Buying into ADHD myths can spark shame and stop you from getting treatment. Here, we dispel some of the worst offenders.

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Even though much progress has been made, ADHD misconceptions and caricatures still persist.

Lazy. Lacking willpower. Stupid. Sloppy. Careless. ADHD is an excuse. Just try harder!

So, if you or your child has ADHD, it’s possible you’ve also internalized these inaccurate beliefs — and many others.

The problem?

Believing that ADHD is something it’s not can stop you from seeking treatment or lead you to turn to strategies that aren’t effective.

Internalizing ADHD caricatures can also lead you to feel shame about everything from your symptoms to your identity.

Similarly, if you’re the parent of a child with ADHD, you also might feel shame, guilt, and overall confusion about how to best support your child.

To help, we’re debunking five of the most common ADHD misconceptions.

Thanks to the many studies and research about ADHD we know a lot more today about the condition than we knew years ago. But there are still myths and misconceptions that exist.

Myth: You can’t have ADHD if you get great grades

Fact: When someone with ADHD aces a tough test or has a high-level career but can’t locate their homework or keys or remember to pay a bill, you might think it’s related to lack of effort or conscientiousness.

“It can be confusing to people with ADHD, as well as people who care about them when they see someone who they regard as so smart but has difficulty doing tasks that most people regard as ‘simple,’” says Roberto Olivardia, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Lexington, Massachusetts, who specializes in treating ADHD and is also living with the condition.

But ADHD has nothing to do with intelligence, points out Olivardia. Rather, ADHD involves issues with executive functioning — cognitive skills that are made up of:

  • Mental flexibility: the ability to shift attention to a different task
  • Working memory: the ability to hold information in our minds for a brief period of time
  • Self-control: the ability to resist impulsive, unhelpful actions like blurting out answers in class

These cognitive skills control a variety of complex behaviors, such as:

  • paying attention
  • planning
  • managing time
  • making decisions
  • starting tasks

In general, seemingly simple tasks actually require some sophisticated brain processes, which are not as strong in those with ADHD.

In other words, it’s tough to pay a bill or find your keys when your brain doesn’t have that information handy.

Myth: ADHD doesn’t really affect girls as much as boys

Fact: At one time, decades ago, experts did believe that ADHD exclusively affected boys. Now, however, we know that’s not true. Girls (and women) absolutely experience ADHD in similar numbers.

And yet, boys are still more likely to get referred for evaluation and receive an ADHD diagnosis. For example, a 2018 large-scale survey found that 12.9% of boys were diagnosed with ADHD compared to 5.6% of girls.

Why is this?

As research suggests, one major reason is that ADHD tends to look different in girls than in boys. While every person with ADHD is different, in general, girls are more likely to experience inattentive symptoms than exhibit hyperactive or impulsive behaviors.

According to a 2020 expert paper, instead of bouncing off the walls and being disruptive, girls with ADHD may:

  • daydream
  • be disorganized
  • feel overwhelmed
  • have issues with “internalizing disorders” such as anxiety

Girls with ADHD may also develop strategies to hide or compensate for their difficult symptoms.

Either way, girls’ frequently “quieter” symptoms are more likely to go unrecognized, especially when teachers and parents are, understandably, busy dealing with more severe, unruly behavior.

But girls with ADHD still face challenges. The same 2020 paper cites various studies that found girls may experience:

  • bullying
  • relationship difficulties with parents, siblings, and peers
  • low self-esteem
  • elevated rates of early or unplanned pregnancies
  • self-harming behavior

Myth: Only white kids (and adults) get ADHD

Fact: ADHD affects individuals of all races and backgrounds. Unfortunately, research demonstrates that ADHD goes underdiagnosed and undertreated in Black and Hispanic kids.

Research published in the JAMA Network Open journal found similar racial and ethnic disparities in diagnosis and treatment. Specifically, out of 238,011 children, Asian, Black, and Hispanic kids were less likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis compared to their white peers.

White children were also more likely than other kids to receive treatment for their ADHD.

Why this happens is complex and involves many contributing factors, including:

  • explicit and implicit bias from teachers and providers
  • distrust of the healthcare system
  • community stigma around mental health and medication
  • limited access to health providers

Undiagnosed and untreated ADHD can affect all areas of a person’s life. For example, in this 2015 review, researchers note that consequences include:

  • long-term relationship problems
  • lower education levels
  • substance and alcohol abuse
  • financial issues and job instability
  • car accidents

Myth: If my child has to take ADHD meds, I haven’t done my job

Fact: Because ADHD tends to be an invisible condition, our society generally stigmatizes medication taking. So, it’s totally understandable if you’re hesitant about medication or view it as a last resort.

But please don’t beat yourself up for (supposedly) not doing enough. For starters, for many kids and teens, medication is an invaluable part of treatment (the other critical part being therapy and other personalized behavioral strategies).

Olivardia suggests looking at medication as “no different than getting glasses for your vision-impaired child, a hearing aid if your child is hard of hearing, insulin for diabetes, or a CPAP machine for sleep apnea.”

He notes that many of his patients are grateful when their parents consider medication.

“It can be lifechanging,” Olivardia says.

The goal of ADHD medication is to reduce hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattention with little to no side effects. Working with a healthcare or mental health professional who specializes in childhood ADHD can help you find the right treatment regimen for your child.

Of course, medication isn’t right for everyone. The key, Olivardia emphasizes, is not to compare your child’s situation with anyone else’s — even if that other child is their sibling.

“Every child is different,” adds Olivardia. “Seeking all tools that could help their child is what parents want to do and medication can be a useful tool.”

Myth: People with ADHD just need to try harder

Fact: Telling people with ADHD that they need to try harder to focus, sit still, be more organized, or overcome some other symptom is similar to telling someone with poor eyesight to will themselves to see better.

Of course, that’s not possible. People with poor vision need the support of glasses or contacts (or surgery).

Similarly, people with ADHD also need supports. Lara Honos-Webb, PhD, a psychologist in Walnut Creek, California, and author of the book “Six Super Skills for Executive Functioning,” works with clients to build up their executive functioning and work toward their personal goals.

For example, Honos-Webb helps clients with:

  • identifying and harnessing their unique gifts
  • setting meaningful (to them) goals
  • separating goals into a series of small, strategic steps
  • boosting motivation
  • managing mood

In short, people with ADHD don’t need to try harder — the key is in trying differently, honoring your natural tendencies, and finding systems that specifically work for you.

You don’t need to become someone without ADHD. Rather, you can seek treatment to help you reduce symptoms, adopt ADHD-friendly strategies, and capitalize on your immense strengths.

Stereotypes about ADHD can sting, and they can affect your decision to seek treatment. However, the reality is that although ADHD is a complex, difficult condition, there is hope.

Olivardia notes, “With management and treatment, people with ADHD can thrive and realize their potential.”

To find a professional who specializes in diagnosing and treating ADHD, check out these organizations:

The Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA) also has virtual support groups where you connect with others online. CHADD also has ways to connect with other parents of children with ADHD or adults who live with ADHD.

Also, if you’re interested in finding a culturally sensitive therapist, check out the following organizations:

Above all, connect with a healthcare or mental health professional that fits you and your lifestyle.