Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, or ADHD, is a neurological disorder that interrupts an individual’s ability to sustain attention, control impulses, and maintain an accurate sense of time. It was formally known as ADD, or attention deficit disorder.
People with ADHD generally struggle to sit still and focus on the tasks in front of them. Sometimes, ADHD manifests as hyperfocus, or an inability to shift attention away from the task at hand, even when prompted to do so. According to leading ADHD expert Dr. Russell A. Barkley, ADHD is not just an issue of attention, but “a deeper problem with how children develop self-regulation and self-control” (Barkley, “Interview Russell Barkley”).
It’s common for children of all ages to occasionally act out, get lost in daydreams, and forget responsibilities. But, if your child seems impulsive, erratic, hyperactive, “spacey,” or disorganized most of the time, you might wonder if he or she could have ADHD. Especially if your child is struggling in school or social situations, you might worry about his or her success, stability, and happiness, now and in the future. All parents want the best for their children, and if you’re concerned and seeking answers and advice, you are far from alone.
But, it can be challenging to distinguish “normal” youthful behavior from symptoms of ADHD in children. Before you seek an assessment or treatment for your child, it’s important to learn more about the wide range of ADHD symptoms and how they show up in the real world.
Normal Child Behavior or ADHD?
Primary Characteristics of ADHD
There are two different “types” of ADHD, defined by key characteristics. Children can demonstrate one characteristic or a combination of both.
Inattentive children do not generally act out or cause disruptions, but do struggle to pay attention. They frequently stares off into space or seem to be in their own worlds.
Hyperactive/impulsive children seem to do things without thinking of the consequences. They can’t sit still or remain quiet, even when it’s appropriate or necessary to do so. However, even while fidgeting or otherwise acting out, they can pay attention.
Most children with ADHD present all of the above characteristics to some degree. They are inattentive, hyperactive, and impulsive, sometimes all at once, depending on the present situation. Symptoms can be mild, moderate, or severe.
Symptoms of ADHD in Children
Contrary to popular belief, children with ADHD can pay attention and focus. However, they cannot choose what they focus on, because individuals with ADHD are thought to experience a deficit of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is the brain’s “feel good” chemical, which is released like a reward when we begin a new task and experience something pleasurable.
Because the ADHD brain does not appear to transmit or receive dopamine correctly, children with ADHD are quick to run out of good feelings when they are stuck on the same task. Instead, they experience a nearly unbearable degree of boredom and discomfort. To avoid these unpleasant feelings, children with ADHD seek out stimuli that will offer a dopamine boost, including a new idea or a sensory observation.
In other words, they jump from thing to thing and thought to thought, focusing primarily on what interests and entertains them. Not because they are lazy or unintelligent, but because their brain structure encourages them to do so (Blum, “Attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder…”). When their minds wander, they are not simply bored; they are seeking equilibrium.
If your child is inattentive, he or she may:
- Frequently daydream or let thoughts wander
- Often become bored and mentally restless, even over a short period of time (e.g., waiting in line at the grocery store, sitting in class)
- Strongly dislike repetitive tasks
- Fail to respond when spoke to, as though he or she does not hear others
- Lose track of time (e.g., take too long getting ready for school in the morning, fail to adequately plan for large school projects)
- Struggle to stay organized, keep track of personal belongings, and maintain a tidy bedroom, locker, or desk
- Easily forget things, including instructions and important responsibilities
- Frequently make careless mistakes (e.g., neglecting typos in homework, leaving doors or cupboards open)
Parents, teachers, and other adults are less likely to have immediate concerns about inattentive children, especially if the child primarily sits quietly without acting out. However, inattentive children can still struggle with social, academic, and even physical consequences that harm their self-esteem and block access to opportunities.
Your child might find it difficult to make friends, especially if he or she frequently checks out of conversations and stops paying attention to what others have to say. He or she might also forget important information about others, leading them to believe he or she doesn’t care.
As your child forgets due dates or loses homework assignments, his or her grades might slip. Or, he or she may simply zone out during class and miss important lessons, or fail to listen to and remember teachers’ instructions. Teachers may think your child is lazy or unmotivated.
Inattentive children can also be clumsy and prone to carelessness. For example, your child might forget to grab his or her bicycle helmet. Or, he or she might not pay attention while walking or driving. In fact, studies show that “adolescents with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder are 36% more likely than other adolescent drivers to get into a car accident” (Emanuel, “Young Drivers With…”).
