Articles By Anthony Gershenson MA, LMFT

Avoiding Avoidance

We all know this feeling very well. There’s something important we have to do. It often literally needs to get done, but we don’t do it. We put it off—and find increasingly creative ways to rationalize avoiding what’s necessary. It happens all the time: preparing that presentation for work, writing that 12-page term paper for class, having that awkward conversation about boundaries with your in-laws, asking for that raise you deserve. We even avoid asking for help when we know we need it the most. 

Procrastination is the common way to describe this behavior, and while it sums up the idea of avoidance nicely, personally I’m not a fan. I think the term “procrastination” has grown heavily stigmatized in our culture, conjuring images of lazy, indulgent, apathetic, unambitious people. In my opinion this couldn’t be farther from the truth. While those prone to avoid often revert to habits of indifference, indulgence, and sloth-like behavior, these are actually the byproducts of the real reason we avoid. This is an important distinction to make. Too often we pass harsh judgment on ourselves for avoiding responsibilities, a nasty habit which compounds the issue and ends up reinforcing the cycle of avoidance. In this article I aim to shed light on why we avoid, how we avoid, and most importantly, what we can do about it. 

You’re Not Lazy, You’re Something Else…

I’m a writer. That is to say, I write when I can. Which, in turn, is how I rationalize not writing when I don’t feel motivated to do so. I could write far more often, but I don’t. I creatively avoid and have actually gotten quite good at it. And I recently figured out why.

Whenever I would sit down to write, my first reaction was typically an unpleasant and visceral one. My head would begin to throb at the base of my skull, I would suddenly feel tired, feel bored—and all this would happen within the first two minutes! I noticed quickly becoming irritable as I determine that writing is too hard, and my mind wanders with my eyes as they survey the room, taking in all the distractions. Clearly I wouldn’t have the best mindset to do some creative writing. Realizing that I could hardly expect myself to be productive in such a state, I would resolve to get up and go do something else for a bit until I felt inspired to write. Unfortunately, these “short” breaks were rarely short, and even more rare was actually returning to writing afterward. Some of my greatest hits included: cleaning the apartment, hitting the gym, gaming, walking my dogs, basically anything that felt fun, productive, or distracted me from the frustration that accompanied my literary constipation. Yet my absolute favorite was throwing my own little personal pity parties, because nothing gives you license to avoid quite like suffering. 

On those blue-moon occasions when, after clearing my head via one of the aforementioned mental laxatives, I would take another crack at writing. But when I sat back down and opened my computer, my headache, irritation, and distractibility were waiting for me. Such avoidance has been a pattern of mine for many years. It has led to self-loathing, anger, bouts of depression, conflict with family over the realities of being a writer, and heaps of anxiety. I would tell myself that I’m lazy, that I don’t want this badly enough to be a writer, that I’m not cut out for this type of work. And every little bit of me believed it. 

It was all a lie…Here is what I learned.

For me, when I sat down to write, the first thing that would happen—even before the headaches—was a flood of instantaneous anxious thoughts (called “automatic thoughts” in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). These insidious little buggers would infect my mind, triggering anxiety, convincing my brain that certain motivation-sapping ideas were true. I’m not smart enough to be a writer. I’m a hack. I’m pretending. This piece has to be ground-breaking. Everything is riding on it. Then cue the headache, frustration, and subsequent avoidance. This routine happened with such regularity that the very act of writing, something I truly enjoy, quickly became strongly associated with anxiety. 

Odds are that if you are avoiding something, it’s because the idea of confronting that task floods you with intense and unpleasant emotions, the most common of which being anxiety—even if you aren’t aware of it. You don’t have to feel afraid of something in order for anxiety to be the reason you avoid it. This is a common misconception. Often times we are not afraid of the activity itself, but rather we are afraid of the anxiety or stress we anticipate feeling when doing it. Prolonged avoidance inflates the stressor into something we believe we cannot cope with, and as a result we develop complex means of adaptation. In fact, we get so good at sidestepping these crushing emotions that we even find forms of avoidance that don’t feel like avoidance. 

For instance, are you prone toward self-sabotage? Do you make decisions that tend to torpedo your ability to tackle something you’re avoiding? When this becomes a pattern, you just might be demonstrating crafty avoidance. Sometimes we lean on excuses—I stayed out late last night, so I need to cancel that uncomfortable brunch with my mom that I’ve known about all week. Other times we trick ourselves into believing we are avoidant for one reason, when really it’s about something else entirely. A common example is when we avoid trying because we tell ourselves we are afraid of failing, when we are actually more afraid of succeeding. If we succeed, that means we demonstrate competency, which means expectations are raised. What if we can’t be consistent? How many people (besides ourselves) will be let down by failing to meet these expectations? After experiencing enough consistent failures in our lives we refuse to try because we believe history will repeat itself. Yet, if we take a close enough look at those former attempts, there is likely a trail of self-sabotaging behavior at strategic points along the way. Why? Because we know what it feels like to fail. It’s terrible and disappointing, but it’s familiar. What we don’t know is what it’s like to really succeed. And that unknown feeling scares us to death. Our anxiety mounts as we doubt our ability to handle success and the responsibilities that come with it. So in an effort to avoid the discomfort of the unknown, we unconsciously ensure failure through sabotage.  

It bears mentioning that there are other factors to rule-out when considering whether or not we are genuinely avoiding responsibilities. Exhaustion after a long day at work, or a huge fight with a significant other can easily deny us the energy and motivation to carry out necessary tasks. However, these factors do not constitute avoidant behavior because they are largely circumstantial. If you are unable to make progress on a personal goal because you come home chronically fatigued from work, you’re not necessarily being avoidant. More likely, you have prioritized work over the goal and need to rearrange your schedule to accommodate both. Simply put, avoidance doesn’t mean shirking your duties simply because you don’t “feel like it.” Truly avoidant tendencies are those which occur even under ideal conditions, and are representative of a larger inner conflict between intention and execution. 

