5 Things You Didn’t Know Were ADHD – Part 1: Rejection Sensitivity

When we think about ADHD we conjure up images of little boys who can’t sit still – and God knows that’s definitely part of it – but it’s not even close to the whole picture. Writing about all the ways in which ADHD can affect your personality would be a book, not an article, so here’s the five common traits of ADHD that surprised me most.

  1. We are severely impacted by negativity.

  2. We are easily overstimulated, overwhelmed by loud sounds and crowds.

  3. We dominate conversations.

  4. We are argumentative.

  5. We are more prone to stress-related illnesses AND so are our partners.

In a series of articles, I will expand upon each of these traits. In this article I focus on the first:

1. We’re severely impacted by negativity.

Technically this is labelled as Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria and is often considered a condition in its own right, but it’s incredibly common in people with ADHD to varying degrees. The way this shows up is how in-tune and hyper-aware we are to negative emotion and comments. When an ADHDer is criticized (or even just feels criticized) it can hit them hard. Sometimes this will lead them to pull away and other times it will lead them to come out all guns blazing in a “the best defense is a good offence” kind of way.

I suspect that many people who identify as a “Highly Sensitive Person” may have ADHD or rejection sensitivity.

In some people this will cause an all-out refusal to take responsibility for their actions. In others it will lead to increased negative self-talk, significantly lowered self-esteem, and apprehensiveness.

Now let me clarify: to some degree many neuro-typical (non-ADHD) folks will engage in this, too. The defining characteristic of Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria is that it hits much harder than it should. The feelings of shame, guilt, anger, etc. are outsized in comparison to what was said or how it was said.

Sometimes this can even go as far as completely misinterpreting benign comments as criticism or reading too much into casual interactions with other people. In the extreme it can almost seem like paranoia.

Kids with ADHD

As an adult with ADHD you may lean towards defensiveness or combativeness when criticized or confronted, but a kid with ADHD is much more likely to experience the outsized feelings of shame, lack of worth, and then try to deflect in other ways such as:

  • Laughing inappropriately
  • Trying to turn the situation into a joke
  • Ignoring what’s being said and changing the subject
  • Call themselves “stupid” or similar
  • Run away

A Better Approach to Discipline

Obviously, children need boundaries and sometimes that means discipline when boundaries are crossed. The long-term effects of yelling seems to be Oppositional Defiant Disorder (O.D.D.) and, perhaps more tragically, a dampening down of the positive side (dare I say “gifts?”) of ADHD.

Richard Branson – a famous ADHDer – talks about the supportive nature and positivity of his parents when growing up. In his book “The Virgin Way” he talks of being a rowdy child with a habit of “borrowing” loose change to buy chocolate among other things, and while I’m sure he wasn’t always so lucky, life lessons seemed to be more “lead by example” than punishment. Even to the point of him and his dad orchestrating a fake spanking, so mum could feel justice was done. Everything seems to be dealt in as compassionate and kind a manner as possible and his rebellious and enterprising spirit – even though troubling at times – was nurtured.

Not every kid is going to become a multi-millionaire. And not every parent has the same restraint when dealing with a child that keeps crossing the line – I, for one, can improve in this area. However, we love our children, we want to be kind to them, and it turns out this is a better approach anyway.

The trick to avoiding crushing their spirit or pushing them towards defiance seems to be remaining positive, or at least neutral.

Things to Try

To achieve this I’ve found several things to be helpful:

  • Distraction instead of discipline
  • Fix the environment
  • Calm, consistent, explanation and instruction
  • The countdown
  • Positive reinforcement
  • Immediate consequences
  • Affectionate follow-up
  • “Time In”

A solid 90% of the time, when my son is acting out, doing things he shouldn’t, and generally tearing the house apart it’s because he’s bored and restless. Often the need to yell, criticize, or discipline can be avoided entirely by simply saying, “Hey, want to play with the Lego?” or “Can you do me a favor? Grandma’s birthday is coming up and I need someone to make an awesome birthday card.” Finding them something else to do that keeps them engaged and stimulated is often way easier than battling whatever destructive thing they were doing. It works well because it’s tackling the problem at its source.