All of these behaviors can have very real consequences in the short- and long-term. Your child may feel wrong or inadequate in some way, and may struggle to understand why he or she just can’t seem to pay attention or remember, no matter how hard he or she tries. Over the years, he or she may internalize criticisms and begin doubting his or her intelligence and capacity for success.
Note: It’s common for girls with ADHD to go undiagnosed because they are more likely to be inattentive, rather than impulsive. In fact, according to ADHD expert Dr. Ellen Littman, “The [diagnostic] criteria over-represent the symptoms you see in young boys, making it difficult for girls to be diagnosed unless they behave like hyperactive boys” (Yagoda, “It’s Different for Girls with ADHD”). It’s vital for parents to understand how boys and girls may present different ADHD symptoms.
When people picture someone with ADHD, they likely imagine a wild, rambunctious child who misbehaves and seems uncontrollable. Too often, hyperactive/impulsive children are labeled “bad kids” at school and in other social settings.
In truth, however, hyperactive/impulsive children are not bad or even willfully misbehaving. Studies and neurological imaging show that the ADHD brain has an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for impulse control. In other words, the ADHD brain matures slowly, and often incompletely (note: this has nothing to do with intelligence).
Without impulse control, these children speak and act once the impulse to do so pops up in their brains, without time to consider the consequences or filter unwanted behavior (Vaiyda, “Neurodevelopmental Abnormalities in ADHD”). This means that children with ADHD often do or say things even they wish they did not do or say, leading to regret, embarrassment, and frustration.
If your child is hyperactive/impulsive, he or she may:
- Get up and move around at inappropriate times (e.g., during class, at the movie theater)
- Speak out of turn, too loudly, and too often
- Say inappropriate things and/or struggle to find the right words
- Seem unable to relax (e.g., tap feet, move from to room)
- Experience emotional swings, including bursts of anger and aggression
- Jump from idea to idea, making written and verbal communication difficult to follow
- Leave tasks incomplete to go onto another task (e.g., leave toys scattered on the floor to go play outside, show strong interest in an activity for two weeks then abandon it)
- Test rules and take inappropriate, even highly dangerous, risks
If your child displays these signs, it’s likely that a teacher or other adult has noticed and expressed concerns. You and your child may have heard that he or she is “difficult,” “a problem,” or “a bully.” All of this can be incredibly painful as a parent, and such judgments, criticisms, and punishments can have a lasting impact on even the most confident of children.
Just like an inattentive child, your child may struggle to make friends and get along with other children. If your child often disrupts class, lashes out at others, interrupts, or speaks without thinking, other children may not want to spend time with them, leading to loneliness and social isolation.
According to research, “children with ADHD show significant academic underachievement, poor academic performance, and educational problems” (Loe, “Academic and Educational Outcomes…”). This is especially true for hyperactive/impulsive children, who are more like to get in trouble in the classroom and be punished with detention, suspension, or expulsion.
Your child might also take risks that put his or her mental, emotional, and physical wellbeing in danger. With already lowered inhibition, he or she may be more susceptible to peer pressure and eager to experiment with drugs, sex, extreme sports, and other dangerous behaviors.
Hyperactive/impulsive ADHD symptoms can make it extremely difficult for your child to develop healthy habits and act in the service of long-term goals. And, the more he or she is labeled “bad,” the more he or she may feel as though trying to do better is pointless. He or she may doubt his or her intelligence, potential, and worth.
ADHD at Different Ages
While parenting a child with ADHD, you may notice different signs and symptoms at different ages and life stages. It’s important to note that some of these symptoms may simply be your child acting like a child. After all, few very young children have perfect impulse control!
There is a difference between “just being a kid” and struggling with ADHD. Here are some signs to look out for at different life stages.
According to Dr. Barkley, “The symptoms of ADHD appear to arise, on average, between 3 and 6 years of age. This is particularly so for those subtypes of ADHD associated with hyperactive and impulsive behavior” (“Fact Sheet,” 2). As your child approaches school age, you may notice that he or she has not grown out of tantrums, or that he or she struggles to sit still, follow instructions, and remember things.