Here is an example:

David is a Junior in high school. He has a history test tomorrow that he’s known about for several weeks. Though he actually likes history class, David hasn’t studied for his exam until tonight. Instead, night after night, he avoids studying and opts to play video games, much to his parents’ chagrin. If you ask David, he doesn’t like studying because it’s boring, annoying, and he would rather be doing anything else. 

As a client of mine, I learned that David has anxiety that he hides extremely well. On the surface he is a popular, sociable, athletic kid with a great sense of humor. But underneath all that good stuff, David is extremely insecure. Certain aspects of school make him feel stupid. Studying overwhelms and frustrates him. Whenever he tries to prep for an exam he doesn’t know where to start and when to end. He gets confused about what information will be on the test, feeling the sudden panic to memorize everything in case there is a question about something he forgot. In his mind, he can’t ask his parents for help because that’s lame and he doesn’t want to invite a lecture about procrastination. He can’t ask his friends for help because he’s convinced they care about school even less than he does. Pretty soon David’s brain is so flooded with racing thoughts, doubts, and “what if’s” that he’s not even absorbing what he’s reading. His mental energy is so tapped-out that fatigue and frustration settle in. Thankfully, here comes Captain Avoidance ready to rescue David from academic torture:

CAPTAIN AVOIDANCE: David, my good man, I do say this feeling sucks! I’m sure you would love to escape it. 

DAVIDYeah, but the test is tomorrow and it’s worth a big chunk of my grade.

CAPTAIN AVOIDANCEIndeed, however you clearly can’t handle this much frustration right now. I suggest a video game break followed by a lengthy YouTube session. Surely that will recharge your batteries! And you will still have some time before bed when you can finish studying. 

DAVID: Sounds good to me. 

As you can imagine, David never gets to studying. He bombs the history exam in spectacular fashion, along with a bunch of others that semester. What follows is the typical adult reaction. Teachers meet with his parents, David gets labelled as “unmotivated,” video games get blamed, David gets grounded and a fun lecture about responsibility, which causes him to get pissed and act out. Then he winds up in my office. 

What we can glean from David’s struggle with avoidance is a better understanding of how powerful our emotions can be, and just how difficult it can be to sit with them. Research shows that the human brain registers emotional pain in nearly the same way it does physical pain. This makes it hard for us to fight our baser instincts to avoid. As children, most of us have that joyous experience of touching a hot stove for the first time. We learn pretty quickly to steer clear of the coils when they’re glowing red. But by that same token, when we experience loss for the first time, or rejection, or embarrassment, it only makes sense to do what we can to avoid those hot emotional stoves too. This is why avoidance is so common. We have to unlearn a fundamental, biological survival instinct—avoid what hurts. 

Compounding the Issue

When we adopt a pattern of avoidance, an interesting process occurs. Our efforts to eliminate frustration and anxiety by avoiding what’s necessary causes us to experience—you guessed it—frustration and anxiety. Think about it. Let’s say you didn’t file your tax return this year because taxes are beyond complicated, math isn’t your strong suit, and there is little margin for error in calculating what you owe. Anxiety drops like a sledgehammer, and so begins the avoidance. Little short-term vacations to take your mind off the mental turmoil that occurs every time you even contemplate tackling your 1040 (whatever that is). But the feeling never goes away. The anxiety lingers in the back of your mind constantly. You find yourself both exhausted as more and more distractions are needed to block the discomfort, and irritable as they gradually lose their effectiveness. Eventually, the awareness of just how avoidant you have become is apparent, and shame pays you a visit. Fun thoughts like: What is wrong with me? and Why can’t I get it together? become increasingly frequent. 

Before long, our avoidance and anxiety become a cycle that compounds upon itself. We avoid a task because it brings us stress and anxiety, but then we stress about how much we avoid, so we need to avoid the stress of being stressed about avoiding, and so on…The cycle becomes self sustaining, and increasingly difficult to break. 

One simple truth I have discovered is that the longer we avoid something, the harder it is to confront. The more we avoid, the more we are telling ourselves that we can’t handle dealing with our problems. And, like anything else, the more we tell ourselves something, the more we tend to believe it. Since thought patterns and perception of the world formulate human self-concept, we come to take ownership of our destructive habits and identify as an “avoider.” Now that we have established the pattern of dodging responsibility as a fundamental part of who we are, avoidant behavior feels (on an unconscious level) like we are being true to ourselves. Conversely, efforts we make to actually break the cycle of avoidance registers as false, uncomfortable, and therefore wrong. 

Okay, We Get it. So Now What?

Breaking a long-term pattern of avoidance is a lot like trying to quit smoking. It’s going to suck, you’re probably going to feel off your game, and you’re really, REALLY going to want to reach for your crutch. I tell you this not to scare you off or make you believe overcoming avoidant behavior is impossible, but to help create a mental framework for the task ahead. Allow me to explain. 

If you’re anything like me, you have been avoiding stressful challenges for the better part of your life. Of course, this may not always be the case. There are probably times when you embraced adversity head-on, but the BIG challenges, the ones that emerge from our deepest insecurities, often remain unaddressed and avoided. Unlearning a behavior that has become so ingrained it feels natural is like training your brain to see the sky as purple. It’s going to take a lot of convincing and constant reminders. 

Here are the three key concepts to affecting real change when you choose to go to W.A.R. with you avoidance.

  • Why
  • Action
  • Response

Why

Why do you want to do this? What is your reason? What makes learning to overcome avoidance so important to you? Why subject yourself to all the hellish behavioral rigor I mentioned earlier? “Why” is the essence of motivation and therefore the reason we endeavor to do anything. Simply put, we need a good enough reason to fight for something. Otherwise we will almost certainly lose momentum along the way when it gets hard.

Imagine deciding to tackle something like quitting smoking, or to losing 30 lbs. without a meaningful reason to do so. It may be easy at first because the personal challenge is new and exciting—I’m taking control of my life! But when the shine wears off, there is little to stop us from lighting up or speed-dialing Dominos. But if someone chose to stop smoking because she got winded two minutes into a hike with her spouse, or a man chose to lose weight to stave off diabetes and live longer to see his daughter graduate college, then that person stands a far better chance of succeeding. For best results, our “why” should speak to us on a deep, personal level, so the message can penetrate through even our strongest avoidant tendencies.

