Gabor Maté’s “Scattered Minds”: ADHD & TCKs

by | Aug 25, 2020 | Blog | 2 comments

I devoured this book. Maté writes about the human mind in relational, rather than mechanistic, terms. He writes about ADD and ADHD and the term ‘scattered’ that he uses to describe this cohort seems to me very apt. It also happens to be the term used most by TCKs (Third Culture Kids) to describe their experience of themselves.

Scattered

I am experiencing a good number of my clients as either identifying as having ADD or ADHD or reporting behaviours or experiences that align with the way ADD and ADHD presents (restlessness, emotional highs and lows, distractibility from tasks and relationships, hypersensitivity, a desperate sense of failing to meet expectations, struggles in school, lack of focus, difficulties managing or even understanding time). And when Maté states, “The letters ADD may equally well stand for Attunement Deficit Disorder” I sit up and pay attention (2019, p.83).

Attunement

Attunement is what happens when a child and caregiver make sense to one another. The child coos, or cries, seeking attention and reassurance, and gets it. The parent or caregiver is interested and, for the most part, emotionally willing and ready to respond to the child. And crucially, TAKES THE LEAD FROM THE CHILD. So when the child is done, overstimulated, looking away… the parent or caregiver doesn’t cajole or pressure the child to keep interacting with him/her. They let them detach somewhat from them.

This is crucial because what it teaches the child is that it is safe to drift slightly from the caregiver, without there being a negative relational outcome. The parent or caregiver doesn’t NEED the child’s attention. Instead they are attuned to the CHILD’s needs. The child grows up feeling safe in relationships – willing to believe that people are there for them, and that it’s okay if there is some experience of separation, because when they are ready to reengage, the world is still there for them.

What about TCKs?

In “Scattered Minds” Maté notes that in one study (1994, van de Kolk) the connection between geographic mobility and experiences of ADD/ADHD seemed significant, and that “families had moved a lot in their childhoods, which may very well reflect some ADD tendencies in their parents. Some say they attended schools in different towns almost every year. There was no stability of domicile, school or friendships” (2019, p. 102, my italics added).

The impact of this in terms of the process of attunement seems to me to be significant. No matter how attuned the parent of a TCK may be to their child, there are two major complicating factors present here –

  1. The TCK child’s cultural context (and learnt cultural cues and behaviours) will be changing even as they grow up, so that the attunement of the parent may misfire, lost in translation as the parent-child dynamic begins to span different cultures.
  2. TCK children typically learn to attune to the adult world around them, rather than expect that world to attune to their own needs. We adapt, we chameleon, we develop insanely sophisticated receptors that facilitate our attunement to others. No matter how attuned our parent is to us, we simply aren’t able to project that outwards, because our parents are unlikely to be cultural representative of the wider social world we travel through.

For the scattered minds that Maté writes about, attunement to self becomes critical, “Figuring out what we want has to begin with having the freedom to not want” (2019, p. 188). Growing up TCK means, for many, learning to make do with (adapt to, be grateful for) whatever life we are handed at any given moment. Wanting is a hard, hard thing for many of us. And starting with confronting those things we do not want is an difficult first step.

To develop preferences, we need to feel safe enough to turn our heads away from those things we don’t want. And feel safe enough to know that we won’t lose connection, access to people, love and the world by expressing our need to individuate, say ‘no’ to certain things. We can take care of our own needs, without fear of reprisal, rejection, abandonment.

And then we can Grow. 

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Sharon Shaw

    Oh, my heart. So many statements here that caused me to tear up. “Attunement to self“… yes, after attunement to parents and other relatives, to friend after friend after friend, to schools, peer groups, communities and cultures, to partners and to employers, I think that’s what I’m finally on the path to developing. Oddly enough, I think it started with attuning to my own child and the gradual recent adjustments in what that means as they get older.

    I now consider myself to be in a “settled” state (house = 4 years, town = 6 years, employer = 9 years, partner = 20 years) and although I’m leaning towards being ready for another move, it feels like this time it’ll be because I want to, and because I planned it, not as a reaction to someone else’s needs, or a shift in circumstances I had very little control over.

    And you’d better believe I’m buying that book…!

    Reply
    • Dr. Rachel Cason

      Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I’m so glad it resonated and you feel you want to read the book! I think it’s on Audible too? Moving when we feel it’s from a place of desire rather than reaction, is such a different experience. And attuning to self is a massive part of being able to do that – wonderful!

      Reply

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