Dr. Barkley writes, “The vast majority of those with the disorder have had some symptoms since before the age of 13 years” (“Fact Sheet,” 2). Once your child is in school, you are likely to notice more symptoms that may have been hidden earlier on.
During these years, an inattentive child “may make careless mistakes in schoolwork, have difficulty remaining focused in class, and seem not to listen when spoken to directly.” A hyperactive/impulsive child “may often fidget or squirm, have trouble staying seated, have difficulty playing or working quietly, or blurt out answers in school” (“ADHD Symptoms in Children”).
Children who are primarily inattentive may slip under the radar for longer than those who are primarily hyperactive/impulsive. You may not notice symptoms until your child begins struggling with greater academic, extracurricular, or social responsibilities. Although your child has likely begun developing coping mechanisms by the time he or she approaches the teen years, he or she may share their frustrations and express interest in an assessment to better understand their difficulties.
Teenagers with ADHD are also more likely to struggle with a reliance on technology, social media, and other things that offer immediate rewards.
Inattentive teens “may avoid homework and may be easily distracted by many things, including unrelated thoughts.” Hyperactive/impulsive teens “may feel restless, have difficulty waiting their turn, use other people’s things without asking, and intrude or take over what others are doing” (“ADHD Symptoms in Children”).
Adulthood and Long-Term Effects
If you suspect that your child has ADHD, it’s vital to seek assessment and diagnosis sooner rather than later. There are many long-term consequences that untreated ADHD can have on your child’s physical, mental, and emotional well being.
Dr. Barkley explains some of the long-term effects:
“Over the course of their lives, a significant minority of those with ADHD experience a greater risk for developing oppositional and defiant behavior (50%+), conduct problems and antisocial difficulties (25-45%), learning disabilities (25-40%), low self-esteem, and depression (25%). Approximately 5-10 percent of those with ADHD may develop more serious mental disorders, such as manic-depression or bipolar disorder. Between 10 and 20 percent may develop antisocial personality disorder by adulthood, most of whom will also have problems with substance abuse. Overall, approximately 10-25 percent develop difficulties with over-use, dependence upon, or even abuse of legal (i.e., alcohol, tobacco) or illegal substances (i.e., marijuana, cocaine, illicit use of prescription drugs, etc.)” (“Fact Sheet,” 3).
Even when they do not develop a severe disorder, adults with undiagnosed ADHD often feel lost, overwhelmed, and certain that they are inadequate in some way. For example, according to therapist Sari Solden:
“[Women who are] not hyperactive or causing trouble for other people [are] usually not diagnosed until they hit a wall… A lot of things that are simple and routine to other people—like buying groceries, making dinner, keeping track of possessions, and responding to emails—do not become automatic to these women, which can be embarrassing and exhausting” (Yagoda, “It’s Different for Girls with ADHD”).
While gender is a factor here, similar can be said of any person who grows up struggling with symptoms without knowing why. Undiagnosed ADHD can have a severe impact on individuals’ sense of confidence and empowerment, eating away at motivation, stability, and inner fulfillment. These adults often feel deeply alone.
The sooner you find out whether or not your child has ADHD, the sooner you can help him or her develop the treatment plan, routines, and self-regulation skills he or she needs to do and feel well.
Other Potential Symptom Causes
Behaviors that look like symptoms of ADHD in children may be indicators that something else is going on. Anxiety, depression, trauma, and medical issues can also drain motivation, interrupt focus, and make it difficult to stay on task. Other psychological and behavioral disorders, such as Occupational Defiance Disorder and Bipolar Disorder, can cause apparent mood swings, disruption, and high conflict with a child. Even major life changes, family issues, social stress, and academic problems can increase inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity.
Other learning and processing disorders share symptoms with ADHD, as well. For example, a child with an auditory processing disorder can also struggle with listening and following directions. ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) can also present similarly, as children with either disorder frequently struggle socially and act impulsively, among other symptoms (“ADHD or Autism?”).
In order to eliminate other potential causes and find the right way to help your child, it is vital to seek out a professional assessment and diagnosis.
Does My Child Have ADHD?
If you recognize your child in the symptoms described above, you may now feel confused and concerned about what to do next. You may fear the impact a diagnosis will have on your child’s self-confidence, or dread proving and explaining a diagnosis to your child’s school. You might worry that an official diagnosis could mean fewer academic and career opportunities for your child in the future.
