The Many Faces of ADHD: Debbie Phelps

Eileen Bailey Health Guide
  • Debbie Phelps is the mother of three children, she is a middle school principal and a spokesperson for Johnson and Johnson. Debbie Phelps is also the mother of Michael Phelps, Olympic Gold Medallist.


    Check out our exclusive interview with Debbie


    Becoming a world class athletic takes drive and determination. It takes focus and concentration. Many of these are the very characteristics people with ADHD have difficult with. But somehow, Michael Phelps found a way to use the positive traits of ADHD help him in his journey to becoming the fastest swimmer in the world.


    Michael was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of nine. His mother, as an educator, had heard of ADHD, but had not considered that Michael might be struggling with the symptoms of ADHD. He was overly active, always talking and asking questions, intensely curious and never seemed to stop. But Debbie Phelps thought of her son as a "typical boy." Her two older children were girls, more reserved and more mature. She noted the differences in behavior but chalked it up to the difference between girls and boys.

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    Teachers, however, brought Michael's lack of focus and inability to sit still to Debbie's attention. Teachers noticed Michael's wanting to be the center of attention and how he consistently moved on to the next task, before completing the one he was working on.


    Debbie talked with the pediatrician and both Debbie and the teachers completed the checklists. After a thorough evaluation, Michael was diagnosed with ADHD.


    Debbie accepted the diagnosis, began behavior modification strategies at home and Michael began medication, which helped increase focus and the ability to stay on task.


    But when Michael entered middle school, he didn't want to take medication. He was embarrassed stopping at the nurse's office each day at lunch to take a pill. Debbie had concerns, after all, middle school was more demanding than elementary school. But, she also felt it important to listen to Michael and to include him in the decision making process. So it was decided they would discuss the matter with the pediatrician at their next office visit. The decision was for Michael to try not taking medication. If he was not managing his responsibilities, they could revisit the decision.


    Behavior modification strategies stayed in place. Some of the ideas Debbie used were:

    • Having a special place in the house to keep the school backpack
    • Keeping a checklist on the refrigerator and providing incentives for completing tasks
    • Having household chores to complete, developing a sense of responsibility
    • Providing a place to complete homework
    • Eating health snacks
    • Maintaining a structured routine throughout the day

    Michael has managed ever since without medication. Swimming has provided not only routine and structure but also an outlet for excessive energy and regular exercise. This may have contributed to his ability to compensate for symptoms of ADHD.


    Michael would sometimes "zone out" entering into his own world, causing some frustration for both his mother and his coaches.


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    According to his mother, there are certain ADHD characteristics that have helped Michael be so successful in swimming. She believes his exuberant energy is one ADHD gift. But throughout his years of managing ADHD, he has developed a mental toughness and determination that has helped him to succeed. His ability to compartmentalize helps him to swim one race at a time, the races in the past and the future are put out of his mind, in order to focus on the race at hand.


    Debbie Phelps has been a supportive a loving mother, taking the time to create an environment at home that helped to develop Michael's talents and used positive reinforcement programs to help him learn responsibility. Debbie also spent many years working with Michael's teachers to help ensure his school success.


    Debbie Phelps is a middle school principal, working each day with students with ADHD and talking with parents dealing with ADHD. Her advice to parents is to talk with your child's teachers. Let the teachers know what is going on and what problems the student may be having. Let them know if there is something going on at home, if they are having problems. Let them know about a diagnosis of ADHD. In addition, parents should find out as much as they can about ADHD. Seek out resources that can help you to help your child.


    Debbie also tells the teachers in her school to work to build relationships with each student. It is important, she says, to realize that time cannot be given back. Teachers have six and one half hours each day to spend with students, they must make the best of this time. Once it is gone, there is no way to do it over.


    Debbie Phelps can be found on ADHDMoms, a Facebook community. It is a resource for people (even though it is called "Moms" it is not just for mothers but for all people dealing with ADHD in their lives. The site offers surveys, podcasts, articles and has a pediatrician on-site to answer questions.

Published On: October 02, 2008