Anyone who has ever seen or heard of the film mean girls has probably heard of the term verbal diarrhoea. It basically means that whatever is in your mind comes out of your mouth without having a chance to filter it. Most people suffer from it at some point every now and again, because of nerves, drunkenness or just due to forgetfulness, but for people with ADHD, especially young children, verbal diarrhoea is a very serious thing. Their thoughts come out without any organisation to them which means it can be difficult to understand what they mean.
While adults with ADHD can have a similar problem, it’s usually much easier to clarify what they mean as they usually have gained some kind of an idea of their own though process enough to explain what they mean using various vocabulary and connections.
“Verbal diarrhoea is a very common and scary thing for children with ADHD.”ADHD Girl
However, young children’s vocabulary can be less extensive and their thought process less clear to them which can lead to a lot of confusion, for them in terms of understanding what they mean and also the person who is trying to understand them.
I once worked with a teacher a few years ago who told me that when she asked child in her class “Who is Neil Armstrong?” One of them replied with “Hulk smash.” The teacher had no idea what the child was talking about, but because I have ADHD and am used to quite a lot of random thoughts and connections I understood where the child’s answer had come from. The child had focused on the word strong in what she had said, and the child must have associated the word ‘strong’ with the cartoon series of the hulk. It’s fairly logical when you think about it but to those without ADHD it can seem very random.
In a school a while back I was working with a girl who I was 95% certain had undiagnosed ADHD and was undergoing assessments. Occasionally whilst in the middle of doing her work, she’d turn around and say things like “we like to go there on Tuesdays.” It was seemingly completely unrelated to anything that was happening, but after asking a few questions I established she was having a flashback linked to a picture we’d been looking at in the lesson.
“Making connections, no matter how random or vague can only be a good thing. It shouldn’t be discouraged, it should be celebrated and clarified’ADHD Girl
For most adults, thoughts are generally organised and clear, but imagine not only struggling to physically get organised, but struggling to understand your own thought process to the point you have no idea how to make others understand you or how to understand yourself. Combine that with a passion to communicate who you are, which is very common with ADHD, and you have yourself a massive problem. That’s the reality for many children with ADHD, that’s not even taking into account those who have undiagnosed ADHD and can’t even begin to understand what’s wrong with them.
The long-term outcome of this going unsupported is that a child with ADHD will gain low self-esteem in terms of their social skills, i.e. not sharing their thoughts and feelings or they will grow up feeling confused, disorientated, and feeling inferior to everyone around them. It usually means someone may spend their whole lives not wanting to share important thoughts or feelings. This may seem a little thing, but the only way we can put support in place and stop situations from escalating is if we know what’s going on. Fortunately, as an adult supporting these children with ADHD, there are things that you can do to help.
As much as you may not want to hear it, telling the child to ‘shut up’ or ‘be quiet’ constantly is not the right solution. Of course, there has to be a balance to this. It’s a very important life skill to feel comfortable in silence, and it’s one even those without ADHD struggle to master. Instead or telling the child to ‘be quiet’ it’s a good idea to say something along the lines of ‘I love hearing what you’ve got to say, but we really don’t need to hear every thought or about everything you are doing right now.’ This teaches the child that while you value their thoughts and feelings, they can keep some thoughts just for them.
Another strategy you can use to help children with verbal diarrhoea is helping them to organise their thoughts; this is very difficult particularly for adults who don’t ADHD also, but it can still be done. If a child says something you really don’t understand, merely say “What do you mean? What made you think of that?” The child still may not know, but they at least know you are interested. Further support may involve a trial-and-error approach of guessing where they are coming from. For example, if a child says, “That place is where the girl got hurt” try saying to them “Do you mean a restaurant?” if they do no you can keep going through a process of elimination. It may seem tedious, but you’re actually helping them to build vital connections which can be reinforced through repetition and relevance.
“Being able to communicate competently is essential and children with ADHD get frustrated when they can’t do this.”ADHD Girl
At stages during the trial-and-error process, or even during telling them they don’t have to share every thought, they may become extremely frustrated. No matter how much they shout or get angry, you need to remember their frustration is not with you, it’s through not being understand. Being able to share thoughts and feelings is an essential part of the human existence and they long to be a part of it, just like all of us do.
Another coping strategy, which can help with the verbal diarrhoea aspect of ADHD is something I like to call verbal narration. It is something which can be modelled and encouraged. Children with ADHD struggle to organise their thoughts, not only because they are wildly chaotic and random, but because they have no example from which to work from. You can support them in this by narrating simple things yourself, so they know what it looks like, for example: ‘I am really tired today so I’m going to make a cup of coffee.’ Or ‘I think I will go to sleep early tonight because I am tired.’ It may seem like such a little thing or bizarre thing to you, but it can be a big thing for children with ADHD to have someone showing how to share their thought process or feelings.
A last coping strategy for children with ADHD in terms of verbal diarrhoea is to help to satisfy their natural curiosity without driving yourself insane. We all know that young children ask lots of questions, one child I know has the favourite question of “What’s that?” to every single thing they hear, see, smell or touch, but don’t understand. Sometimes, when we’re tired or just don’t feel like talking these can be overwhelming and the urge to tell them to be quiet is great. However, the more times we can give them answers and satisfy their curiosity the more we expand their vocabulary which will help them to clarify and filter their thought process resulting in less verbal diarrhoea. The thing is the more they understand, the more they can communicate.
The world for children with ADHD can be a very scary place, not only do they not yet understand the world, but they also don’t understand how they can communicate effectively within it. Having someone appreciate our thoughts and feelings is a massive boost that makes us feel valued but having someone understand them and understanding them ourselves is invaluable and in that way we can make the biggest difference.