It’s also possible that you feel skeptical and conflicted about childhood ADHD. Much has been said in recent years about over-diagnosis (especially for young boys), and you might even suspect that the ADHD label is a sort of “easy way out.”- Even if you don’t feel this way, you might worry about the judgments of other adults who do.
All of these concerns and doubts are normal, and it’s okay to feel as though you simply don’t know what’s best for your child. You’re not expected to have all the answers. The sooner you seek support from a licensed professional, the sooner you can gain clarity for your child, you family, and yourself.
In the meantime, you can try an unofficial self-guided assessment. Here are a few from reliable sources:
- “The ADHD Test for Children: A Symptom Checklist”: https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-test-for-kids/
- “Could Your Child Have ADHD?”: https://www.additudemag.com/adhd-symptoms-test-children/
- “Checklist: Signs and Symptoms of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)”: https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/adhd/checklist.html
Please note that while these assessments can be informative, they are not a replacement for a professional diagnosis. But, what goes into diagnosing ADHD?
Diagnosing ADHD in Children
What Causes ADHD?
Among ADHD researchers and experts, there is some disagreement about the exact causes of ADHD. In recent years, more and more has been discovered about the ADHD brain, but scientists still don’t have all the answers.
There’s one thing upon which most ADHD experts agree: the ADHD brain is wired different. Brain scans and structural imaging have revealed physical differences between the brain of someone with ADHD and the brain of someone without.
As mentioned above, people with ADHD appear to lack fully functioning dopamine receptors. In addition, according to family physician Dr. Oren Mason and educator Dr. Tamara Rosier, “Several studies have pointed to a smaller prefrontal cortex and basal ganglia, and decreased volume of the posterior inferior vermis of the cerebellum — all of which play important roles in focus and attention” (“Face It — People with ADHD Are Wired Differently”). All of this means that ADHD symptoms are caused, in part at least, not by laziness or desire to cause mayhem, but by structural neurological differences.
Lifestyle and Environment
Some specialists believe that environmental and lifestyle factors cause those brain differences, and therefore can be considered causes of ADHD. Michael Ruff, M.D., a clinical associate professor of pediatrics at Indiana University, “is convinced that at least some cases of ADHD are a byproduct of our fast-paced, stressed-out, consumer-driven lifestyles” (ADDitude editors, “Culture Vs. Biology…”). Certainly, because the brain is elastic and changeable, the way a person grows up and the habits they develop can impact the shape of their brain. Some studies seem to indicate that too much screen time can also be a factor.
There is also a genetic component to ADHD (which may or may not defy theories about environmental factors). According to ADDitude Magazine, “More than 1,800 studies have been conducted on the role of genetics in ADHD, creating strong evidence that ADHD is mostly genetic,” passed on through families. In fact, a child with ADHD is four times more likely to have a relative with ADHD. Research to pinpoint the genes thought to cause ADHD symptoms is ongoing (ADDitude editors, “Culture Vs. Biology…”).
Anxiety and depression disorders are commonly comorbid with ADHD. They can both exacerbate and result from ADHD symptoms, especially without treatment.
As mentioned above, it’s also common for individuals with ADHD to struggle with addiction and eating disorders. Other commonly comorbid disorders include Oppositional Defiant Disorder (and Conduct Disorder), Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Bipolar Disorder, Tourettes Disorder, Pervasive Developmental Disorder, learning and communication differences, and sleep disorders (Watkins, “ADHD and Comorbidity”).
In short, a child is more likely to struggle with ADHD symptoms if he or she:
- Has a relative with ADHD
- Grew up with high stress, adversity, or trauma
- Grew up with/has a nutrient deficit
- Struggles with anxiety, depression, or another psychological disorder
ADHD is a real neurobiological disorder. It is not the result of your child’s choices or attitude, and not something that is your fault. That said, your child does have some control over the severity of his or her symptoms, as well as his or her actions and behavior. He or she still has control over his or her life.
The first step to understanding what your child can do to better cope with symptom is to seek a professional diagnosis.
The Diagnosis Process
If you suspect your child might have ADHD, or if he or she has asked for an assessment, your first step is to speak to your pediatrician or family physician. You’ll want to rule out any medical causes of symptoms before moving forward with a psychological evaluation.