Finding the “why” in something we strive for is that all-important first step toward lasting change. The why becomes a mantra we tell ourselves when we want to give up. It refocuses our efforts toward the mission at hand, filling us with renewed purpose. Coming up with a good enough why will make it possible to endure what comes next. 

Action

Lean into the fear. Do the thing you’re avoiding most. Don’t worry, we will deal with your emotional resistance when it comes up. You may be asking yourself: Why not psych myself up first to get in the right headspace to THEN take action? Well I’ll tell you. Because there is too great a chance that during the “psych-up” process you will find and rationalize a reason NOT to take action toward the thing you’re avoiding. Remember, we’ve gotten very adept at finding loopholes through which we can avoid what’s necessary. 

We cannot risk taking the necessary action by spending too much time in our heads. In addition to weaseling our way out of dealing with our problems, who needs the added pressure of hyping up the changes we plan to make? In these moments we tend to set unrealistic expectations for ourselves—Okay, I’m REALLY gonna do it this time. I’ve spent my whole life avoiding, but starting today I avoid no longer! That is a tall order to fill, compadre. And if you’re already a person prone to self disappointment, you’re setting the stage for major motivational damage. What happens when (not if) it becomes more challenging than you anticipated? All that magical motivational fairy dust that inspired you to work through your avoidance falls off like cheap glitter. That’s when old habits creep back in, telling yourself—Well this didn’t work—and resume avoiding. 

Instead, make yourself take action and start on your objective to get the ball rolling. If it’s taxes you’re avoiding, sit down with your documents and start looking them over. If you’re avoiding writing, bust out your laptop and start typing. If you’re afraid to talk to that handsome guy at school, just go up and start making conversation. Now, it’s entirely possible that while considering the “action” step of this process, you might feel woefully unprepared for the task ahead. Trust me, keep reading… 

At this point the mission is not about success, it’s about trying. If you succeed and somehow commit to filing your taxes, writing that book, or getting his phone number, then a HUGE CONGRATS! But all of that is just a bonus. For those who chronically avoid, it’s unbelievably important to see ourselves trying in spite of our resistance. We have to know we are capable. That we can work through our anxiety and frustration is the evidence we need to trust in our ability to confront our problems.

Response

The final and most challenging part of learning to avoid avoidance is managing that ingrained emotional reaction we have when tasked with engaging triggering responsibilities. To navigate our way through, the best weapon we can arm ourselves with is learning to respond to how we react. 

By virtue of the word itself, to “react” to something is to provide an instantaneous action to an introduced catalyst. In plain English, when we react to a stressor we are giving a quick, knee-jerk reply that comes from a place of emotion and is usually out of our immediate control. No matter what we do, we cannot help our instinctive reaction to something. What we can influence is our response after the initial reaction. But to do so, we need to develop an inner voice that serves as our coach. I know this part may sound cheesy, but hey, you’ve read this far. What do you have to lose? 

Our “response coach” is both compassionate and represents logical thinking. It tethers our feet to the ground, challenges irrational beliefs, and keeps us from reverting back to avoidant behaviors. It tasks us with really understanding why we are avoiding something, rather than encouraging us to flee. A fitting name for the coach is will power. Allow me to introduce you to your new best friend, Mr. William Power. At first he may seem to be locked in a constant battle with his nemesis, Captain Avoidance, but with enough practice he will begin to prevail with greater ease. Why? Because remember that will power fights for a good reason.  

Here is an example to help illustrate whatever the heck it is I’m talking about:

Let’s say I’m trying to write the very article you’re reading right now. I haven’t made much progress and have been avoiding it because every time I open my laptop I have all those fun resistance symptoms I mentioned earlier. 

Today I sit down to write and the same thing happens. My reaction is one of discomfort and unwanted emotions. I’m doubting if the article will make sense, and if anyone will even read it—let alone find it helpful. Instinctively I go to get up from my seat (at the insistence of Captain Avoidance), but instead I sit back down. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Power just entered the building…

WILL POWER: It’s okay that you want to avoid this. Who wouldn’t? It stresses you out and makes you feel insecure. 

CAPTAIN AVOIDANCE: Exactly. That’s why you’re going to go clean your apartment for the next hour, because you feel like a loser and need to do SOMETHING to make yourself feel productive and in control. 

WILL POWER: Yes, cleaning the apartment does make you feel better, but it’s not essential or time sensitive. It’s avoidant. And because it feels productive, cleaning is an easily justifiable distraction. 

CAPTAIN AVOIDANCE: Can-it, Bill! You don’t understand what this feels like. I can’t stand it!

WILL POWER: I’m willing to bet you CAN stand this. It’s just a feeling, just an unwanted emotion. Emotions are temporary. Don’t run away from it. You can take it, sit with it. The anxiety you feel is convincing you that you can’t write this article, that you’re not disciplined or smart enough. Prove it wrong.

CAPTAIN AVOIDANCE: Ugh! This is too frustrating. It’s not even worth it. I’m so exhausted all the time. I don’t even want to write anymore.

WILL POWER: Remember why you’re doing this. Remember why writing is so important to you. Important enough to push through all this uncertainty and grief. Writing means something to you. It gives you purpose. 

And…scene. 

Believe it or not, that campy Afterschool Special you just read was the reason I was able to finish this article. Whether you, dear reader, think it’s any good or not is completely irrelevant. No offense. I care that you find this information useful, but I couldn’t let that be a factor I held onto during this process or else I would second guess myself every step of the way. And we all know that such anxiety is just food for Captain Avoidance to wolf down.

The Takeaway

It’s funny. People are always looking for a complex way of solving their problems. Something groundbreaking that they’ve never thought of before. A novel idea that will open up their minds to say: Ah-ha! Finally, an answer! But I’ve learned that the simplest changes are often the most effective. People tend to overlook them because they’re hard. Avoidance is no different. Learning to work through avoiding what’s necessary is a master class in confronting our deepest insecurities. Yet it doesn’t take an actual graduate degree to know what you have to do. 

