Signs, Symptoms, and Treatment of ADHD in Children
Talking to Kids About ADHD
Telling your child that he or she has ADHD can seem daunting, but approached in the right way, the conversation can actually be positive for both of you.
By Madeline R. Vann, MPH
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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Once your child’s doctor has made an ADHD diagnosis, it’s time to take a deep breath and talk about what the diagnosis means. Many kids with ADHD already suspect that they are different in some way, so this conversation could be an opportunity to reassure them that their ADHD symptoms have a cause — and some solutions.
Parenting ADHD kids can be challenging, but you can make it a more positive experience, starting with this first conversation. The most important thing is to remember that even though your child has ADHD, he or she is an individual — and so are you.
“I hesitate to distill parent/child/provider communication into simple dos and don’ts,” says Bonnie Zima, MD, MPH, associate director of the Jane and Terry Semel Institute's Health Services Research Center and professor-in-residence in the UCLA department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine. The conversation will be different in every family, but your role as parent, stresses Dr. Zima, is to actively guide the way in which information about ADHD is shared, respecting your family’s values even as you talk about ADHD symptoms.
Honesty in Parenting Kids With ADHD
Here are some ideas for starting the parent-child ADHD conversation:
- Include your child’s doctor or therapist in the discussion.This affords you the benefit of having an experienced professional on hand to help focus the conversation and provide age-appropriate answers to your child’s questions.
- Stay positive.Don’t overwhelm your child with technical information, and don’t appear sad or resigned. Remember that there are benefits to having a diagnosis — namely that you and your child can now better explain and learn to manage any symptoms that may have been causing frustration previously. You can also start to proactively work on a plan for discipline and academic success if your child is of school age.
- Emphasize that you’re all part of a team.Let your child know that he or she is not alone in managing ADHD. You, your child, and your medical team should aim for shared decision-making at every stage of the treatment process, says Zima. Knowing that you, too, will be making changes to help your family life run more smoothly may make your child feel more optimistic about the changes he has to make. Kids with ADHD should know that they play an active role in their success — with mom's and dad’s support, of course.
- Emphasize the upside of ADHD.It’s easy to get distracted by the frustrations of ADHD, but it’s important to also tell your kids that ADHD makes them different in some positive ways as well. For example, kids with ADHD are very energetic and creative, can contribute new ideas to projects and groups, and have a natural magnetism that draws people to them.
- Discuss practical changes.Once you have an ADHD diagnosis for your child, your medical team might suggest changes in the way that schedules, homework, and discipline are handled. Be matter-of-fact in explaining what will change and how your child can succeed in the new system. Don’t blame your child or the ADHD for the work involved.
- Let them know you love them.Kids with ADHD can lose sight of your love because the focus is often on problems with their behavior. Emphasize that even though there will be bad days for both of you, you still love them — and that love has no bearing on whether or not they have ADHD.
Age-Appropriate Parenting Strategies
Your parenting style and the ADHD conversation will also depend on the age of your child:
- Preschoolers.Use very simple language and focus on ADHD symptoms or behaviors that your child probably knows have been problems. You might talk about the difficulty your child has staying still, for example. Then explain how you and your child’s doctors and caregivers will be helping them to do better.
- Elementary-school children.At this age, children are more concerned about pleasing you by succeeding at school, both socially and academically. Talk to them about the ADHD symptoms that could pose challenges on these fronts. Encourage them to ask questions or ask for solutions to specific problems they encounter each day. Address how to be a good friend, and discuss specific discipline issues so that they understand their boundaries.
- Middle-school and high-school kids.You can have a more adult conversation with children in these age groups, so explain the diagnosis in more depth. Stress that having ADHD is not an excuse for bad behavior, and point out that many people are very creative and successful with ADHD. Teens can have more responsibility over their schedules, taking their medications, and determining the rewards and consequences that are part of their behavior plans. This is also an important time to start talking about the temptation and danger of risky behaviors and how kids with ADHD can handle peer pressure to try alcohol or drive too fast. Continue to encourage your teen to ask questions and talk directly with a doctor or therapist about issues they are facing. Zima points out that understanding and coping with ADHD means that teens need to be even more engaged in the shared decision-making process, unless there are serious safety concerns that require you to be more involved.
Talking to kids with ADHD about their diagnosis and what it means may seem like your greatest parenting challenge thus far. But chances are, you’ll have many such conversations as they grow up and face more complicated situations at school and with their peers. Keep talking and learning about ADHD, and you will be better equipped to help your child succeed.
Video: How to Help Parents Identify ADHD in Children
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