According to CHAAD, the National Resource Center on ADHD, the official ADHD diagnostic process is as follows:
You and your child will meet with a licensed, trusted child psychologist for a preliminary interview. Your psychologist will determine whether or not your child displays the presence and number of symptoms indicating ADHD.
The psychologist will conduct in-depth interviews with you, your co-parent, your child, and anyone else who regularly observes your child in different environments and situations. You will be asked to discuss the symptoms you observe, when they started, how much they seem to interfere with regular functioning, and more.
Then, the psychologist will complete a bio-psycho-social assessment, including your child’s medical history, family history, academic history, and more. He or she will ask you to fill out an ADHD behavior and self-report rating scale, and may ask that a teacher or another appropriate adult do so as well.
And, to rule out any other causes of your child’s symptoms, your psychologist may also recommend “intelligence testing, educational achievement testing or screening for learning disabilities,” “pediatric examination or neurodevelopmental screening to rule out any unusual medical condition,” and “vision and hearing screening, as well as formal speech and language assessment” (“Diagnosis in Children”).
You psychologist may also ask to observe your child in a natural setting.
Once you and your child have completed the evaluation steps, your psychologist will meet with you to go over the rating scales, his or her observations, and any other significant findings.
If your child does have ADHD, your psychologists can tell you whether it is primarily inattentive, hyperactive/impulsive, or combination type. You can also learn more about the severity of your child’s symptoms. Then, it’s time to discuss a treatment plan.
Treating ADHD in Children
There is no “cure” for ADHD, but that doesn’t mean your child has to struggle through the rest of his or her life. According to Dr. Barkley, “20-35 percent of children with the [ADHD] no longer have any symptoms resulting in impairment in their adult life” (“Fact Sheet,” 3). Those who continue to experience severe or moderate symptoms can develop effective coping mechanisms and gain a greater sense of empowerment over their own destinies.
Understanding Medication Options
One of the primary (but not only) methods of treating ADHD is medication. Today, there are many more medication options than there once were, which means that you and your child can find something that truly works for you.
ADHD medication treats the neurological differences that cause ADHD symptoms. When used correctly, it offers the brain a healthy amount of dopamine, which helps children feel content without searching for the next dopamine “hit” (e.g., a social media like, a text message, a jump onto the couch, etc.) This means your child will be better able to sit down and complete a task without needing something else to alleviate his or her discomfort or boredom.
ADHD medication also “lights up” the ADHD brain’s underdeveloped prefrontal cortex, along with other areas, so that it functions as though it is fully developed. This allows for greater impulse control. When used correctly, medication acts as a sort of stop sign for the brain, granting your child the newfound ability to follow impulses or dismiss them.
Many parents are understandably hesitant about giving their children psychiatric medication. While medication is not necessary, for many children with ADHD it can be life changing. There’s nothing shameful about finding a treatment that can improve your child’s social life, academic success, and overall sense of self.
Most ADHD medications are stimulants. Your child can take short-acting, immediate release medication; long lasting, extended release medication; or a combination of the two. Stimulant ADHD medication does not need to be taken every day. With the help of a psychiatrist, you and your child can determine your ideal dosage and medication type.
Today, there are a few non-stimulant ADHD medication options. While stimulant medications are considered the most effective, some individuals actually do better with non-stimulants. If you are concerned about your child taking stimulants, these options are worth a try. However, most non-stimulants have to be taken every day.
Other Methods of Approaching ADHD Treatment
ADHD medication—especially stimulant medication—does come with risks, particularly for very young children. The long-term effects of some medications are still being studied. It’s essential that you speak with your child’s pediatrician and psychiatrist to understand potential side effects, as well as other steps you can take to promote your child’s wellbeing. It’s also important to know the signs of a negative reaction, including insomnia and an elevated heart rate, so you can monitor your child’s overall wellbeing and stop medication if it’s not a good fit.
In short, ADHD medication is not for everyone, and you are not a bad parent if you decided to forgo medication in lieu of other treatment options. As you support your child, whether or not to offer medication is ultimately your decision to make.
