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Mom to Live By: Debbie Phelps

Courtesy of swimroom.com
He has focus, discipline, and drive. He has 14 Olympic Gold medals. And he has ADHD. His mom, Debbie talked to us about how she discovered his condition and then helped him overcome it.

When did Michael start showing signs of ADHD?
At age 9, his teachers started saying things like 'He can't sit still,' 'He's always hurrying,' and 'He won't slow down.' The way I looked at it, he was just an energetic little guy. It took a lot of people noticing and saying something to me.

What did you do first?
My first thought was 'It's just the teacher!' Was I in denial? Maybe. I just thought his brain was going faster, and his hand maybe wasn't getting done what needed to get done. But his teachers were all saying 'We need to slow Michael down.' I took him to the pediatrician, read any resources I could get my hands on. All of Michael's teachers assessed his needs. In classes like phys ed, music, and art, where it was more hands-on and he had more freedom, he was fine. It was when he had to be contained to read or do math that he had a hard time.

How did you talk to him about this? Did he feel ashamed or different than the other kids?
I would ask him 'What is not allowing you to finish? Why are you writing so quickly and not thoroughly?' He would say 'Well, I got the work done, Mom.' He would tell me that his teacher was boring, that he couldn't sit still or listen. He really didn't like going to the nurse for his medication. When he was eleven, he told his doctor "I don't want to take this medicine anymore, I don't need this." I thought it was very mature.

How should parents talk to teachers?
Talk to the teachers as much as you can. If there is something wrong, there should be an open dialogue. If I wasn't satisfied with Michael's work, I would tear up his paper. His teachers were shocked. But it was done too quickly. He needed someone to teach him how to make his work better and more thorough.

What if teachers aren't doing enough or being too helpful?
There are lots of ADHD resources out there - parents need to use them. I'm so glad McNeil Pediatrics launched this Facebook Group because parents can access information in their own homes with absolutely no pressure. I encourage people to access it and think: Does this apply to me? What am I going to do about it?

What did you do at home to mitigate the problems?
Kids with ADHD need medication and behavior modification. I mean, whether they have ADHD or not they need boundaries, limitations, routine and consistency. That's what I tried to do with Michael. Every day after school, he would put his back pack in the same place in our house, maybe go shoot some hoops, come in for a nutritious snack, and then pack his bag for swim practice. He followed his daily schedule on a regular basis. He knew his stuff had to be done in order to go swimming.

So did you say to him "Michael, you can't go to swimming unless your stuff is done?"
The words "no" and "can't" aren't really in my vocabulary, so I would just say "before you go to swimming, you need to do your work. Are you able to accomplish that?"

So swimming helped him get organized.
Absolutely. Any sport teaches kids the characteristics and strengths they need - respect, responsibility, getting along with others, success, and taking unsuccessful moments and turning them around to something positive. The pool was really good for Michael. It's a huge rectangle with boundaries. In a pool, there are only so many places you can go. Just back and forth, back and forth. So he was always within his element, within his comfort zone.

What limits did his ADHD put on him?
I don't like to use the word 'disorder' when I talk about ADHD. A child with ADHD has many gifts -- they just need to channel their energies in the things they love.

Now that he's 23, do you ever notice ADHD behavior that is reminiscent of when he was little, in school, really struggling?
Since he was 11, I've noticed him go to the block with no cap and goggles, or be less focused than he should be. This Olympics, though, I noticed his ability to compartmentalize and focus. He would do his race, then move on to the next thing. It reminded me of when he was little and had to tackle his responsibilities before swim practice. He would do them one at a time, like it was all on a check list.

So that's why Michael could go to the Olympics and win eight straight gold medals in a row - even when people didn't think he could? He was compartmentalizing them?
Yes. It was just swim it. Done. Swim it. Done.

So what can parents do to encourage their kids? What did you do to encourage Michael?
Continuous praise and positive reinforcement. When something was wrong, we'd address it. I am a very open type of mom who likes to talk things out.

How did you teach Michael to deal with disappointments? Like if he was disqualified or something?
Six years ago he was in a meet at George Mason University and was trying to break the American record in the 100 meter freestyle. He didn't do it. He didn't talk to his coach afterward; he just came up into the stands to see me. I said "hi, Michael." He said "I'm upset." "I can see that," I said. "I wanted to break that record," he said. I told him, "You'll swim it again, and when you understand what you need to do to break the record, you will. Let's move on." It's how we talked the disappointment through.

When did you know that Michael would be great?
I was told when he was 11. To me, he was just a little kid swimming fast. He had lots of energy and wanted to execute it and be where the action was.

Was he different than the other swimmers?
Yes - he was way ahead of them.

But was he more serious than the other swimmers? Was he more intense or mature about his swimming?
He was always more serious about swimming than school work, which I didn't like. I always tried to connect academics and athletics. I told him he needed to do well in school so that he could swim in college. But he wasn't more mature than the other swimmers. He would beat everybody by several body lengths, get out of the pool, and then I'd see him making silly faces. He was still a silly little kid.

ADHD is hereditary -- do you have it? What about your other children?
The girls (Michael's two sisters) and I chuckle because it's in all three of us. It's just our energy levels, we are always moving around. When I was growing up, I definitely could have been diagnosed.

What makes you the most proud of Michael?
How humanistic, caring, and generous he is. If you tell him a secret, he won't tell anyone. He's trustworthy and has a love for kids. He also likes to give back to the people that helped him. He recently went back to see his high school principal. How many 23 year olds do that?

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