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The Power of Connection for Children With ADHD

by the Brightly Editors

Image credit: shapecharge/Getty Images

According to the CDC, over 6 million children in the United States have been diagnosed with ADHD. It’s a neurodevelopmental disorder that can often effect children into adulthood. Finding common ground and connecting with children who have ADHD can be challenging. Two decades ago, Dr. Edward M. Hallowell and Dr. John J. Ratey published a groundbreaking book on ADHD, Driven to DistractionNow they’re back with ADHD 2.0, which offers strategies for how children and adults alike can thrive with ADHD.

Below, we’ve excerpted a portion of their book, which examines the healing power of connection and how finding that connection can help the children in your life.


Creating comfortable, positively connected environments is the most important step in helping people of all ages get the most out of life in general; the lack of connection particularly hurts people who have ADHD.

In his book The Globalization of Addiction, Bruce Alexander uses the term “dislocation” (which was coined by the political economist Karl Polanyi) to refer to the loss of “psychosocial integration.” Dislocation, he explains, is psychologically toxic and untenable. An individual will crack in any number of ways: disruptive behavior; extreme anxiety; withdrawal; school refusal; the beginnings of sub- stance use; depression and thoughts of suicide; the development of an eating disorder; cutting; poor performance at work; loss of job; marital difficulties. The dismal list goes on.

While Alexander’s focus is on addiction—of all kinds, including addiction to screens—his words perfectly describe how many children with ADHD feel in classrooms and adults with ADHD feel in the adult world. Misunderstood, alienated, left out, on the outside looking in.

Sometimes literally on the outside. Dav Pilkey, the writer and illustrator who created the beloved Captain Underpants series of books (and many other children’s books), spent most of his elementary school years sitting alone outside in the hallway after being paddled with a board by the principal. How terrible it is that millions of children with ADHD suffer similarly from the lack of sustaining connection simply because they are different, because their minds run like race cars with bad brakes, and because others fail to understand. Those of us with ADHD are usually pretty sensitive, so we begin to put up defenses, and before you know it we’re loners, being teased, put off, or, if we’re adults, not climbing the ladder, and people are wondering why, and not in a helpful way.

The experience of living with this condition is like being part of an invisible minority. Even if you do become visible, even if you do get identified and treated, you usually still face prejudice: “Oh, he’s a Special Ed kid.” “He’s a retard.” “He’s got ADHD, whatever that is.” “He takes Adderall.” The stigma rules.

What we need—especially as children—is not punishment or ridicule; what we need is free and easy to supply—Vitamin Con- nect. Without it, we feel more and more separate, alone, and apart. “Psychosocial integration” may be a cumbersome term, but it con- notes a warm and wonderful force everyone can understand and every child and every adult in every organization ought to get many doses of every day. It should be the lifeblood of all families, schools, and organizations.

Peter, as we’ll call him, is typical of the patients we see in our consulting practices, and the outline of his story points up the tremendous importance of connection. When he was sixteen and in tenth grade, he came to Dr. Hallowell’s office with his parents. By all accounts—his parents’ and his teachers’—he was very smart and hugely talented, but he had trouble finishing assignments, so his grades didn’t show it. He felt his teachers were often well-meaning, but he also felt beaten down from the effort of toeing the line all the time at school. He believed he was “stupid,” and he generally lacked motivation for the school he had come to hate. Were it not for his likely-ADHD pediatrician father and his smart neuroscientist mom, he would have been a candidate for residential treatment. They believed in their son and stayed connected with him as they tried to help him find his way.

As Peter discussed with Dr. Hallowell what really interested him, it became clear that he was happiest when making things out of wood. The family hatched a plan: Peter would go to the local vocational tech school in his area for eleventh grade, and Peter’s father agreed to set up a woodworking shop in their basement so that Peter could explore that talent fully. There were other strategies, too—he tried cerebellar stimulation treatment (see chapter 3), and he and Dr. Hallowell discussed the nature of the brain’s default mode network (see chapter 2) and how it was contributing to Peter’s brooding and rumination. Lastly, Dr. Hallowell prescribed the use of a medication off-label (Amantadine—see chapter 8), which he believed could help Peter when the other meds he’d tried hadn’t. Dr. Hallowell made clear that the road ahead would not be smooth for Peter, but with his parents’ belief in him, and now a warm connection with Dr. Hallowell, Peter reported to his mother (who later reported it to Dr. Hallowell) that he was at last feeling understood, and for the first time in the longest while, feeling hopeful.

In first grade, one amazing teacher gave her understanding— a powerful antidote to dislocation—to Dr. Hallowell himself:

In first grade I couldn’t read. At reading period we’d take turns reading out loud, “See Spot run, run, run, run, up, up, up, down, down, down.” Simple. But I couldn’t read that. I had dyslexia. Back then, unless you had a wise teacher, you were called slow, which meant stupid, and so they skipped you when it was your turn to read. But my teacher, Mrs. Eldredge, was wise. She didn’t skip me. She’d just come over and sit down next to me when it was my turn to read, and she’d put her arm around me and pull me in close to her. As I would stammer and stutter through “up, up, up,” none of the kids would laugh at me because I had the ma a sitting next to me. Mrs. Eldredge’s arm was my treatment plan. She gave me psychosocial integration. Every day.

It was brilliant. It was all she could do—she couldn’t cure my dyslexia and they didn’t have an Orton-Gillingham tutor* in the school—but it was all she needed to do. With that arm— with the power of connection—she cured the real learning disabilities, which are fear, and shame, and believing that you can’t do something. To this day I am a painfully slow reader—my wife teasingly says she can’t believe I know anything—but I read well enough to have majored in English at Harvard, to have graduated with high honors, and to make part of my living now by writing books, none of which would have happened without Mrs. Eldredge and the loving connection her arm gave me.

We know all too well that you sink without enough connection, no matter how unsinkable you may think you are. Too many people don’t tap into the power of connection nearly as much as they should because they claim to be too busy for connection, or they trivialize its power. But the deeper reason that some people avoid connection is that they fear it. They fear it because they’ve connected before and been hurt in a way they never want to be hurt again.

We say to them, and maybe to you, Take heart. Hearts heal. Unlike the ship synonymous with sinking, the titanic power of connection rises up from the deep every time it sinks, as long as we are brave enough to board her again. Once she knows we are ready to jump on, she rises, ready to welcome us once more.

We ought, all of us, to tap more often into the power of connection. Multitudinous science supports doing so. It only makes sense. How would you feel if you were criticized all day long, as so many of these children are? Fear is the major learning disability, fear and shame. We humans ignore connection until we nearly perish due to its absence. We are living in a massive Vitamin Connect deficiency.

*Orton-Gillingham is a multisensory phonics approach to teaching reading.