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 naive. 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 and go 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 with 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 Overoptimism 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. She was hanging out with friends the day before it was due and didn’t want to leave the group to go complete her work. She gets an F on the assignment.
A high school senior who’s always struggled with math and science wants to be a doctor. So she only applies to pre-med programs at colleges even though her grades and test scores are weak. When she’s
rejected by all of them, she has to scramble to find other schools to apply to. The experience rocks her confidence and makes her 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 your child continue to engage in wishful thinking as she gets older can be frustrating. And if the denial leads to poor decisions, it can be worrisome. There are ways you can help your child view the world, and herself, more realistically.
1. Don’t feed the fantasy with unhelpful praise.
Your child may love to play soccer. That doesn’t necessarily mean she’s good at it, though. If she’s 7 and just learning to play,
giving praise can help motivate her to stick with it.
But if she’s 15, not very talented at it, and still thinks she’s going to play at the college level, gushing over her sports performance may fuel her denial. It’s better to save the praise for goals and accomplishments that can help her 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 the schools she’s looking at, it doesn’t help to support unrealistic goals.
You might be tempted to boost her self-esteem by saying she’s a great student and if she works hard, she 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 that you can feel successful at.”
Your child might also have picked a career path that really doesn’t match up with her strengths and weaknesses. You don’t want to squash her dreams. But pointing out that her choices may not be the best for her can help her find a path that she’s more likely to thrive in.
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 he decides to ask the most popular girl in class to go to the school dance. Chances are high that she’ll turn him down and leave him feeling bad about himself.
Instead of just cheering him on, it’s more helpful to be honest (but kind) about the situation. You might say, “You know, that girl is very popular, and she has a different group of friends. Many people will probably want to ask her to the dance, and you may not be her 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. Say your teen insists he won’t get caught speeding if it’s late at night. You may not always get him to change his behavior, but you can counter his denial with the truth.
You can tell him that police don’t stop working at night, and they’re always looking to catch speeders. If he gets a speeding ticket, it will result in points against his license. And speeding increases the chances of having an accident, no matter what time it is.
Or maybe your teen believes his boss at his part-time job doesn’t care if he’s late to work. You can point out that he’s responsible for opening the store, and if he’s late, the store loses money.
You can also say it’s highly unlikely that any boss would allow employees to arrive whenever they choose to. And finally, you can say that being late to work may cost him his job. He may not listen to you. But if he 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.