ADHD and wishful thinking in kids

ByThe Understood Team

At a glance

  • Kids with ADHD can be too optimistic about what they can do and how things will turn out.

  • They might make decisions based on wishful thinking, not reality.

  • You can help your child with ADHD see things more realistically.

If a 6-year-old talked about being a rich and famous singer when she grows up, you probably wouldn’t think anything of it. Young kids engage in wishful thinking all the time. But when a 16-year-old who can’t carry a tune says the same thing, it can sound immature and naïve. It’s just not realistic.

By age 9 or 10, most kids recognize that wishing doesn’t make things true. Some kids with ADHD have an overly optimistic view of themselves and the world around them for much longer, however.

They may overestimate their abilities. They also may feel that nothing bad can happen to them. And that can lead them to make poor choices.

Learn more about ADHD and overoptimism, and how to help your child make good decisions based on reality, not wishful thinking.

Why some kids with ADHD aren’t realistic

Dealing with the world in a realistic way takes executive functioning skills. You need to be able to size up a situation, put it into context, think about likely outcomes, and assess risks. You also need to be able to prioritize and plan how you’re going to approach situations.

Kids with ADHD commonly struggle with these skills. That’s because ADHD is fundamentally a problem with executive function.

Weaknesses in these skills can end up making kids behave in ways that seem to deny reality. And they often do that by being overly optimistic about outcomes. Here’s an example of how that might play out.

A middle-schooler is hyperfocused on playing a new video game. She really needs to stop so she can finish a class project she’s struggling with — a project that counts for 20 percent of her final grade. But her issues with executive function get in the way of her doing what she needs to do.

She has trouble pulling herself away from something she’s really interested in. She has a hard time setting priorities and planning her time. And she loses track of where she was in the project to begin with, so it’s hard to jump back into it.

So she tells herself that her project is in good shape, and that it doesn’t matter that much anyway because she’s doing really well in that class (even though she isn’t). And when her parents tell her she needs to finish it, she lies and says she already did.

But again, simply wishing something doesn’t make it true. And avoiding reality can lead to negative consequences. She gets a D on the project, which brings her final grade down. Then, she lies and tells her parents she got a B to avoid getting into trouble.

How being too optimistic creates problems for kids with ADHD

Thinking positively and having hopes and dreams can be motivating for kids with ADHD. But if those dreams have no basis in reality, they can have a negative impact. Being overly optimistic can lead kids with ADHD to do things that aren’t in their best interest. Here are a few examples.

  • A grade-schooler insists to classmates that she’s the best basketball player in the grade. But that’s far from the truth, and the other kids laugh at her. Her thinking keeps her from making friends and fitting in.
  • A middle-schooler thinks it’s OK to turn in an assignment late — but not because the teacher has said so. He was hanging out with friends the day before it was due and didn’t want to leave the group to go complete his work. He gets an F on the assignment.
  • A high school senior who’s always struggled with math and science wants to be a doctor. So he only applies to pre-med programs even though his grades and test scores are weak. When he’s rejected by all of them, he has to scramble to find other schools to apply to. The experience rocks his confidence and makes him feel like a failure.

Overoptimism and wishful thinking can also lead to risky behavior and poor decisions. A teen may decide she doesn’t need to wear a seatbelt if she’s only driving a few blocks to a friend’s house. Or that she won’t have an accident or get pulled over by the police if she texts while driving. Her denial can cost her more than a blow to her self-esteem.

3 ways to help your child think realistically

Seeing kids continue to engage in wishful thinking as they get older can be frustrating. And if the denial leads to poor decisions, it can be worrisome. There are ways you can help kids view the world, and themselves, more realistically.

1. Don’t feed the fantasy with unhelpful praise.

Your child may love to play soccer. That doesn’t necessarily mean your child is good at it, though. When a child is 7 and just learning to play, giving praise can be motivating.

But what if a child is 15, not very talented at soccer, and still is planning to play at the college level? Gushing over sports performance may fuel the denial. It’s better to save the praise for goals and accomplishments that can help your child find a path to success, not disappointment.

The same is true for college and career goals. If your child just doesn’t have the grades and test scores to get into certain schools, it doesn’t help to support unrealistic goals.

It can be tempting to tell kids with unrealistic goals that they’re great students — and if they work hard, they might have a shot. But it’s better to present a realistic assessment.

You can say something like, “We’re really proud of how hard you’ve worked this year, but these schools are out of reach. You need to choose schools that are a good fit for you, and where you can feel successful.”

Sometimes kids pick a career path that really doesn’t match up with their strengths and weaknesses. You don’t want to squash their dreams. But pointing out that their choices may not be the best fit for them can help them find a path where they’re more likely to thrive.

2. Present a more realistic view.

You may not want to burst your child’s bubble. But if you don’t, the real world will. It’s important to gently point out the reality of situations, even if that reality is painful to your child.

For instance, let’s say your child isn’t very popular at school and struggles with social skills. Yet your child decides to ask the most popular kid at school to go to the school dance. Chances are high that the answer will be no and your child will feel bad.

Instead of just cheering your child on, it’s more helpful to be honest (but kind) about the situation. You might say, “You know, Finley is very popular and has a different group of friends. Many people will probably want to ask Finley to the dance, and you may not be the first choice. But you can ask if you want to.”

3. State the risks and consequences of wishful thinking.

Wishing doesn’t make things true. For example, teens often insist they won’t get caught speeding if it’s late at night. It may be hard to get them to change their behavior, but you can counter their denial with the truth.

You can tell them that police don’t stop working at night, and they’re always looking to catch speeders. A speeding ticket will result in points against your child’s license. And speeding increases the chances of having an accident, no matter what time it is.

Or maybe your teen has a part-time job and believes that the boss doesn’t care if employees are late to work. You can point out that employees are responsible for opening the store. If they’re late, the store loses money.

You can also say it’s highly unlikely that any boss would allow employees to arrive whenever they choose. And finally, you can say that being late to work does get employees fired. Your teen may not listen to you. But if your teen ends up being fired, the reality of the situation will be undeniable.

Kids with ADHD may cling to wishful thinking longer than their peers do. But as their executive function develops and they learn life lessons, most will become better able to deal with the world in a realistic way.

In the meantime, help your child recognize and stay focused on the realities of daily life.

Key takeaways

  • It’s important to counter your child’s wishful thinking with the truth.

  • Point out the possible consequences of decisions that are based on overoptimism.

  • Be honest but supportive.

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    About the author

    About the author

    The Understood Team is made up of passionate writers and editors. Many of them have kids who learn and think differently.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Thomas E. Brown, PhD is a clinical psychologist and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.