Using a positve psychology approach to ADHD


Positive psychology techniques can go a long way towards helping parents and teachers deal with the pressures of looking after a child with ADHD

Looking after children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is often quite challenging for parents, carers and teachers, and it can take a toll on their own health and wellbeing. It is not unusual to feel overwhelmed and stressed at times, but it is important not to let this dictate the entire relationship with the child. The health and wellbeing of parents, carers and teachers is important, to ensure that they are in a position to provide a supportive environment for the child and develop a more positive relationship with them.

One of the main issues that parents and carers of children with ADHD have to face is juggling responsibilities whilst maintaining full support for the child. Many parents are constantly rushed off their feet, and dealing with children with behavioural difficulties can place an added pressure on daily activities. It can be easy to forget about or ignore your own health needs, and to lose sight of some of the positive aspects of caring for child with ADHD. This may sound easier said than done, but there are some techniques which can help.

Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden and build theory (1998) showed how positive emotions broaden the scope of a person’s attention, thinking and actions, leading to new and creative coping skills which, in turn, help build personal and social resources. Positive psychology techniques and tools can help many parents to take control of their family life and regain focus on their own health and wellbeing.

Positive psychology principles build on participant’s existing strengths and resiliencies, using an upward spiral of positive emotions to achieve greater wellbeing. Identifying and reminding ourselves about the things we are good at (our strengths), helps build our confidence towards undertaking things we are less confident about. Thinking positively and hopefully about difficult situations and challenges enables us to feel more confident to deal with problems. As Barack Obama said, “Hope is that thing inside us that insists…that something better awaits us if we have the courage to reach for it.”

One technique commonly used to increase positive emotions is a gratitude activity which shifts the emphasis away from the negative and onto the positive things in our lives. Writing out all the things you are thankful for and savouring the positive emotions associated with them leaves you with hard evidence that things may not be as bad as they seem.

Research has shown that people who write a gratitude list report fewer health complaints, feel more attentive, energetic and optimistic, are more satisfied with life and feel closer to other people. They are also more likely to support others and build social networks and friendships. If you think you have had an awful day where nothing has gone right, try writing a gratitude list, and you will probably find that there was something good that came out of the day that was hidden away in your mind.

Parents and carers struggling to cope should also try to identify their personal strengths, such as courage, determination and humour, and think of how they can use these strengths in their daily lives in pursuit of meaningful and pleasurable activities. Again, research has shown that people who achieve this are more likely to be happier.

The use of relaxed breathing is another popular tool which can be used almost any time to help calm down a stressful or emotional situation. For example, getting angry and frustrated can easily escalate a situation and make things worse, but just relaxing with some deep breathing can reduce the stress and allow some time to rethink the problem. The technique is simple and only needs you to relax and think about your breathing: breathe in deeply and hold, then very slowly breathe out completely and relax any tension you feel each time you breathe out.

With eight children aged between the ages of nine and eighteen years in her household, Tina Malin often found it difficult to make time for herself. One of the children had been diagnosed with ADHD and two others were showing similar characteristics. It could be very easy for things to get stressful and sometimes these stresses would get on top of Tina.

Earlier this year, Tina’s sister and brother-in-law had signed up for a course run by Coventry University and invited Tina to come along. “I had no notion of what the course involved, all I knew was that it was trying to help parents of children with ADHD,” said Tina. The programme used positive psychology and group discussion to help patients and carers to cope with long-term health needs, and the course Tina attended was aimed specifically at parents and carers of children with ADHD. The positive psychology techniques introduced on the programme had a profound impact on Tina and she is now fully trained to become a tutor on the programme to help other parents in a similar situation.

For Tina the single greatest benefit she got from the programme was a renewed focus on her own needs: “I found that it helped me personally to take time for myself and think about my own health and wellbeing. The tools the course gave me are still there when I am stressed; I can now take a minute and focus on the positive aspects of my life instead of focusing on the negative all the time. I don’t need to set myself rewards for achievement, but I do need to remember to reward myself every now and then by going out for a meal or going to the cinema with my sister.”

“It is really good to talk to other parents who know what you are going through. Sometimes you can feel really isolated, so it is good to see that you are not alone; this is a massive reward in itself,” said Tina.

Tina started to train to become a primary school teacher but left her studies after taking in her sister’s four children. When the opportunity arose to become trained in positive psychology techniques, Tina saw this as a great opportunity to get involved and maintain her love of teaching. She is looking forward to being able to help and support other parents of children with ADHD.

“Positive psychology techniques could be good for a lot of families, not just those dealing with special needs like ADHD,” said Tina. “I really got a lot out of the programme and I hope to share the tools I learnt with as many people as possible.”

Hope is the key message to all parents and carers of children with ADHD; through a change in outlook, identifying individual strengths and establishing support groups, all parents can create a positive, caring and supportive environment for their family, improving wellbeing for all.


Further information

Dr Andy Turner is from the Applied Research Centre in Health and Lifestyle Interventions at
Coventry University

Article first published in SEN Magazine issue 45: March/April 2010.

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