Find a reason why to fight through avoidance to stay motivated when things get tough. Take action to get things moving and to show yourself you didn’t hesitate. Confront your avoidant reaction with a compassionate, but honest response that encourages (rather than shames) you into pushing forward. That’s it. Go give it a shot. 

ADHD Strategy Guide for Parents: PART I

Why I Made This Guide

If your son or daughter has been diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), odds are that you already have experienced some of the parenting challenges that come with it. Even more likely is your growing concern about your child’s ability to handle the necessities of life both now, and more importantly, in the future. In my time as a Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in treating adolescent and adult ADHD, I am consistently astonished at the lack of information parents are given about ADHD after their child has received the diagnosis. In an effort to properly equip parents, I created the following guide to serve as a quick reference on Attention-Deficit disorder. It is designed to address different aspects of conceptualizing and working with the disorder. I hope you find it to be an informative and useful tool to: (a) better understand your child, (b) develop creative ways of connecting with him/her, (c) avoid parental burnout, and (d) give your child the best chance to succeed academically, personally, and socially. The following is Part I: Understanding.

Managing Expectations

The first and possibly most important point I can emphasize to parents is that if your child has ADHD (especially if you do not) he or she probably does not think like you do. This goes beyond the simple differences that separate the priorities of adults and kids. We are talking about fundamentally different ways of mental processing, information absorption, and execution of behaviors. If these differences are ignored, misunderstood, or go unaccommodated,  they can lead to a number of emotional issues and detrimental habits that can carry into adulthood. Understanding these differences and how kids express them is a crucial first step in helping them to thrive.

Attention Span

THE CHALLENGES

  1. Often very short capacity to maintain focus compared to their peers when it comes to things ADHD kids don’t like (e.g. homework, listening in class). Conversely, attention span can be seemingly infinite when it comes to things they do like (e.g. video games, watching YouTube).
  2. Easily distracted by visual and auditory stimuli (things they see and hear).
  3. Often have a difficult time prioritizing incoming information. Trying to have a conversation with them in a crowded or noisy room can be a challenge because the ADHD brain struggles to determine which information it picks up is most important.
  4. Prone to daydreaming or random thoughts that pop up and draw their attention elsewhere.

THE BENEFITS

  1. Propensity for creativity and invention as time spent daydreaming is when new ideas are formed.
  2. Being easily distracted by one’s environment isn’t always a bad thing. This can make teens hyper-aware of their surroundings, giving way to fast reflexes and heightened spacial awareness. This can be particularly useful when playing sports. Teens with ADHD may appear to be naturally gifted athletes.
  3. Teens with ADHD can be highly observant, as their distractibility makes them curious.

Disorganization

THE CHALLENGES

  1. Consistent difficulty with planning, organizing, and creating/maintaining structure or routine.
  2. Likely to find complex objectives that require multiple steps to be tedious and a challenge. There is a deficit in the ability to prioritize tasks, to think linearly, and to focus on both long and short-term goals at once. Therefore those with ADHD are prone to giving up such endeavors due to frustration.
  3. The ability to place events in order of sequence can be limited. This may manifest in a number of ways such as difficulty recounting the events of the day, or in telling a story.
  4. Are frequently unprepared for tasks, projects, or assignments that require significant planning.

THE BENEFITS

  1. Due to inherent difficulties with strategic planning and forward thinking, teens with ADHD often compensate in the only way they know how: to adapt.
  2. More likely to be flexible in the moment and successful on the fly, adapting to the necessities of the situation.
  3. ADHD kids may seem witty or clever as they can process rapidly in certain situations.
  4. Resourcefulness: without organizational skills, teens learn to recruit the help of others.
  5. Are often self-taught, preferring to learn from experience in the moment rather than reading a manual or text book.

Forgetfulness

THE CHALLENGES

  1. Due to shortened attention span and high distractibility, encoding information and memories is often more challenging.
  2. Can frequently lose or misplace personal items due to lack of attention and organizational skills.
  3. Likely to forget to do things that are not seen as instinctively important to them (e.g. chores, checking in with parents).
  4. May resort to lying about completing chores or homework that they forgot to do in order to avoid punishment or disappointment.
  5. Can be prone to interrupting others in conversation. This is due, in part, to thoughts or ideas coming quickly and the fear that their contributions can easily be forgotten if not shared immediately. It is also due to a lack of impulse control, which will be addressed later.

THE BENEFITS

  1. ADHD teens may be better able to let go of anger and frustration by moving on quickly.
  2. Teens develop a stronger sense of what is important to them as indicated by the things they choose to remember.

Pleasure Drive

THE CHALLENGES

  1. Extremely strong attraction toward excitementactivities that are pleasurable, or anything enjoyable or new.
  2. Likely to prioritize fun over obligations.
  3. May lie or be deceitful to get out of responsibilities in order to resume pleasurable activities.
  4. May require constant reinforcementvalidation, or reward to see obligations as worthwhile.

THE BENEFITS

  1. Frequently seen as fun-loving by friends and family, the life of the party.
  2. Often regarded as charming.
  3. Can use creativity to find ways to make the mundane more exciting and interesting. 
  4. Like to make others happy.

Impulsivity

THE CHALLENGES

  1. Those with ADHD are prone to low impulse control, which is the difficulty resisting sudden intense urges or desires that they feel must be met in order to avoid sadness, anxiety, or frustration.
  2. May suddenly blurt out words, thoughts, sounds, songs, etc…
  3. Behavior can often come across as rampant silliness or juvenile.
  4. Likely to act without thinking.
  5. Likely to be more reactive to their environment than their peers.
  6. Can develop a sudden desire or “wanting” of something, and can act out emotionally or aggressively if this desire is not met.
  7. Can be more susceptible to peer influence.

THE BENEFITS

  1. Impulsivity can take the form of spontaneity, leading to adventure.
  2. Less likely to “over-think” things, teens with ADHD are more likely to try new things and have new experiences.
  3. May demonstrate bravery, and are more likely to take risks.
  4. Like to joke and keep the mood light.