Sometimes it’s clear that they aren’t in any frame of mind to sit down and do something as quiet as crafts. In fact, you’re not even sure they can see you. They’re awake, they’re looking right at you, but by the manic behaviors you can tell they’re not really present. Sometimes this is simply a product of being in an environment that’s too stimulating. Is there loud music? TV? Is there a movie playing with a bunch of fight scenes and explosions? That could be the reason the ADHD kid is going nuts. At the very least it’s not helping them focus on you when you tell them to stop. Before going any further pause the music or the TV, put the barking dog outside, pick up any clutter that’s creating a chaotic atmosphere. Everybody breathe, then continue.

When you do need them to follow your instructions, give the instructions in as calm a manner as possible. I know, easy to write, harder to do. Just give it a try. Matter-of-fact-ly, “I need you to stop climbing, please.” Explain the reasons and consequences, “I don’t want you to break it because it’s important to me. If you don’t get down, you will need to spend some time in the corner to calm down.” You’re laying things out, making yourself clear and understood, but you’re not raising your voice. You’re not inducing shame or using blame. Simply what needs to happen, why, and what will happen if they don’t comply.

Usually laying it out will not be enough. They’ll hear you (although you won’t be able to tell) and continue anyway. You need to add immediacy to the situation. They know there will be consequences but WHEN? Start a countdown, “3… 2… 1…” that kid that didn’t seem to have heard you before will usually comply very quickly. And when they do…

…positive reinforcement. Say thank you. Be friendly. If it’s something bigger like having done a chore on their own, reward the behavior with something. ADHD kids react very well to positivity and encouragement equally as much as negativity harms them. Parenting them is more successful when there’s a lot of carrot and much less stick. Sometimes it can be difficult to be enthusiastic about a child doing something that should be baseline good behavior. But if you want it to happen again you must reward it. You need to get enthusiastic about it.

When there’s no way around it, it’s time to enforce the rules, then it needs to been done with immediate consequences. If it’s time for a timeout, they need to go in the corner right away. Delayed punishments will do nothing at all. If you’re at the grocery store and play the “just wait until we get home…” line, your punishment will not be effective. This is in part due to the way ADHDers perceive time. If it’s not happening right now then it’s not something I need to worry about now. You need to explicitly link cause and effect.

Once that cause and effect link has been made, and punishment is over, you absolutely must drop it. Don’t stay angry, don’t continue to punish. Justice was dealt. If they need to apologize, talk over what happened and have them apologize. At that point it’s all about forgiveness. They got in trouble, you explained why, now you need to let them know that THEY are not BAD. It’s not about them as a person but about their actions. Thank them for apologizing. Suggest alternative ways to behave. If they’ve handled the same situation better in the past, remind them of that. Praise them for doing it that way before and suggest that they do it that way again next time. Hug them, be friendly with them, and move on. We’re walking a tightrope between showing them where the lines are and not allowing them to cross them, while also not wanting them to internalize that they’re bad (or stupid, or lesser) people because they did it. It’s questionable how much control they even had over what they were doing in the first place.

Finally, while we use timeouts in our house, in some situations it’s clear they’re not purposefully doing anything wrong. They’re out of control but not it’s not really their fault. In those situations, even though they can’t be allowed to continue acting out, you feel bad punishing them at all. In those situations I like to use something called a “time in.” Instead of having a time out in the corner on their own, I fix the environment to reduce the stimulation, I pick up my son and keep him on my lap. I hold him. I’m kind, gentle, often it’s more of a hug than anything. I’m quiet and only explain that he can’t get down because of his behavior, and that we need to sit together for a few minutes until he’s calm. We don’t watch TV, we don’t play with toys, or even interact all that much. I don’t play with my phone. We just sit together for a couple of minutes and we both take the opportunity to calm down. This can often have the desired effect without the kid feeling attacked. He’s being actively loved instead.


If you have anything that you’ve found to be helpful when disciplining ADHD children, I’d love to hear from you. Likewise, if you have any questions or comments about Rejection Sensitivity in kids or adults.


I will link to future articles in this series as they are posted.