Ask Dr. Saline: How to talk to your child or teen about an ADHD diagnosis

adhd mind graphicDear Dr. Saline:

What are the best ways to explain to your child or teen about their ADHD so they can understand and be able to learn to self advocate for themselves? I want to help my twelve year old son accept his neurodivergence and be proud of thinking differently. 

Thank you,

From Dr. Saline

Dear Kendra:

parents and child talking to counselorThanks for asking this important question. Once you have gone through a valid process of evaluating your child or teen for ADHD and received an accurate diagnosis, many families are uncertain about how to move forward. Worried about adding labels, pathologizing kids, or creating low self-esteem, parents often wrestle with figuring out the best ways to share important information about their child’s strengths and struggles. 

The first step in the process of talking to your child or teen about an ADHD diagnosis begins with examining your own reaction. You may be both relieved and concerned that the information contained in the testing report confirms some of your suspicions and names cognitive, behavioral and emotional challenges that you’ve been seeing.

If you are an adult with ADHD or think you might have it, you may wonder if your youngster will have similar experiences–for better or for worse. As you unravel the range of your own responses to this news and feel your anxiety rise, remember that your child is not you. They have their own experiences in a world that is more informed and accustomed to identifying and working with outside-the-box thinkers than when you grew up. Plus, they have you as a caring guide, advocate and support. This is already different than what you probably had. 

Educate Your Child About ADHD

father and tween son talking on couchKids have their own set of ideas about the evaluation process and what it meant to them. Ask about these. Many kids are aware that ADHD exists and think they understand what it is but are probably misinformed about how it works and the types of effective treatments. They’ve had numerous appointments with people like physicians or specialists that convey that something is “wrong” with them. When you add in all of the myths and distortions online, many kids are confused and frightened while simultaneously feeling happy that they might be able to finally receive the help they need. Nonetheless, nobody really ever wants to have a “disorder.” What they want, more than anything, is to be “normal” like everyone else. 

So, consider their chronological age and their level of maturity. Have they used the term “ADHD” before? What does it mean to them? What do they think about their ability to concentrate, produce quality schoolwork, stay organized and manage big feelings? How do they refer to their challenges? For many children and even teens “ADHD” doesn’t mean anything that relates to their lived experience. They may have excellent attention for things they enjoy so how can they have a deficit? They might be distractible but not overactive so how can they be hyper? We want your son to grasp how his brain works so he can own it and learn to ask for what he needs.

Help with Acceptance

mother and teen daughter laughing togetherTo nurture their acceptance of their wonderfully complicated brain, we want to turn to science and psychology. Start by explaining the facts about ADHD as best you can: there are a few types of ADHD and the name is an umbrella term that encompasses all of them. This term is used to obtain services such as academic support, medication, psychotherapy or coaching. Together, look for a video or graphic or description which they can comprehend. Explore what they like about themselves (creativity, energy, music, athletics, reading, art) and then discuss some of their challenges with attention, focus, recall or motivation. Name some things that seem to assist them manage these.

Some kids find it easy to use the term ‘ADHD’ and, while others prefer to find a name that connects more to their daily life. I’ve had clients from the ages of 6 to 50 create an alternative to ‘ADHD’ that feels more consistent with how they see themselves: A dreamy brain, a fast brain, a foggy brain, an impatient brain. ADHD is fascinating because it can look different in different people. We want to normalize that all brains have their own idiosyncratic patterns, interests and capabilities. Our goal is to celebrate neurodiversity just like we honor racial, religious and gender diversity. 

Finally, whether or not you use the term ‘ADHD’ when you talk to your child or teen, it’s likely that your child will eventually learn or use this term. It’s how they relate to it that is most important. Our goal is to help kids understand what ADHD looks like for them, what they like about their ‘superpower’ and what types of support and tools best allow them to manage it. This will foster their ability to ask for what they need as they grow up.