Frustration Tolerance

THE CHALLENGES

  1. Teens with ADHD often have a significantly lower frustration threshold than their peers.
  2. Likely to exhibit a strong resistance toward things that cause mental fatigue or frustration.
  3. May abandon interests or pursuits that they are not instantly good at or that suddenly become harder over time (e.g. school, sports, creative arts)
  4. Difficulty with things that require sustained mental effort.
  5. Can be emotionally explosive when efforts are not fruitful, are interrupted, or result in failure (e.g. throwing a tantrum when losing at a video game or team sport).
  6. Will frequently turn to pleasurable activities quickly when frustrated rather than work through challenges.
  7. Highly impatient, usually with themselves, likely due to unrealistic expectations of their abilities or of how rapidly a task should be completed or a skill learned.

THE BENEFITS

  1. Dramatic examples of frustration and emotional reactivity make it easier for parents and educators to identify when a teen with ADHD is struggling.
  2. Due to frequent frustration, teens with ADHD are more likely to know what soothes and calms them based on the activities they seek out when they reach the limits of their frustration.

Boredom with Routine

THE CHALLENGES

  1. Tendency to be easily bored correlates to the need for newness.
  2. May succeed for a period of time with routine when it is still “new,” but will frequently fall apart or intentionally deviate from routine when the “shine of newness” wears off, or if frustration sets in.
  3. May initiate conscious or unconscious efforts to sabotage routines just to break the perceived monotony.
  4. Require unique and evolving means of maintaining their interest.

THE BENEFITS

  1. To avoid boredom, teens with ADHD are more apt to find new and creative ways of doing something.
  2. Likely to employ and nurture skills of ingenuity.
  3. Able to find more than one way of solving a problem or completing a task. Can occasionally find a more efficient way through trial and error.
  4. As with impulsivity, boredom with routine leads to trying new things.
  5. Drawn to activities or interests that are unique or out of the norm.
  6. May seek professions as adults that involve what they “love to do” rather than those which merely pay the bills. This can lead to a more fulfilling work life.

Constantly Changing Interests

THE CHALLENGES

  1. Very common in those with ADHD due to a combination of the excitement drawn from new things/passions/endeavors and chronic abandonment of those very same things when they become challenging, routine, or frustration sets in.
  2. Likely to struggle with following through when it comes to pursuits.
  3. Many projects get started, few are seen through to completion.
  4. Prone to difficulty in one or more of the following areas: starting somethingmaintaining effort, or finishing something.
  5. Can be extremely confusing and frustrating for parents as ADHD kids may seem “all-in” with a passion or activity one minute, then “totally over it” the next.

THE BENEFITS

  1. Teens with ADHD can be natural problem solvers, finding quick resolutions to problems and moving on to the next issue before their focus/interests change.
  2. Frequently changing interests can provide ADHD teens with exposure to many different pursuits, giving them a larger pool of passions to draw from.
  3. Driven to variety, potentially expanding worldview and understanding others and their interests.

Achievement vs. Potential

  1. Those with ADHD often demonstrate intelligence, creativity, passion, and quick-wittedness, which suggest strong potential for success. 
  2. Due to combinations of the cognitive processing/behavioral issues mentioned above, productivity and achievement are often far below what is seen as their potential.
  3. Performance may continue to drop precipitously due to chronic disappointment exhibited by family members, educators, and mentors because those with ADHD appear to be squandering their innate talents.
  4. Those with ADHD are often aware of their abilities and are just as bothered by their inconsistency as those around them, though this often goes unexpressed by teens.
  5. Secondary emotional symptoms often develop (e.g. depressionanxietyanger) resulting from years of shame, living with disappointing others, peer rejection, and feeling misunderstood.

Part I Conclusion

It’s important to consider the mental and behavioral traits of adolescents with ADHD with an open mind. Not all teens necessarily exhibit these characteristics and not all have the same level of functionality. Many kids have developed “ADHD-like symptoms” where they demonstrate some of the behaviors above, but not enough to qualify for the full-blown clinical diagnosis. However, these teens struggle just as others do, and so we must address the symptoms they bear, regardless of their label. To do so, parents unfortunately must ask a lot of themselves regarding increasing their patience, mental flexibility, and by adapting their parenting style to meet the needs of their child. All of which will be outlined in PART II of the ADHD Strategy Guide for Parents, coming soon…

Good Enough

I once had a colleague named Bethany who, unbeknownst to her, had a profound impact on my life. She was constantly on the go at the therapy clinic where we both treated clients. Not only did she see patients, but she would help manage the daily operations of the agency, supervised interns, provided Spanish translation for other therapists in their sessions, and (most impressively) always had her paperwork done on time. As if that wasn’t enough, this dizzyingly productive woman was also somehow able to sustain a happy marriage and remain highly involved in the lives of her three children—the youngest of which was born with special needs. She always found ways to eat healthy, stay fit, and was unflinchingly pleasant to interact with. In short, if you looked at her birth certificate, you’ll notice the correct pronunciation of her middle name is “Overachiever.”

I recall one afternoon I was eating lunch in the staff kitchen when Bethany, per usual, flew in like the breeze to assemble her salad. She said hello and made small talk, always taking the time to chat and be congenial with everyone despite her perpetually hurried demeanor. It was impossible not to envy her seemingly innate capacity for being, delicately put, on top of her shit, and in that moment I felt compelled to ask her how she does it. How she was capable of getting so much done, pushing forward, finding balance, and not drowning in a sea of overwhelming responsibilities. She chuckled at the question, assured me that behind the scenes she had plenty of her own emotional struggles, and offered a poignant reply that has stuck with me ever since. She said, “It’s hard to say, but I guess you learn to live with things being good enough.” 

