If your child has just received a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), you may be at a loss for words. Here’s how you can positively break it down while building them up.
When you find out that your child has ADHD, it can be confusing and overwhelming, especially if you weren’t familiar with the specifics of the condition beforehand. But you’re not alone.
ADHD is one of the most common disorders in children across the United States, affecting
The good news is that there are ways to unpack the condition so they understand and have an action plan — but it all starts with understanding the ADHD yourself.
ADHD is categorized by symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity, hyperfocus, and impulsivity. Since everyone’s brain is slightly different, someone with ADHD might experience specific symptoms more strongly than others. In fact, they may not even experience some of the symptoms at all.
As a result, there are three main types of ADHD, depending on which symptoms your kid exhibits:
- Predominantly inattentive ADHD. This type describes a child with ADHD whose primary challenge is paying attention or staying on task for extended periods. It’s possible to experience some level of hyperactivity and impulsivity too, but not to a level that impairs their daily lives.
- Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive ADHD. This type applies to a child with ADHD who has a hard time sitting still. This kid may feel like they need to move around a lot to pay attention. Impulsive decisions may be an everyday occurrence. It’s possible that they experience some degree of inattention.
- Combined presentation. This type applies to a child who experiences both hyperactive and inattentive ADHD symptoms at the same time.
Starting with what type of ADHD your child has is important because it can inform how you — and their teachers — can meet their specific learning needs.
Before you sit your child down, you might want to choose your words carefully. You don’t want to scare them or add to stigmas, but you also don’t want to understate what ADHD is, leaving your child unprepared. So what do you do?
Stick with the science
“Focus on ADHD as a difference in how their brain works, rather than a deficit or deficiency,” says Dr. Lori Long, a licensed child psychologist and co-founder of The Childhood Collective. “All of our brains work differently, and we all have strengths and challenges.”
“Many children with ADHD have amazing strengths, including their sociability with others, creativity, out-of-the-box thinking, and adventurous nature,” Long continues. “Identify your own child’s specific strengths, and talk about it in terms of their ADHD.”
This is the most important aspect when talking with your child. There are many opportunities for personal growth if they can view their ADHD as a tool or something that they can creatively use in the world, instead of a hurdle or problem to fix.
“I encourage families to use a growth mindset,” explains Dr. Jessica Myszak, a psychologist and the director of The Help and Healing Center. “If a child cannot do something, they cannot do it yet, and they can continue to improve and work on things.”
Long continues, “The ways that teachers and parents can help their children organize their external space, with practice and repetition, can often be incorporated into the child’s working knowledge, so they can learn to manage it on their own.”
Set them up for success
Having ADHD doesn’t mean that your child is entirely unable to focus or complete tasks either. If there’s an activity that interests them, they can focus on it intensely, even to the point that it can be challenging to redirect their focus.
You can help them focus by exploring their interests and setting up a series of completable tasks that will show them how well they can pay attention if they use their ADHD productively.
For inspiration, you can look to Tony-award winner actress and singer Audra McDonald’s story. Her parents did exactly that: They chose to support their young daughter who had ADHD by helping her lean into her interests.
Things you can say
- “ADHD is a part of who you are, but it isn’t the most important thing about you.”
- “Lots of brilliant and creative people have ADHD, too. It just means that you learn a little differently, and we want to find the best way for you to learn.”
- ”Sometimes it may be harder for you to pay attention to your teacher, and that’s totally normal for a lot of people who have ADHD. That’s why we have been finding new ways to help you listen more closely to your teacher.”
- “There isn’t anything ‘wrong’ with you or your brain. Your brain just works a little faster than other people’s, and it might be tough for you to slow it down sometimes. But that’s why we have been practicing sitting still during class time.”
Sometimes our frustration with a topic can show through regardless of the words we’re communicating to kids. It’s important also to be mindful of how you deliver information as well as phrases to generally avoid.
Avoid scolding them
Remember that even if your child seems to be intentionally pressing your buttons, they likely haven’t been presented with tools to manage their particular presentation of ADHD. Your child isn’t trying to upset you all the time on purpose.
You can learn more tips for disciplining a kid with ADHD here.
If your child’s hyperactivity is causing them to constantly run around the house, for example, try to remember that they aren’t being active because they want to be disruptive — they’re acting off of an impulse to move their body.
Over time, as they learn to understand their ADHD and find new ways to manage themselves (like through a behavioral management plan), they’ll start to better manage their impulses and outbursts.
It’s also not wise to use a recent incident as a jumping off point to “have the talk” about their ADHD. Your emotions might be charged, and “the talk” is best in a neutral setting, apart from stimuli.
Discipline and addressing a behavior in real-time is a separate discussion than introducing a diagnosis for a mental health condition.
Avoid making them feel ashamed of having ADHD
“I would generally avoid talking about ADHD as something bad or something that makes [your] child deficient,” says Long.
“Children with ADHD often get the message that they are bad or broken. Try not to spend time focusing on what they do wrong and focus on empowering them with understanding.”
Things you should avoid saying
- “You’re an ADHD kid now. That’s just who you are.”
- “Because of your issue, you’ll always have to work harder than the other kids.”
- ”ADHD means your brain doesn’t work like a normal brain.”
- “If you could learn to sit still and focus, your ADHD wouldn’t be a problem anymore.”
- “You have a mental disorder, so you can’t learn the way other kids do.”
Having ADHD doesn’t mean your child will always have trouble in school. They may just need to learn how to work alongside it. By viewing ADHD differently, you can discover creative ways to optimize their time in school.
“When talking to children, empathize and accept them as who they are. Let them know that you understand that some things are hard for them,” says Long.
She encourages parents to “let [your kid] know that you will help support them in whatever way possible and that you are here to answer questions whenever they have them.
“And most of all,” she adds, “just let them know that you love them, just as they are.”
Looking for some additional readings for you and your kids? Here are some exceptional books recommended by our experts:
- “What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew,” by Dr. Sharon Saline
- “12 Principles for Raising a Child with ADHD” by Dr. Russell A. Barkley
- “Smart but Scattered” by Peg Dawson, EdD and Richard Guare, PhD
- “My Busy, Busy Brain: The ABCDs of ADHD” by Nicole Russell
- “The Survival Guide for Kids with ADHD (Survival Guides for Kids)” by John F. Taylor, PhD.
- “My Whirling, Twirling Motor” by Merriam Sarcia Saunders