Bernadette Berry

Brian Dixon

Terry Ebeling


Level 6, John Wickliffe House
Exchange, Dunedin
03 474 5155

Donít Make the Mistake of Assigning Your Own Motivations to Those with ADD - 4th May 2010

An article by Bernadette Berry, published by the Hallowell Center in the USA


It is important to alert non-ADD spouses and parents to the idea that because the ADD brain functions quite differently from the non-ADD brain, it is wrong to assign their personal motivations to their partner’s or child’s behavior. For example, it is frequent that non-ADD people believe:
  •  that their ADD partner does not care about them when they do not arrive at an important date on time.
  • that their ADD child is being lazy when they step over things lying in the room rather than pick them up.
  • that their ADD partner is "lying" when they make up stories to fit events for which they have no other explanation or patently did not occur.
  • that their ADD child’s frequent interruptions are the result of the need for instant gratification or just plain poor manners
These assumptions assign a moral shortcoming to the ADD person, which is both incorrect and hurtful. To make these assumptions would be to miss important facts about how the ADD brain works. Russell Barkley argued in 2003 that inattention is likely the result of working memory, rather than poor attention, per se. As I work with people with ADD, I see that this manifests itself in a number of ways. Take the adult who blurts out the first thing that comes to their mind. This may make a person very funny, but it can also make them tactless. This blurting out has to do with an inability to inhibit their responses. Family members must learn that this is not intentionally hurtful behavior as all concerned work to get it under control.

Children with ADD often cut into conversations. But I don’t see this as the result of needing instant gratification. I believe it is better explained by one of the difficulties with working memory, which is an inability to hold information/events in their minds. By the time people have become adults with ADD they have often learnt ways of dealing with this difficulty. They may sit rehearsing in their mind what it is they want to say (this of course makes them miss out on what is being said, and increases their apparent difficulty with attention); they simply give up trying to contribute and sit and listen as well as they can; or, of course, they may still cut in.

It is easy to understand how people with attention problems may miss out on information It is less easy to understand why they make up information and, therefore, are frequently accused of lying. But the literature on remote memory tells us that memory works by remembering a few salient points and 'filling in' the rest of the information with what is likely to be the case. The reconstructive nature of memory is likely to be influenced by people’s desires, beliefs and the emotions associated with these events. This may give us some insight into the problem of the ADD adult “making up stories”. It is important to remember that when we do this 'filling in' we are not aware we are doing it - we believe we are remembering it (confabulation). The threshold at which this “remembering a few points then filling in the rest” occurs appears to be different for the ADD person - they appear to do it for immediate memory as well as longer-term.

Research suggests that children with inhibition control problems are more likely to have false memories than children without this problem. From my work with adults with ADD I have also noticed that not only do they seem to create ‘false memories’ more than non-ADD people but they appear to be more sure that they are right about this memory.

It is easily seen how this creates huge problems/arguments in relationships. Couples frequently report to me that their ADD partner not only forgets to tell them important things but that they are convinced that they have told their spouse and can recite the situation where and when they passed on this information.

Unfortunately, there are no specific solutions to these issues. Rather, there are a host of tactics that families with ADD can try to figure out what works for them. It is critically important that non-ADD family members be aware that these issues exist so that they can avoid assigning their own motivation to their ADD partners, children and friends.

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