Over the years since working with Bethany I have given the idea of “good enough” a lot of thought, both as it relates to myself and the people I treat in therapy—specifically those struggling with chronic emotional distress (CED for short). Through my work I began to see how the good enough philosophy could help these individuals that were crumbling under the weight of their intense emotional cycles. They would describe frequent debilitating episodes impeding their ability to live their lives; episodes fuelled by all manner of problematic coping behaviors like: non-stop worry, toxic self criticism, comparison bias, and chronic shame.    

For those of us living with CED, existing in a virtually unrelenting state of “not being okay” becomes the norm as we wrestle with the daily, sometimes hourly, guessing game of which emotions will be triggered, how badly, and for how long. The collateral damage that results from the need to constantly put out these emotional fires is often extensive. The biggest casualty by far being time. People spend so much time dealing with their internal challenges that their external interests—maintaining friendships, achieving goals, connecting with family—suffer from severe neglect. 

After enduring years of life in chronic turmoil, it’s impossible not to envy those who appear to be above it all—just as I did with Bethany. However, she quickly reminded me that assuming anyone has it all figured out is a fallacy, and that she struggles just like the rest of us. This fact initially bothered me because I grew more envious that she too experienced regular emotional challenges, but had found the secret to beating it—and I hadn’t. But later, during one of those rare moments of mental clarity, I came to a comforting realization: she actually hadn’t beaten it, she merely learned to manage it. Bethany’s emotional challenges never ceased to be a fixture in her life, she just taught herself to function in spite of them. 

So how was she able to do it? Was it through some new breathing technique or life-hack? Did she learn to cope with feeling overwhelmed, doubtful, even angry or depressed through sheer tyranny of will? In truth, none of the above. She simply made a choice. Bethany made a conscious decision to adopt a more useful perspective on life: live with good enough—a mantra that served her well because she reinforced it every day. Its power was in the permission it gave her to stop chasing the illusion of perfect, blissful happiness and to embrace what is. Ironically, this idea actually allowed her to find happiness. 

Perhaps this was possible because Bethany’s philosophy of good enough focuses on valuing stabilityover achieving happiness. Such a notion is vital to people struggling with chronic emotional distress because of our common belief that those who aren’t emotionally afflicted are living happier lives. We envy the apparent absence of emotional pain, and call it happiness. Yet, working from this assumption consistently leaves us feeling broken and inept, like happiness was something they taught in school and we were all somehow sick that day. It never quite feels achievable. Therefore, I would argue that what the CED afflicted are truly after is a degree of control. In essence, emotional stability—embodied by the confidence of knowing that whatever stressors may come, we can handle it well enough that we don’t completely fall apart. Developing this ability to trust ourselves allows us to push through episodes of emotional distress such that we can live our lives proactively rather than reactively. And it is unquestionably this constant battle with our own emotional reactivity that exhausts and consumes us. 

To begin trusting ourselves to appropriately handle our mood states, we must first examine our perspective when we are struggling “in the moment.” In the midst of heightened emotional distress, our body systems flood with stress hormones, our minds clutter themselves with anxious, rageful, and depressive thoughts, and we become acutely aware that we are “not okay.” Self preservation instincts alert us that we must find a way to be okay and bring our systems back to normal functioning quickly. We often heed these internal warnings with urgency and without question, however this cycle feeds our sense of instability and lack of self control. What we consistently don’t realize is that we can partially ignore our internal cues to fix ourselves and find ways to be okay when we’re not okay. The good enough perspective, in moments of acute distress, means accepting our current emotional discomfort rather than scrambling to erase it. Our emotions, however painful, are not inherently lethal, they cannot claim us—though they often feel as if they can. We have to encode the idea that we can endure them. 

Building stability when we are not necessarily in moments of distress is primarily a matter of embracing and accepting our limitations rather than catering to personal expectations. It boils down to the level of kindness and patience we show ourselves. When we fail to meet an internalized expectation, whether we are aware we hold ourselves to this standard or not, we get angry, often depressed, and we punish our shortcomings in unspeakable ways. Our intention here is not masochism, but an effort to teach ourselves the consequences of failure. Consider the implications of this system of self-correction. If we were to mentor a child in the same manner, and inflict shame every time she failed to meet an expectation, that child would only know fear and self doubt whenever posed with a challenge. The result would likely be that she avoids risk out of fear of failure, while simultaneously shaming herself for being cowardly. However, if we were to approach the child with patience, understanding, and compassion when a mistake is made, she would be far less likely to fear taking risks, and would emotionally rebound more quickly. 

So why do we reserve these appropriate levels of empathy only for others and not ourselves? If only there was a philosophy that could change our perspective…    

Good enough teaches us to turn this much needed compassion inward by exercising understanding and allowing us to establish internal boundaries. Without a firm set of internal boundaries—standards for compassionately managing self-imposed expectations—those battling CED can easily fall victim to rampant self-criticism and the resultant emotional despair. With strong internal boundaries we can learn to set limits on our inner critic and identify how much self examination is useful toward personal growth, and when it exceeds these limits and moves into the realm of being toxic or shaming. These boundaries also help us to feel confident in how much effort is “good enough” without succumbing to crippling doubt. We can use them to define what success means to us instead of yielding the definition to the approval of others. And perhaps most importantly, we can begin embracing our messy parts and incorporating them into our own unique self concept rather than trying to achieve an impossible social standard of perfection. 

Interestingly, even after a rousing pep-talk about self love, setting boundaries, and embracing limitations, people consistently lament and reject the parts of themselves they consider undesirable: lack of passion, heightened emotionality, physical disabilities, cognitive challenges, etc…It’s not my goal to attempt to put a positive spin on these aspects of humanity. Some things serve no hidden purpose but to torment us. Unfortunately, we tend to highlight these obstacles as the qualities that define our value and our identity. We often pity ourselves or curse fate for marking us as “damaged.” Good enough helps us to shift this imbalance. With it our focus can move away from our flaws and toward what we can achieve despite our flaws. I strongly believe that this is the power Bethany discovered for herself. She cultivated resistance to being preoccupied with her own shortcomings, refused to let them define her capabilities, and the result was transcendent and inspiring. 

