still be living through it next year. It’s just under control better, that’s all. So be prepared for those kinds of challenges to come up and recognize that they’re there. If it makes sense for you to get your kid a counselor, do it. You’ve already listened to a mental health podcast.
You’re probably fairly comfortable with that idea. Take the steps you need to take and be ready for something surprising to come up. Doesn’t mean it will. Nothing surprising might happen. But when we start talking about the soft squishy underbelly of our emotions, we can be surprised by what happens when your kids talk about stuff that we may or may not even know of.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
That’s really so important, and I’m glad that you raised that. As we’re wrapping up here, I want to make sure that people know where they can find out more about your work, about the Wall of Awful, because you have some great resources available on your website that people can download. You’ve got videos, you’ve got so many things. Where’s the best place for people to go for those resources and to find out more about the work that you do?
So the websites is adhdessentials.com, and I have a podcast of the same name, ADHD Essentials. It’s got 186 episodes as of now, maybe more by the time this posts, and it’s released weekly. I haven’t missed a week since it launched. So I don’t see why that would change. I survived the pandemic without missing a week, so things are just going to be easier for me right out. I do run online parent coaching groups four times a year. They’re 8 weeks long, each week has a theme. It’s all on the website. And soon I will have space for 1-on-1 clients, come the summer. So that may or may not be a possibility, depending on when people contact me and if people contact me. That’s basically the gist of where folks can find me.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Awesome. And again, just to reiterate that: Brendan has got some great downloads and things there, so if this piqued your interest, if you want to delve more into this model or just have some additional things to support you, I highly encourage you to go to his website. Brendan, I want to thank you, not just for taking the time to spend with us on this episode today, but also just for the really deep and meaningful thinking that you’re doing about what’s going on in ADHD and for these kids. I think it’s really important for the field as a whole, and certainly on a very individual level for kids and for families. So thank you so much for what you’re doing.
Thank you, I appreciate that.
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
And thanks to all of you, as always, for listening. We will catch you back here next time for our next episode of The Better Behavior show.