A child therapist and/or ADHD specialist can help your child improve impulse control and self-regulation, as well as alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression, and more. ADHD Naturally is a great resource for more information on vitamins and supplements that help with ADHD symptoms. Other natural ADHD treatment options include:
- Avoiding synthetic additives in your child’s diet
- Reducing or eliminating sugar and corn syrup intake
- Incorporating Omega-3 fish oils into your child’s diet
- Incorporating multi-vitamins into your child’s diet
- Offering stimulating toys, such as fidget cubes and spinners
- Prioritizing exercise and physical activity
- Ensuring your child gets enough sleep
There are also many, many things parents can do to help children function and feel better at home and at school. But first, it’s important to remember that ADHD is not a curse, and your child is not doomed or broken. There are actually many benefits to ADHD that too often go ignored.
Positive Effects of ADHD
It’s undeniable that ADHD presents many challenges for children. However, what looks like a harmful symptom in one setting or situation can become a benefit in the next. Some characteristics of ADHD, especially when properly harnessed, can help your child thrive and excel.
Children with ADHD are often:
- Creative and imaginative (day-dreamers are often artists and inventors!)
- Flexible and adaptable
- Enthusiastic, spontaneous, and adventurous
- Energetic and driven to follow their passions
- Capable of deft associative thinking
- Witty and entertaining
- Observant of details that others might miss
- Capable of innovative problem-solving
- Open to new ideas (because they’re carrying so many around already!)
- Persistent and resilient, trusting that something better is around the corner
While rigid classrooms and formal environments are sometimes not the best fit for a child with ADHD, that doesn’t mean your child isn’t intelligent, sensitive, driven, and full of ideas that can make a positive difference in the world.
Children thrive in environments that not only offer stability and structure, but also nurture their best qualities and allow them to be themselves. As a parent, you can help your child engage his or her strengths.
Tips for Parenting a Child with ADHD
No matter how challenging parenting can sometimes feel, please know that you are not a bad parent just because your child has ADHD. And, you are not a bad parent if you don’t know quite what to do. ADHD is complicated, and every child with ADHD is a different, unique person with a different, unique experience. There is no one-size-fits-all ADHD treatment plan or magic wand. But, beyond seeking the help of a mental health professional (which is important!), there are actionable steps you can take at home to help your child cope with symptoms and unlock his or her full potential.
Helping Your Child With School
Many children with ADHD struggle academically. Help your child by:
- Creating a positive, collaborative relationship with his or her teachers, in which you act as a team
- Encouraging creativity and unique perspectives
- Allowing your child to do things his or her own way, as long as that means homework still gets done correctly and on time
- Talking with your child about his or her academic experience, offering validation, support, and reminders of his or her strengths
- Asking your child what he or she needs to stay focused and engaged in class, and looking into non-distracting stimuli (e.g., doodling, clay, etc.)
- Establishing reasonable homework routines
- Utilizing timers and lists to break tasks into manageable chunks, with breaks and rewards in between
- Offering your child other ways to learn information, including games, visual lesson, auditory lessons, and more
- Keeping track of your child’s grades and achievements and making sure to offer praise when praise is due
- Teaching and practicing memory tricks
- Creating a calendar to help your child understand when assignments are due, when to start, and how to keep on track
- Establishing a regular family dinner and a regular sleep schedule to boost wellbeing and brain function
- Maintaining consistent rules, even when you want to make exceptions
- Collecting emergency back-up items, such as extra pens, notebooks, and other school supplies, so your child isn’t scrambling to find a misplaced essential
- Limiting access to screens before homework is done and/or utilizing website-blocking tools and apps
- Teaching how to prioritize tasks using lists, color-coding, or whatever works for your child
- Establishing a space where your child can complete homework without distractions
- Collaborating with your child to offer the help he or she needs most
Helping Your Child with Social Skills and Personal Growth
Although many skills that help children succeed in school can also help them succeed in life, children with ADHD struggle to make and keep friends and to form healthy relationships. And, even children who excel in school may be disorganized and scattered in the home, or overwhelmed and distressed inside. Help your child navigate social situations and develop positive life skills by:
- Engaging in meaningful conversation and modeling appropriate conversational skills, such as turn-taking and attentive listening
- Gently alerting your child when he or she has interrupted someone and inviting him or her to apologize and acknowledge what that person was saying
- Organizing structured, consistent play dates with engaging activities
- Encouraging your child’s honesty and openness while pointing out potentially inappropriate conversation topics and harsh tones
- Gently inviting your child back into the present moment when you notice his or her attention has wandered
- Allowing appropriate outlets for pent-up energy, such as time outside and physical activities
- Modeling and encouraging eye contact
- Teaching how to recognize and read nonverbal communication
- Teaching emotional regulation skills
- Being proactive and inviting classmates and neighborhood children to play dates and events at your home
- Signing your child up for something he or she is interested in, such as a sports team or summer camp
- Encourage positive self-talk, self-compassion, and self-forgiveness
- Giving your child a private journal and prompting him or her to use it regularly
- Rehearsing responses to teasing and bullying that are non-violent and non-confrontational
- Letting your child know that his or her emotions are valid, and offering an accepting ear when he or she needs you
- Allowing your child to make mistakes and grow at his or her own pace
Helping Others (Including Teachers) Understand Childhood ADHD
Sometimes, other parents, adult family members, teachers, and other grown-ups in your child’s life just won’t understand ADHD symptoms in children. They may unfairly judge you or your child, or cast doubts on the validity of your child’s diagnosis. This can be defeating and painful for you, your child, and your family as a whole.
