Your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, and now you are wondering the best way to tell your kid about his or her diagnosis. You've heard different and sometimes conflicting advice from different professionals, and now you are unsure how to proceed next.
The best thing to do in a situation like this is to consult the experts, and who could be a better expert in this case than adults who were diagnosed with ADHD as children? That’s why this article focuses (pun intended) on the experiences of Sheila* and Jake;* two Generation X-ers who grew up in the same town, were in the same grade in school, and were both diagnosed with ADHD at the age of eight.
Although Sheila was one of the top readers in her class, she exhibited problematic behaviors, such as being disruptive in school and failing to complete her work. She eventually was evaluated by a doctor and diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The doctor told Sheila’s parents, “We’ll start her out on a small dose of Ritalin, and see if her teachers notice a difference. Don’t let the teachers know she’s on Ritalin, so they’ll be able to make an unbiased observation of her behavior and any changes they notice. ”
The doctor also told her parents, “Don’t come right out and tell your daughter the name of her disorder. She’s too young to understand it, and it will only confuse her. Instead, wait for an incident to occur, and use it as a teachable moment. Explain how everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and that one of her weaknesses is that she has trouble paying attention. When she’s older, perhaps when she’s in junior high, you can tell her more about her specific disability.”
Since Sheila’s parents wanted the best for their daughter, and because they had the highest trust in medical professionals; they did as the doctor said. The following school day, Sheila’s mother said to her, “Today you are going to start taking a pill that will help you pay attention in school; and you are not to tell anyone that you are taking it.”
Sheila understood, from what her mother had said; that her pill and her attention problem were private topics that were not to be talked about. She knew that she had “special needs,” which was the reason she was pulled out of her class to go to the Resource Room. Some of the other students in the Resource Room included Harry*, a boy with Down’s Syndrome; and Debbie*, who had trouble learning to read. For many years, Sheila falsely believed that she had a milder version of whatever it was that Harry and Debbie had. In Sheila’s mind, it made perfect sense, because they all received the same services in school.
It wasn't until Sheila was in eighth grade and she asked her mother, “What is the name of the special problem that I have?” that she learned the term Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Still, Sheila was not comfortable telling her friends that she had ADHD. She believed that people would think less of her and that they would bully her.
She was already being bullied quite a bit by her classmates; who targeted her for being “different.” Although she had been an outgoing child who was praised for her creativity and her lively imagination in elementary school; Sheila became very shy and withdrawn as a teenager. She avoided doing anything that would make herself stand out in any way, as she was ashamed of her difference and felt like a misfit. Rather than exploring and developing her own unique identity; she wore clothes that would make her blend into the crowd and listened to the same music and watched the same TV shows as her friends. Sheila was like a tiny mouse hiding in a hole in the corner of the room; fearing the larger predators that would destroy her if she ventured any further out.
Sheila felt alone and that there was no one with whom she could relate- that is, until she met Jake. Sheila and Jake had attended different elementary and middle schools, so they never crossed paths until high school.
Jake had been diagnosed with ADHD when he was in third grade. Like Sheila, he was very smart and had previously done well in school. However, his grades had begun to fall drastically. He was disruptive in class, often fidgeted, and blurted out the answer to questions rather than raising his hand and waiting to be called. He also had trouble reading for long periods of time. He was evaluated by the school, and then tested by a doctor, who confirmed his diagnosis of ADHD.
Unlike Sheila’s parents, Jake’s parents did not hesitate to tell him that he had ADHD. They told him that there was nothing wrong with having ADHD and that it was just a different way of learning. They also told him that having ADHD didn't make him any better or worse than anyone else, and that it was nothing to be ashamed of.
As Jake went through school, he was not embarrassed about his learning difference, and felt comfortable telling his friends. He even joked about his symptoms, and didn't think it was that big a deal. He embraced his uniqueness by wearing clothes that made him stand out, speaking out at assemblies where he vocally expressed his opinion on various school policies, and participating in many of the school’s clubs and activities. Jake had many friends from a variety of cliques and circles; and he was admired for his quick, sharp sense of humor and his refusal to blend in to the crowd. He was proud to be a nonconformist, and didn’t care what other people thought.
Like Sheila, Jake was sometimes bullied for having learning issues. However, Jake refused to be defeated. He went out of his way to let the bullies know that he was enjoying his high school years to the fullest, and that there was nothing they could do to stop him or to change who he was.
Sheila and Jake grew to become good friends. For the first time, Sheila came to realize that she wasn't alone and that there was no shame in being different. Eventually, she came to embrace her differences as well, and become a more confident and outgoing person. As an adult, Sheila is completely open about having ADHD, and is no longer ashamed of it. She is a happy, well-adjusted adult with a positive outlook on life, a college education, and a productive job; as is Jake.
Sheila offers the following tips for parents of children with ADHD and similar disabilities, “Don't hesitate to let your child know the name of their diagnosis, and let them know as much as possible so they won't be confused or ashamed. Also, remind them that it’s just a medical condition, and it has no impact on their worth as a person; no more than having, say, asthma or diabetes impacts their worth as a person.” Sheila urges parents to reject the advice that her own parents were given about disclosure, because it gave her the impression that her difference was something to be ashamed of.
“My parents never intended to deceive me or make me feel ashamed,” Sheila says. “They were simply following doctor’s orders and believed they were doing what was best for me. It just turns out they were given bad advice.” At the same time, Sheila recognizes that the doctor’s advice wasn't completely terrible, and she agrees about the importance of acknowledging the child’s strengths and weaknesses. She says, “For a long time, special education was completely focused on the kids’ weaknesses, so I guess by the time I was diagnosed; the pendulum had swung the other way so that they were putting more focus on the kids’ strengths, which of course is a good thing. But at the same time you don’t want to completely ignore their weaknesses or deny that they exist. Let them know that they have a disability and what it is; but also reassure your child that they are so much more than their disability and remind of their strengths as well.” Sheila acknowledges that her parents constantly reminded her of her own strengths; and she credits much of her success to her parents and their encouragement to view herself as more than just a diagnosis.
Jake offers similar advice to parents. He says, “Be honest with your kids, but make sure you tell your kids this is not a big deal. The worse you make it out to be and the bigger deal you make it the worse your kids feel.” He recalls, “My parents told me I had ADHD and that was that. I am pretty sure they told me that it didn't make me different or better or worse...it was just a thing.” He also stresses the importance of parental involvement. Like Sheila, he credits his parents with encouraging him and motivating him to always do his best. Jake refused to define himself by a label, and he knew he was smart.
It is important to remember that the experiences of two individuals is far from a scientific study, and the differences between the way Sheila and Jake reacted to having ADHD could be due to a number of factors. In addition, Jake warns against a one-size-fits-all approach to telling kids about ADHD. “Every kid is different,” he reminds parents; adding, “For me humor worked. For some you need a more sensitive approach.”
Nevertheless, both Sheila and Jake agree that no good can come from keeping a child’s diagnosis a secret from them. They agree that parents should avoid saying things like “don't tell anyone you're on medication because it's none of anyone's business.” Jake does not recall his parents saying anything like that, and is grateful that they didn't, saying, “Those kinds of statements usually just make kids feel more self-conscious.” Likewise, Sheila feels that if she had been informed about her diagnosis in a more straightforward manner, she would have had a much more positive attitude about having ADHD when she was younger.
Here is an article that gives additional advice to parents of children with ADHD; and both Sheila and Jake find the advice to be helpful: http://psychcentral.com/lib/2009/how-to-talk-to-your-kids-about-adhd/
*Names have been changed.
By Ann Lyons