Today I try to live by Bethany’s philosophy of good enough and to pass it on whenever I can. It has helped me to embrace my own flaws and to re-write my perspective on life. Getting through moments of chronic emotional distress can still pose a challenge, but as I come closer to that hallowed stability, finding happiness becomes gradually easier. And should others choose to give this philosophy a legitimate try I believe they won’t be disappointed. For those struggling to find their own answers, and tired of battling themselves, I offer this bit of advice: Don’t waste your time fighting against what’s within you, find a way to harness it, because what’s within you IS you, and it’s undoubtedly good enough.

Why Teenagers DON’T Talk to Their Parents…

If you’re the parent of a teenager and feel that communication has broken down, an important first consideration is why communication has fallen apart. Here are four common, and often over-looked, reasons that teens avoid talking with their parents.

1.) NATURAL DEVELOPMENT

Any developmental psychologist will tell you that the hallmark of the adolescent years is the pursuit of identity and the biological drive toward seeking independence. These are not choices teens make, they are based on human development and instinct. This can often be a difficult transition to grasp for parents that (until now) are accustomed to their children relying on them for nearly everything. And with such reliance usually comes open communication and dialogue between parent and child. Parents know just about everything that goes on in their child’s life: who their friends are, performance in school, hobbies, interests, dreams, etc…until kids enter those pivotal teen years.

Since teenagers are new to the idea of independence, their efforts to obtain it are mostly trial and error. As a result, often the first instinct a teenager exhibits is to distance his/her self from their parent(s). This includes such behaviors as: intentionally doing the opposite of one’s parents, questioning rules and expectations, resisting or outright rejecting parental advice, and a notable drop in communication.

Teens begin to shift their focus from family to friends when it comes to advice, emotional support, camaraderie, and bonding. These are the first strides teens take toward individuation—which is considered the healthiest form of independence. As adults, individuation is represented by people who are independent, competent, self-reliant, and yet are able to ask for help and support from others. In order for teenagers to achieve individuation, parents have to embrace the most terrifying of activities: learning to let go.

To clarify, “letting go” doesn’t mean handing your teenager the keys to the car, a wad of cash, and saying “good luck with your life.” It means empowering teens to develop life skills through their own experience. There are number of ways to help your teen to feel empowered, but here are two of the big ones.

Decision-Making: Seize every possible opportunity to encourage your teen to make as many age–appropriate decisions as possible. This gives teens a sense of control over their lives and builds confidence in their judgment and ability to make good choices.

Give them some space: Take a step back, both literally and figuratively, to see what your teenager can do. Let them make mistakes and learn from them. Teenagers desperately need this time to learn to problem-solve and become more self-reliant. Be sure not to step too far back, teens thrive on the knowledge that a parent is right behind them if they need support. And when your teen does seek your counsel, it’s important to avoid shaming him/her by meeting them with empathy rather than judgment or a lecture.

2.) FEAR OF JUDGMENT

Nobody likes to be judged. Especially teenagers. Especially by their parents. As a parent, it’s more than likely you are aware that teenagers are not only hypersensitive emotionally and often insecure about who they are, but have an impossibly strong drive toward acceptance. Interestingly, teens don’t just crave acceptance by their peers, but by their parents as well.

Judgment is a form of rejection, the opposite of acceptance. So if a teenager is crying out for acceptance and is afraid you as a parent might judge him/her, that teenager is far less likely to approach you to talk. It’s hard enough to be rejected by your peers, but when a teen feels rejected by a parent it becomes a betrayal. The scary part is that parents often don’t even realize they’re doing it.

In my work I have observed countless instances where parents make judgmental comments to their teenage child about his/her interests, choices in friends, use of free time, even appearance. Regardless of circumstance, parents represent two crucial themes to their kids that cannot be betrayed if you want to foster a healthy family relationship: safety, and unwavering acceptance.

If you are a parent, you don’t need to share your child’s interests in order to appreciate them. You don’t have to dress like your daughter to know she has style. And you don’t need to account for every second of your son’s free time so long as you know he is safe and responsible. If you can make space in your heart and mind to accept your teenager’s differences rather than judge them, you will find a much stronger bond.

To help your teenager feel more accepted, you as a parent need to do only one thing: embrace their weirdness. Whatever your child is into (assuming it is not something dangerous or harmful) be curious about it, try to find the merits in it, and join in with them when possible.

Example: If your teenage son plays video games like they are going out of style (which he probably does), ask to watch, ask to play, learn more about the games he is interested in.

Example: If your daughter is upset about something seemingly trivial a friend posted on social media, resist the sigh and eye-roll that often accompanies parental attitudes toward “Millennial Drama.” This is the reality of the world teens live in, embrace it and the closer you will become.

3.) NOT LOOKING FOR A SOLUTION

Parents are by far the most influential figures in a young person’s development. Yes, friends, siblings, and mentors are important, but nothing compares to the power of MOM & DAD. Parents are the verbal and non-verbal role models kids observe every day to determine how to exist in this world. As a result, parents quickly realize that their children look to them for instruction, solutions to problems, and knowledge about how the world works. Since this dynamic is repeated constantly for years as a child grows up, it becomes a well-learned routine.

However, as stated above regarding a teenager’s natural development, teens start seeking independence, which means finding their own answers. Unfortunately, most parents aren’t prepared for this sudden shift and default to their normal routine of trying to solve the problem.

Example:A 14-year-old boy comes home from school looking gloomy, avoiding his mother’s gaze.

MOTHER – Hey, how was school?

SON – Fine.

MOTHER – What’s wrong, honey?

SON – Nothing, I’m fine!

MOTHER – Oh, come on. You’re clearly upset. Tell me what happened.

SON – It’s just that I haven’t been able to make any friends at my new school. It sucks. I sit alone at lunch like a loser. 

MOTHER –I’m sorry, honey. You know…tomorrow you should go talk to that Jason boy you mentioned last week. Or maybe you can try out for a sports team? Or maybe you can join a club?

SON – Yeah, I guess. But it’s whatever…

The son promptly gets more irritated, shuts down, and heads to his room. Why? Because he wasn’t looking for his mother to solve his problem.

