Oh hi! If you are a parent who is wondering whether your child has ADHD, then I’ve written a post full of heartfelt advice for you. Grab a tea, and let’s chat.
I have ADHD. I’m also the parent of a child with ADHD. I work as a behaviour therapist with kids with ADHD. I’ve done the research and walked the walk. Here’s some of what I’ve learned…
In this post, I’ll answer the following questions:
My husband/wife/child’s teacher doesn’t believe that ADHD is really “a thing” and doesn’t want my child to use it as a crutch. Do I still need to get my child tested?
Is ADHD a disability?
I don’t think my child has ADHD, because I can see him/her focus on some things…
What about medication? Does my child need it?
Why does my child with ADHD do THAT?
Here’s a quick recap of what my life was like before I was diagnosed with ADHD:
As a child, people called me “forgetful” and “spaced out.” My report cards always included a reminder to “apply myself.”
As an adult, I often lost my keys or my wallet, missed flights, and missed important information at work.
I worried that people would see me as irresponsible. I felt humiliated every time I missed an appointment or lost something valuable. I was always anxious that I was going to lose track of something important.
Now that I’m a grown-up, my ADHD diagnosis helps me in some big ways:
- I recognize that I’m going to need extra help to do things that other people find easy. I need back-up plans, systems, visuals, and little tricks to keep me on track. I have stopped trying to get by acting like everyone else, because I can’t always perform like everyone else.
- I can access medication, which helps me focus, organize my thoughts, and push through tasks that used to be extremely difficult.
- I know what my strengths are, and I’ve set up my life so that I can do what I do best.
- I can be “out” as a person with ADHD, proudly telling how I work best or where I need help.
If you have just learned that your child has a diagnosis of ADHD, or you’re wondering if your child needs to get tested, this is for you.
Q. My husband/wife/child’s teacher doesn’t believe that ADHD is really “a thing” and doesn’t want my child to use it as a crutch.
A. First of all, ADHD is visible. It’s a real brain difference. People with this brain difference do behave differently. They struggle in a variety of areas, including planning, memory, attention, and impulse control. It’s a life-long condition. It’s genetic. In other words, the struggle is real.
Q. Is ADHD a disability?
A. Yes and no. ADHD can be “disabling” but it all depends on what the expectations are. You can see it in your child throughout the day. If your child loves to paint, or play basketball, or swim, he/she can probably get completely absorbed into that activity, and no one would look over and assume that your child has a disability. Your child can be a high achiever, diagnosed as gifted, and perform brilliantly in some areas. However, when your child is placed in a context where the demands are different, the ADHD difference will become much more obvious.
If the expectations involve sitting still, waiting, doing repetitive tasks, remembering steps and performing them in order, you will probably notice a difference between what a typical child can do, and what your child is doing (without supports.) It’s not fair to expect a child with ADHD to perform in exactly the same way, because they are actually wired differently.
Still, ADHD doesn’t have to be an “excuse.” I’ve even heard my son complain: “I couldn’t control myself. It’s my ADHD” but that doesn’t fly with me. I explain: “Yes, it seems hard, but we can do anything we choose to do. We just don’t always do it the same way as other people. We have to find our own way, and we can figure it out.”
In fact, I don’t think of my ADHD as simply a handicap. ADHD is also what makes me hungry for new information, ridiculously fun to talk to, and a great dance partner. It’s a difference, not just a disorder.
Q. I don’t think my child has ADHD, because I can see him/her focus on some things…
A. I often describe an ADHD brain as a “hungry” brain. If your child is trying to perform in a situation that is boring or just not “stimulating”, you will notice him/her losing focus, moving a lot more, possibly chewing on things, trying to change the subject… the ADHD brain is great at finding shiny objects to focus on.
When your child is really engaged in an activity, with the right level of challenge and novelty (reading an incredible story, swept away in a game of soccer, working on a pencil drawing, playing a rewarding video game), his or her brain just lights up. People with ADHD often call this “hyper-focus.” Hours can go by, and your child may miss meals or ignore bedtime, because this level of focus is very hard to break.
