Help Your Child with ADHD Avoid Underachievement


Every parent wants their child to grow up to reach their full potential. But research shows kids with ADHD are at risk of underachieving as adults, says Russell Barkley, clinical professor of psychiatry at Virginia Commonwealth Medical School and author of books about ADHD.

Barkley speaks at Beth Tfiloh on Feb. 5.

Medical research on how kids with ADHD fare as adults is relatively new, Barkley says. Although the disorder was first described in 1775 in a German medical textbook, “the public didn’t really become aware of it until the 1970s. It was probably the Baby Boomer generation that first began to recognize and deal with it,” he said.

Research clearly shows kids with ADHD can grow up to live “productive, independent” lives,” Barkley said. But they are also at risk.

“Despite having the same intellectual ability as other people, many of them wind up struggling in adult life,” he said. “You’ll find maybe 20 to 25 percent have periods of unemployment, or maybe living with their parents beyond an age where that would be appropriate, having trouble managing their money, or substance abusing.”

Research shows ADHD might “preclude you from reaching your full potential of what you could have done with that background, that IQ, that education. We often find the pattern of ADHD is underachievement relative to abilities.”

Success stories can mislead people into complacency about the condition. “The rare success story” is not necessarily “applicable to all people with ADHD. But it can be encouraging to know that people like Adam Levine, Ty Pennington, and many athletes are all adults with clearly diagnosed ADHD,” Barkley said.

Consistent management and treatment are critical. “You need to own this and manage it like somebody with diabetes would do.” But, in addition to lifelong management, Barkley says there are steps parents can take to help lessen risks kids will face as adults with ADHD.

1. Help Them Find Their Aptitude

First, says Barkley, parents need to help their children discover their aptitudes. “That may mean a comprehensive, vocational and psychological assessment. Let’s find out what they’re really good at.” Barkley says people with ADHD tend to find success in “non-traditional” fields such as “music, performing arts, drama and athletics. A lot of gym teachers are adults with ADHD, because they tend to drift into it as college majors.”

Kids with ADHD, Barkley says, won’t grow up “to be the bookkeepers and accountants of the world. They’re going to be the people who are engaging the world: sales reps, and people like that who move. Videographers, photographers, EMTs, emergency room medicine. They all involve active, stimulating, novelty-seeking sensation and thinking on your feet as you go.”

2. Develop Those Aptitudes

“Look for resources in your area that can help maximize” those gifts. “Get resources to really promote that aptitude,” Barkley said. He cites the example of Michael Phelps’ mom Debbie, who found an elite swim training facility for her athletically gifted son with ADHD.

3. Don’t Worry About Grades

Barkley says traditional educational models are a necessary evil for kids with ADHD. He advises: “Don’t put so much emphasis on education. We want them to pass. We want them to get out of school. We want them to get their Cs and Bs.”

“Yes, your child needs an education. But you’re not going to sacrifice your child, or your relationship, on this altar of educational success, because you’re going to lose your kid. Most of these kids don’t do well in school and if that’s your status symbol, you’re going to have a problem. You and your kid are going to be fighting a lot.”

After all, he says, “Education is not the be-all and end-all of people’s success,” and this is particularly true for kids with ADHD.

4. Be Their Rock

Most of all, says Barkley, parents must be “in their corner no matter what. You are their unconditional support system.”

With kids with ADHD, he says, “we don’t do tough love. We don’t kick you out on the street. We may have to set boundaries and limits. We don’t just give you cash. But in terms of their emotional support system, somebody in the family has to step up and be the backstop for these kids.”

“Unconditional acceptance,” Barkley said, “adds, we think, to their success. And they grow up really appreciating that and having strong relationships with that person.”

ADHD presents lifelong challenges, but “if you do those four things, I think you will do well,” he said.

“You can succeed, provided you get diagnosed, get treatment, and comply with your treatment. There’s no limit.” JT

Russell Barkley speaks on “Harmony at Home: Promoting Better Behavior and Self Control” at Beth Tfiloh Dahan Community School, 3300 Old Court Road, Pikesville, on Tuesday, Feb. 5, from 7:30-9 p.m. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door and can be purchased at

Erica Rimlinger is a Towson-based freelance writer.

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here