A New Look at Finding What Works

Cindy Lea

When I was a kid I taught my mom to yell and scream at me.

“This room is a pig sty, clean it up right now!” Feeling bad, I’d pick up a sweater, fold it and put it in the drawer and look around for what to do next. “Oh, good, there’s my book. I wonder how Nancy Drew will find the missing clue.”

Mom would inevitably come to check on me, “What are you doing? I told you to clean your room – now get busy.” Feeling worse, I would hang up two blouses and throw some dirty pants down the clothes chute. After scanning the never-ending piles, I would get discouraged and lie down to take a nap. Maybe if I rested a little I’d be able to deal with the huge mess.

Awakened by stomps on the stairs, “What is the matter with you?” My mom would scream. “I asked you to do one simple thing and you purposely defy me.”

Sound familiar? Well back then we didn’t know much about ADHD. My poor mom had no idea what to do with me. My sister didn’t have any trouble keeping her room and clothes nice and neat. It seemed that the only way to get me to clean my room was to stand over me, yelling and screaming. As you can imagine, this pattern was disastrous for our relationship.

Luckily you are parenting today, when we understand so much more about the brain, motivation and ADHD.

It turns out that I really wasn’t bad, lazy or purposely defying my mother, even though I had trouble motivating myself to do boring things. Brain scientists have recently proven that this behavior is a characteristic of ADHD.

Brain scans show that humans have two circuits for motivating themselves: emotional and cognitive. The emotional circuit works both positively and negatively. For example, all excited about going on a trip, you might find it easy to organize and pack your clothes. On the other hand, even if you hate doing accounting, you can probably motivate yourself to get your taxes done by April 15th because you are afraid of the negative consequences.

The cognitive circuit doesn’t respond to emotional motivation. People have to tell themselves to “just do it.”

Well get this: it turns out that ADD types don’t have a cognitive or “just do it” circuit.

Director of Neuro-imaging Research at Harvard, Dr. George Bush, did a study that placed people in a brain-imaging machine and asked them to remember a rule and do a boring task. He learned that neuro-typical people use a small spot in the center of their brains. They now refer to that spot as the Nike circuit because it is what people use when they are not really motivated, when they have to get themselves to “just do it.”

When Dr. Bush tested participants with ADHD, there was no activity in the Nike location. Instead, the emotional centers on either side of their brains lit up. When he asked the neuro-typical people about the exercise, they said, “Really boring.” Those with ADHD loudly exclaimed, “That was excruciating!” The participants with ADHD inherently knew that they had to get themselves all riled up emotionally to complete the task.

If my mom had known that my “just do it” circuit didn’t work, she wouldn’t have viewed me as purposely lazy and defiant. She might have said, “I know it’s hard for you to clean your room so let’s figure out how to make it fun and easy. Let’s put on some upbeat music and set a timer and see how much we can get done in 10 minutes together.” Or, “If you want to go to that fun slumber party tonight you have to pick up your clothes first.” That would have worked because I have always been able to get myself to do unpleasant tasks for immediate desirable rewards.

We all have to figure out how to get ourselves to do things we don’t particularly want to do. Simply understanding this wiring difference can reduce your frustration level and inspire effective creativity.

Modeling is a parent’s most powerful tool, and you can include the family in the process. Try asking your children for suggestions. “I wonder how I’m going to get myself to do boring accounting. Have you got any ideas?” Then make sure to thank them and let them know how it worked. Or, “What do you think might inspire you to get your project done early?” Then, do some experiments and notice what works best.

Getting up in the morning was a constant ordeal for one of my families, that is until we asked Jake what would make him want to get up pleasantly, on time. It turns out that the simple immediate reward of a baseball card was enough incentive. It worked like a charm. The secret here is to ask them rather than tell them. They invariably have the best ideas.

Here’s the great news: as your children learn more effective ways to motivate themselves, life will get easier for the whole family – especially you. Have fun!

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