Children and adults with ADHD can focus, but you’ll probably see your child swing between utter distraction and deep concentration.
Q. What about medication? Does my child need it?
A. I can only speak from experience as a patient and as a mom, not as a medical professional.
I know what it’s like to be unmedicated, and what it’s like to have a medication that works for me. I don’t know if your child will respond in the same way to stimulant medication, or which “family” of drugs will work best. I just know I’m glad I talked to my doctor about it, and my experience has been extremely positive, with very few side-effects.
If you decide to talk to your doctor about the risks and side-effects of medication, you can still do “everything else” to naturally support your child’s health and development (i.e., behaviour therapy, lots of exercise, high protein breakfast, nutritional supplements, sensory diet, etc.)
Q. Why does my child with ADHD do THAT?
A. A lot of people don’t realize that ADHD affects the whole body. If you see your child chewing on his/her jacket, hanging upside down, making loud noises, wearing extra layers of clothing, climbing on countertops, crashing into other kids, or tugging on his/her hair, that’s often what ADHD looks like.
If you look at these behaviours as “sensory-seeking,” they make a lot more sense. Children (and adults) with ADHD do tend to look for extra sensory stimulation. If you need to ask your child to stop doing something, try to think of a replacement so they can get the input they crave.
Q. What do I tell my child? Does he/she need to know?
A. When people ask me whether or not to share a diagnosis with a child, my advice is usually YES. A diagnosis doesn’t have to be an embarrassing label. It can be a way for children to understand their strengths and struggles, and to be gentle with themselves when they run into a challenge.
Children with ADHD hear a lot of messages from teachers, family, and peers. I’ve heard children describe themselves as “bad,” “trouble-makers,” and “out-of-control.” I was always encouraged to “apply myself” and told I was “forgetful.” In other words, I sensed that something was not quite right, but it was always up to me to fix it and I could never quite figure it out.
When you talk to your child about a diagnosis, you help them understand that it’s not their fault when they have a harder time than other kids, and you can show them how important it is to add extra supports. I remember how frustrating it was for me to try to get through school and stay organized using the same tools as everyone else, because I needed more. I needed therapy, explanations, habit-building reminders, visuals, structure, and encouragement. I felt like I just wasn’t good enough, because what worked for other kids didn’t work for me.
Here’s how I talk about ADHD with kids:
An ADHD brain is a special kind of brain. It’s not bad to have a fast brain. You have a great imagination, and you are very brave. You’re also very curious, and we need people like you in the world. People with ADHD are often great writers, inventors, musicians, athletes, actors… did you know that Dav Pilkey (the author of Dogman) has ADHD?
Your powerful brain is like the engine in a race car. It goes really fast… but it also needs brakes. What would happen to a car that couldn’t stop?
Do you find sometimes it’s hard to stop?
Do you ever just do something before the rest of your brain has a chance to say “be careful”?
Do you ever have a great idea and share it… and not even notice that someone else talking?
Do you ever have so many ideas that it’s hard to focus on just one?
That’s your super-powerful brain, and we’re going to learn how to steer it, so it can go where you want to go.
Our bodies can help our brains slow down, when we need to go to sleep, when we need to sit in class, when we need to give someone else a turn. We’re going to learn how to give your body exactly what it needs– the right food, the right habits, the right exercise, the right sleep, even the right medicine, so you can use this amazing brain and do amazing things (without crashing!)
Coming to terms with an ADHD diagnosis isn’t always easy. Being tested as an adult was a relief, but when I went through the process with my son, it hurt to see all the discouraging labels sprinkled throughout the psychological testing process. Yes, he’s struggling, he’s irritable, he’s distractable, but he’s so much more. I hope that as you go through this process, you’ll be able to take those labels and gather them all together under one diagnosis, then take a minute to enjoy the curiosity, the energy, the determination that ADHD can bring.
Your child is FULL of potential. Recognizing ADHD can help you see what is in the way of that potential, and to take action to make sure that ANYTHING is possible.
All the best,