If your teenager entrusts you with his/her private dilemmas, this is a big responsibility on the part of the parent to handle it appropriately. What I’ve noticed throughout my work is that teenagers usually just want support, not solutions. They want to feel competent enough to find the answer to their own problem while feeling safely held (emotionally) by their parent(s). Here are some alternative responses the mother from the example above could have used that might be more effective:

I’m sorry to hear that honey. Are you okay?

Do you want to talk about it?

Do you need some space?

Yeah, that really stinks. Let me know if you need me. 

 I’m here if you want to talk.

What do you want to do about it? 

Do you want my advice, or do you just want me to listen?

4.) REACTIVE PARENTS

There are two ways human beings can reply to incoming information: reacting or responding. Though they may sound similar, they are completely different. A reaction is quick, based solely on emotion and instinct. A response is slower, based on carefully considering the appropriate reply. Because a reaction comes from our instinctive brain, it serves only us, not the source of the information to which we are reacting.

EXAMPLE: A teenage daughter brings home a report card with several F’s and sheepishly hands it to her father. The father, to whom academics are extremely important, can’t believe his daughter failed so many subjects. Consequently, the father is instantly disappointed, and begins yelling and lecturing.

Guess which parent (if any) that teenage girl will approach with the next report card. Hint: it’s not going to be dad.

Emotional reactivity, more than any other factor I have come across, is the primary reason why teenagers don’t approach their parents with problems, concerns, or trust them with their secrets. Put quite simply, highly reactive parents are unsafe. What’s worse is that this dynamic can foster unhealthy habits in teens such as chronic lying to avoid punishment and developing their own explosive reactivity.

Responding is far more difficult, and requires a higher degree of patience and restraint. To respond to your teenager appropriately, there is one main question you should ask yourself: Is what I am about to say the best thing to help my child? This does not suggest the father has no right to be angry with his daughter for her poor academic performance, but when it comes to anger, remember this philosophy: tell don’t show.

We already know how showing your anger, such as yelling or lecturing, can negatively impact a parent-teen relationship. So how does a parent let their child know how they feel without reacting? Let’s use the same example of the report card from above.

When father sees his daughter’s poor grades, he looks up at her and in a calm voice says the following:

“I’m really disappointed and angry about this. Can you tell me what happened?”

“Where do you think you had the most trouble?” 

More constructive and empowering responses than lecturing would be:

“What can WE do differently next time to improve your grades?” 

“What can I do to help you succeed?” 

A final note to parents. Be patient not just with your teenager, but with yourself. This is really tough stuff that often has a ton of emotional weight and family history behind it. The tools I’ve laid out can definitely help, but just like developing teens learning independence, it is going to be mostly trial and error.

The Evolution of Anxiety

Anxiety is a funny thing. It can be our best friend, or our worst enemy, and originates from the most basic instinct we have: survival. Every organism on this planet tends to naturally prioritize survival above all else in life. And for good reason. Without survival, there is no life. This instinct is innate and does not require thought to be activated. Even as complex creatures, humans are no different from the rest when it comes to self-preservation. If you need proof, tell a friend to sneak up on you sometime when you’re completely unaware. Odds are you will flinch, jump, recoil, or adopt a fighting stance. Why? Because you sensed danger and experienced fear.

When we experience anxiety, our bodies release a number of hormones such as adrenaline, norepinephrine, and dopamine that heighten/intensify our senses so that we stand a better chance of surviving the perceived threat. We become more alert, display faster reflexes, and experience a rush of energy to accommodate our next move: fight or flight.

While our knee-jerk reaction to danger has allowed us to thrive as a species, it can become over-developed when constantly bombarded by stressors. In the modern world, the specter of life-threatening harm is far less common than it was for our ancestors thousands of years ago. Yet in many ways our instinctive brains experience similar sensations of stress when they perceive danger to our emotional well-being. A commonly used example would be public speaking. Often regarded as the number one fear among people (out-ranking even death), speaking in front of crowds is terrifying to many. But why? There is an extremely low probability of death when presenting in front of a classroom or pitching an idea to a group of colleagues. The answer lies in the evolution of our species. A new form of survival has emerged out of the creation of modern civilization: social survival.

As humans we are a predominantly communal species. Just as wolves form a pack, or dolphins live in a pod, people largely require social relationships to thrive. However, due to our advanced brain structure which allows for complex thought, humans differ from animals in that we are far more selective when choosing members of our social group. We often hand-pick our friends,  rigorously vet our employees, and otherwise proceed with extreme caution when letting people into our lives. An unfortunate side effect of this highly evolved form of social selection is that the margin for error shrinks dramatically. It becomes quite easy to make social mistakes, even relatively small ones, that can cost us our protective community. The need for acceptance by others is innate within us. And so our awareness of how easily that acceptance can be stripped away becomes abundantly clear, giving rise to the fear of being alone. In a sense, loneliness can be equated to a type of death: social death.

Here is one such example of “social death”:

Now fully aware of what’s at stake, a 6th-grader in the school spelling bee becomes petrified with fear. She knows that making a careless mistake has a high probability for embarrassment as hundreds of students laugh and jeer at her expense. The overwhelming notion of potential humiliation on this scale triggers a series of biological responses akin to those necessary for surviving a life-threatening event. Her heart begins to pound as her breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Her thoughts race, eyes dart around, and hands shake uncontrollably as adrenaline courses through her body. As mentioned before, human biological survival protocols circumvent higher brain function and complex thought in order to provide a quicker response to danger. The 6th-grader can no longer think as clearly as she would if she were calm. Her turn comes to spell a very simple word she has spelled a thousand times. Consumed by her anxiety she forgets to include an obvious letter. Suddenly her worst fears are realized as the buzzer eliminating her from the competition is met with roars of laughter from the student body. She turns to her parents standing in the back row for comfort only to find looks of embarrassed disappointment on their faces. Crestfallen, the child cannot help but begin to sob, now exposing the most vulnerable of emotions to the ridicule of hundreds of students she must face for years to come.

This is but one of countless ways that chronic anxiety can be formed.