Don’t Let Stigma Delay Proper ADHD Treatment for Your Child

Better education and more awareness about ADHD have led to an increase in families seeking treatment for their children who have ADHD. Unfortunately, stigma and often denial surrounding an ADHD diagnosis still exist. Sometimes these expressions come from family members.

Grandparents may believe that their grandson who is a class clown at school is just a “stereotypical boy,” or that a daydreaming granddaughter just needs to study harder. A father may feel that his child doesn’t have ADHD and only needs more discipline, while his co-parent sees clearly the need for an ADHD evaluation. Parents, who are already struggling to do the best they can for their child, are left to wonder how to get the appropriate care for their child when other family members don’t support them in addressing their child’s ADHD diagnosis.

What does ADHD stigma look like?

ADHD stigma can sound like someone saying, “you’re just lazy” or “you need to try harder.” It affects both children and adults and can be quite harmful to both. It may be the reason why a parent doesn’t seek help for their child’s behavior problems or lack of attention in school.

Stigma can also result in discriminatory practices. If a teacher won’t recognize an ADHD diagnosis and instead thinks a student just needs to slow down when doing homework or study harder, it can result in a child being denied educational supports, even when there is an academic accommodations plan.

Zara Harris, a pediatric occupational therapist, says that stigma may come from the name of the condition itself.

“I think the problem is often the term, ADHD,” she says. “We recognize that it does not really describe what we all know; it is a relatively new term, and a confusing one at that.”

To add to this confusion, ADHD symptoms appear differently from person to person. One child may be hyperactive or impulsive, while another may appear to daydream often or have a hard time remembering what they’ve read. These challenges can interfere with a child’s education, and if teachers and other school staff don’t understand or believe that ADHD is a real condition, they may not provide the appropriate supports in school.

Another worry is that having an ADHD diagnosis “labels” a child and might prevent them from reaching their full potential. Ms. Harris wants parents and grandparents to know that often children already have labels when symptoms are not addressed.

“They are the troublemaker, the not quite as others, slow, a wiggle worm, just like his father,” she says. “Better that we use the right labels and do something to help the child.”

That help can come through requesting educational supports or making an appointment with your child’s pediatrician to understand ADHD and develop a treatment plan.

Stigma surrounding ADHD has decreased in recent years, but not necessarily for children of color, says Roberto Olivardia PhD, a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of ADHD and is a member of CHADD’s professional advisory board.

“In general, there’s a lot of stigma about mental health diagnoses,” he says. “Thankfully, the stigma of the ADHD diagnosis overall is decreasing; however, I should say that in a lot of studies they’re showing it’s decreasing among white individuals.”

For children of color, professionals and the adults in their lives may describe them as having behavioral problems instead of seeking an evaluation for ADHD and proper treatment, he says.

Rates of children of color receiving an ADHD diagnosis are lower than for children in other groups. Stigmas regarding mental health and behavioral health within their communities can get in the way of proper medical care for ADHD. Dr. Olivardia urges other professionals to consider the historical relationship between people of color and the medical community when providing ADHD care.

Decreasing stigma

How can you help reduce stigma around your child’s ADHD diagnosis? Ruth Hughes, PhD, is a disability support services counselor for Howard Community College in Maryland and former CEO of CHADD. She says parents of children and adult who have with ADHD themselves can help change public perception through education, advocacy, and by sharing their personal experiences.

Parents can collaborate with leaders in their community to bring about change at the local and national level, says Dr. Hughes. Calling your state or national representatives and letting them know how public policy affects your child is also important.

What can make the most impact, says Dr. Hughes, is getting out in your community and sharing your personal story. Discussing how ADHD has affected your family can help other people connect a person with whom they can identify to the experience of having ADHD.

“We know that even though a group of people can be very stigmatized, there are things that we can do over time that change the culture, change the public perception, that change the belief systems,” she says. “It takes time, it takes effort, and it takes coming together and working together.”

Looking for more on reducing stigma?

Join the discussion: What is something that would help to reduce stigma in the ADHD community?