First, it’s important to remind yourself that your child’s challenges are not your fault, or his or her fault. You are not a bad parent, and he or she is not a bad child.
Next, learn more about how you can advocate for your child, and how you can respond to criticisms and judgments.
Advocating for Your Child at School
Most schools have protections and accommodations in place for children with documented learning disabilities like ADHD. It’s important to know your specific school’s rules and regulations. But, in general, you can advocate for your child by:
- Collecting and presenting all of the appropriate diagnostic paperwork
- Explaining your child’s medication schedule and treatment plan to the appropriate school authorities
- Getting to know your child’s teachers and approaching them in a friendly, open way. Don’t expect a negative reaction where none may be!
- Asking your child’s teacher what accommodations they can offer, and explaining your child’s strengths and needs
- Requesting that your child have a seat in the front of the class, where he or she can’t fade into the background or act out unnoticed
- Requesting regular check-ins with your child’s teacher
- Asking about concentration aids that the teacher welcomes in the classroom
- Pushing for all the accommodations you’re allowed when your child needs them. If your child is entitled to extra time for a test or paper, he or she should have it!
- Teaching your child how to advocate for him or herself
Advocating for Your Child with Caretakers, Family Members, and Others
You will likely need explain childhood ADHD to some key people in your child’s life. You can look out for your child by:
- Learning a “basics of ADHD” elevator pitch to help others understand
- Explaining your child’s particular symptoms and needs patiently
- Allowing questions, even ones you’ve answered 1000 times before
- Offering sources and easily-digestible resources to those who express skepticism
- Pointing others to trusted resources to do independent research
- Giving your child’s temporary caretakers (e.g., babysitters) the tools and activities they might need to manage outbursts or keep your child on task
- Encouraging your child to speak up for him or herself. Letting your child speak from personal experience is often the best way to clear negative misconceptions about ADHD.
Responding to Judgment
No matter how hard you try to support your child, manage symptoms, and maintain your own patience and understanding, you may run into difficult situations now and again. Sometimes, other parents or adults might say something about your child that simply stings; even worse, they might do so in your child’s presence.
When someone says something harsh or judgmental about your parenting or your child’s character, or when someone shoots you a dirty look, remind yourself that that person likely doesn’t know your child or understand how ADHD functions. He or she likely doesn’t know how hard you and your child are trying.
In most cases, when a stranger judges you, you don’t have to say anything back at all. But, if a family member or friend judges you or your child, try some of the advocating tips listed above. Focus on educating the other person with patience.
Most importantly, remind your child that ADHD doesn’t make him or her broken or bad. Reinforce positive behaviors, stick to productive rules and routines, and nurture your child’s strengths. And, help your child appreciate all of the qualities that make him or her special and unique.
Understanding Is the First Step
Regardless of your child’s symptoms and their severity, the more you learn about ADHD, the better equipped you’ll be to offer the support, skills, and strategies he or she needs to develop into a healthy, happy adult. For more online resources, check out Ableize ADHD Resources to help you develop a further understanding of your child’s needs.
Your child is much more than a set of symptoms or a diagnosis. By educating yourself about ADHD, seeking professional assessment and treatment, and continuing to speak directly with your child about his or her experience, you can him or her feel confident, empowered, and ready to take on the world.