ADHD, Developing an Internal Language

Children with the Hyperactive/Impulsive type of ADHD (ADHD-HI) have difficulty with what Russell Barkley calls 'Internal Language'.  An Internal language is best described as the stories or thoughts that you have inside your head.  The delay in the development of an internal language causes children with ADHD-HI to have difficulty with thought processing but also causes these children to have more negative thoughts.   I believe that children with Predominantly Inattentive ADHD can also have problems with internal language but the problem is not that the language is under developed and more that the language can be over developed and negative.  This is what Barkley says about internal language with regards to ADHD-HI:

"Research has lately been suggesting that children with ADHD are significantly delayed in the development of internal language, the private voice inside one’s mind that we employ to converse with ourselves, contemplate events, and direct or command our own behavior."

In my house, as I mentioned earlier, I would say that my Primarily Inattentive child has an often negative internal language and my Hyperactive/Impulsive son has an often deficient and negative internal language.  This delay in internal language is a huge issue because it effects rule following, self determination, and self regulation but it is most detrimental to everyday problem solving.  

The ADHD deficits in internal language causes tremendous barriers to problem solving.  Deficits in internal language impair our ability to devise a solution because the thought that we are working with are either incomplete or self defeating.  These thoughts, which are what come automatically into the brains of many individuals with ADHD, instead of helping them solve problems cause them to sink into despair. 

I believe that if there is one lesson that I want to teach my children it is the lesson of how they solve their own problems and how to come up with their own creative solutions.  If our kids are ever going to strike out on their own, pursue meaningful careers and contribute to society, they must first learn to become effective problem solvers.

 The news, however, is not all doom and gloom.  Cognitive behavioral training has been shown to be exceedingly helpful in developing and improving the internal language of people with ADHD.  The good news is that adults and children with ADHD can be trained to develop their thoughts and change them to be less negative.

ADHD coaches are trained to help adults and children develop an internal language that will enable them to:

A) Identify the problem
B) Develop a positive solution to the problem
C) Identify barriers to solving the problem without harping on the barriers
D) Evaluate the consequences of each proposed solution

Very young children, I believe, benefit more from a child centered approach to help change their negative thoughts to more positive ones.  My kids have a book by Daniel Amen called Mind Coach: How to Teach Children & Teenagers to Think Positive & Feel Good.  The book is written specifically for young children with the goal to help them change their negative internal language to a more positive language.  The basic message of this book is that just because you had a thought does not mean that the thought is true.  

The author spells out nine types of automatic negative thoughts (A.N.T.) that he says poisons our minds.  The nine negative thoughts include; over generalizing, focusing on the negative, fortune telling, mind reading, labeling, thinking with your feelings, guilt thoughts, blame and personalization.  The children that are used as examples in this book are very familiar to kids.   

This book has helped my kids tremendously.  At home we deal with statements like: "I'll never be able to do that." or "You always ..."  with a simple: "That's an A.N.T., lets approach this in a different way".   It takes a bit of training and consistent reminding to change and develop our thoughts.  But it is worth the effort as a positive and fully developed internal language may be the key to making people with ADHD happier,  more productive and more self sufficient.


  1. Thanks for the info. I am also an ADHD-inattentive type with an inattentive son and a combined-type daughter. They both have those A.N.T.s. I may have to pick up this book so I can educate them (and myself as I still have those) on how to counter those thoughts. I look forward to your future posts.

  2. Thanks for your comment!! My kid's school also uses this book, which helps to reinforce the message. If your kid's school is amenable, it might be worthwhile to buy them a copy too.



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