Talking with Your Child About ADHD

 ADHD Weekly 2017-04-27

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Question: Our daughter has ADHD but doesn’t know it. She’s 10-years-old and doing alright in school. Should we tell her she was diagnosed two years ago? How should we tell her about her diagnosis at this point?

Answer: When and how to explain to your child about a medical diagnosis, especially ADHD, is a question every parent of a child with a special need has to contend with at some point. The first piece of advice is always that you know your child best when it comes to her needs; next, a child at 10 years old knows she is struggling with something and has questions that need to be answered.

What the experts suggest

"It’s never too early to start talking with your child about his ADHD," Patricia Collins, PhD, tells WebMD. She is the director of the Psychoeducational Clinic at North Carolina State University. She suggests parents pick a time when they can talk without distraction and not feel rushed. 

“It should be a time when you are unlikely to be interrupted," Dr. Collins says.

Kara Tamanini, MS, LMHC, a therapist who works with children, says parents should keep the conversation reassuring and constructive. 

“Tell the truth, but do not sugarcoat things,” Ms. Tamanini writes in How To Talk to Your Kids About ADHD. “The reality is that your child will have to work at this just as much as you and his or her teachers will. When you tell your child that they have ADHD, let them know that they are not alone. Every person is different in many different ways and we should celebrate these differences. If you keep your child’s diagnosis from him or her, it implies that ADHD is shameful and something to be embarrassed about.”

And while the conversation will include many of the challenges your daughter faces because of ADHD symptoms, it’s important to also focus on your daughter’s positive qualities and capabilities, says Andrew Adesman, MD, the chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children’s Medical Center of New York.

“Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and when talking about ADHD with kids, it has to be within the context that there are things a child does well and things he or she does less well,” Dr. Adesman says in Not Broken, Just Different: Explaining ADHD to a Young Child for Everyday Health.

Be ready to talk about ADHD

Make sure you’re up to date about ADHD. You can learn more about the condition before talking with your child at About ADHD or schedule a meeting with your child’s doctor. 

Pick up a few books that you can use during the conversation and later on as your daughter has additional questions. A few books you might want to look into are:

You can find additional book suggestions from CHADD’s online bookstore. Many of these books can be found through your local library or your own favorite bookstore.

Keep the information appropriate for your child’s age. A 10-year-old can understand more about how her brain functions than a younger child. For the younger child, you might talk more about behaviors. For both children, the goal is to offer reassurance that ADHD is not who they are, it is something they have. The good news is that her parents love her and have a plan to help her.

Tips for talking about ADHD with your child

It can be difficult to know what to say when discussing ADHD with your child. Remember your child’s age and experience. An older child might be interested in the science of how her brain works, a younger child just wants to know that what she’s going through is okay and her parents are going to help her.

Some recommendations from Ms. Tamanini:

  • Don’t say, “You are ADHD.” Your child is not a medical diagnosis. Try saying, “ADHD is just something you have, but it doesn’t define who you are today or who you will grow up to be.”
  • Likewise, avoid “You have a disorder.” This can sound scary to a child. Instead, try saying, “Your brain works differently, just as some people’s eyes work differently.”
  • Avoid saying, “You need medication to behave or to learn.” This sends the wrong message about medication and its role. Explain that the medication is part of what can help your child be successful. It is one of many tools in her treatment plan that will help her filter out distractions so she can learn or listen the way she wants to.

Try this framework, and adapt for your conversation:

  • What you are experiencing or struggling with is very normal for a child who has ADHD. You are a regular child, you just have something else that makes it a little harder for you than for your friends.
  • We are working together to help make things better at home and school.
  • Part of having ADHD is having many new or exciting ideas, sometimes all at once. You can be full of energy that you just don’t know what to do with sometimes.
  • ADHD won’t go away, but we are a team – you, me, your teachers, your doctors – and we can handle this together.
  • ADHD is not an excuse for bad behavior, but we will work together to fix the problem when it causes you to get in trouble.

Empowering your child

ADHD is a lifespan condition, one that children generally do not outgrow. Part of your role as your child grows up is to teach her to find solutions that work for her and to advocate for herself. Teaching your daughter about ADHD and encouraging her to find answers to her questions empowers her to more successfully navigate her life as she enters her teen years and approaches adulthood. Including your daughter in discussions with her teachers and modeling how to ask for what she needs are other ways you prepare her for self-advocacy. 

You can learn more about teaching self-advocacy at Self-Advocacy: Strategies for All Ages.

How did the conversation go when you told your child about an ADHD diagnosis? What advice would you offer this parent?