How to Talk to Your Child about Having ADHD
It’s very common for parents to be reluctant to tell their kids they have ADHD. It might be because they want to protect their kids from the “stigma” of ADHD, said Elaine Taylor-Klaus, CPCC, PCC, a certified coach, educator and parenting coach. It might be “because they don’t want to ‘label them,’ or they don’t want them to use it as an excuse.”
It might be because they’re concerned their kids will worry they’re different, said Cindy Goldrich, Ed.M., ACAC, an ADHD parent coach, mental health counselor and teacher trainer.
But here’s the thing: Kids already know. “The reality is that most kids already sense that they are not like their peers in some ways. And they may suffer from lack of confidence or negative self-judgment,” Goldrich said.
Without any explanations, kids feel like they’re “lazy, crazy or stupid,” Taylor-Klaus said. They make up various negative reasons why they can’t do what’s expected of them, which chips away at their self-esteem, she explained.
“Talking about [ADHD] gives kids a chance to express their concerns and get answers for questions that may exist in their hearts,” said Goldrich, founder of PTSCoaching.
When kids know there’s a reason for their challenges, they’ll accept that there are different ways to address them, Taylor-Klaus said. “Otherwise, a parent’s effort to ‘help’ is often met with resentment and resistance, because it feels like the child is doing something wrong.”
So how do you tell your child they have ADHD? Is a child ever too young to know? The below tips can help answer your questions.
Explain ADHD in an age-appropriate way.
“Kids are never too young to understand what helps them, though the language changes at different ages,” said Taylor-Klaus, co-founder of ImpactADHD.com, an online support resource that trains parents on how to effectively manage kids with ADHD and other complex needs.
Both she and Goldrich noted that mentioning the label “ADHD” isn’t that important. What’s more important is to help your “child understand that there is a reason for things being harder, and that you’re going to help them learn how to handle it,” Taylor-Klaus said. Focus on the “symptoms, challenges and opportunities,” Goldrich said.
Taylor-Klaus shared these examples: You might tell a very young child that you understand it’s hard for him to sit still during dinner. You might tell a 6-year-old that her brain is really great at some things like telling stories. But it has a harder time with other things like sitting for too long. You might tell an older child that he struggles with wiggling because of the way his brain is wired due to something called ADHD. And his brain wants to stay busy all the time.
With her own kids Taylor-Klaus explained that they were tested to better understand how their brain works. Now they know how to help them learn in a way that works best for their brain. She also acknowledged the different things that are hard for her kids. She talked about “how hard it must have been not being able to do things that looked like they should be simple.” She assured her kids that she’ll help them learn how to accomplish their goals — because they do have a brilliant brain.
“I also told all of my kids, ‘you’re going to be an amazing adult, we just gotta get you there. And that’s not always going to be easy, because your brain is wired better to be an adult than it is to be a kid.”
That’s because adults can focus on what they do well and outsource what they don’t, she said. This works best for an ADHD brain, which is motivated by interest and novelty. “But kids are expected to be generalists and do well at everything, even if they don’t find it interesting. Once they get to specialize, they tend to do better, and be happier.”
Avoid being judgmental.
According to Taylor-Klaus, avoid such statements: “If you would only try harder.” “Why didn’t you?” “Why can’t you?” These statements not only hurt your kids, but they also don’t work.
For instance, telling your child to try harder is “like telling [her] to grow taller.” It’s unfair and demoralizing, she said. In fact, one of the biggest mistakes parents make is to hold kids accountable for unrealistic outcomes and results.
“Our kids are 3-5 years behind their same age peers in some aspects of their development. And when they’re really mature or sophisticated in some areas, we expect it in all areas,” Taylor-Klaus said.
Avoid being negative.
Don’t call ADHD a “problem” or a “bad thing,” said Goldrich, author of the forthcoming book 8 Keys to Parenting Children with ADHD. Instead, use terms such as “challenge” and “difference.” Naturally, everyone has challenges and differences, she said.
“I am directionally challenged. I get lost all of the time. But the positive is that I love exploring new places I discover by accident.”
Avoid sending the message that they can’t improve.
Taylor-Klaus stressed the importance of not making your child feel like they’ll “never be able to get [themselves] under control.” For instance, avoid these statements, she said: “How many times do I have to ask you…?” “When are you ever going to learn…?” “What are you going to do when I’m not around to remind you…?”
“We don’t mean harm by these simple questions. But they undermine our kids and reinforce their own fears that they may never be able to make it on their own.”
Avoid making them feel guilty or ashamed for their brains.
According to Taylor-Klaus, examples include: “You are always forgetting things and losing things …” “You lost your jacket again? I should just never get you anything nice.” “You never follow my directions — it is so disrespectful…” “I just asked you to do one simple thing, and you can’t even remember that!”
These are all ways of treating your child as if they’re “naughty” because of the way their brain is wired. Plus, this unwittingly takes away your child’s motivation to improve, she said.
When they’re old enough, explain the science in non-clinical terms.
Taylor-Klaus shared these sample explanations:
“You know, your brain is really awesome at some things, like coming up with great ideas. But it has a harder time remembering little details — I guess because it’s busy thinking up those great ideas, right?!”
“You know, there are a whole lot of parts to things that seem really simple, like homework. If you think about it, homework has like 12 steps: You have to get the assignment, bring it home, remember you have it, get yourself started on it… and that’s before you even start! The brain needs to remember all of these steps. And sometimes that can be really hard, because your brain doesn’t always put the steps in the right order.”
She also recommended Melvin Levine’s book for kids called All Kinds of Minds.
Finding out your child has ADHD is, understandably, upsetting. You don’t want your child to have to deal with added challenges. But remember that it’s up to you to set the tone for how your child approaches their ADHD, Taylor-Klaus said.
“If we support them, encourage them, believe in them and teach them skills for self-management, ADHD can provide an opportunity for our kids to gain a level of self-awareness that enhances their success and accomplishments.”
The reality is that your child has ADHD. How you respond to it makes all the difference, she said.
Father and son photo available from Shutterstock
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Tartakovsky, M. (2018). How to Talk to Your Child about Having ADHD. Psych Central. Retrieved on June 5, 2020, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/how-to-talk-to-your-child-about-having-adhd/