Your son or daughter has been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). You’ve done your due diligence, learning about the condition and how the symptoms affect him, academically and socially. Great. But have you shared what ADHD means with your child? Does she understand why she does things that upset others? Does he know why he is taking medication and how it works? Saying, “You are so hyper all of the time” makes your child feel he is doing something wrong. Saying, “Sometimes your brakes don’t work so well, so you say and do things that might upset your friends” is better.
How Well Should You Explain What ADHD Means?
Explaining ADHD to your child, and giving him the words to tell you how his symptoms affect him, will allow you to work more effectively with doctors, teachers, and family members. Martha’s third-grade teacher tells her mom that she is not paying attention during math period. Martha knows how ADHD affects her and knows the reason for her inattention. “I sit next to a window in math class, and I can’t filter out the noises coming from the playground. The noises make it hard for me to listen to the teacher.” Martha’s mom asks the teacher to move her daughter away from the window. Her grades improve.
Alex, a fourth-grader, gets into trouble running around and bothering the other kids during lunchtime. Like Martha, Alex knows about ADHD and knows how to talk about it. His dad asks him why he is acting up. “Dad, my brakes work fine until around 11:30. Then, they don’t work too good, and it is hard for me not to run around.” His dad asks, “When do your brakes start to work again?” Alex says, “When I go back to class after lunch.” Alex’s dad realizes that his morning dose of medication wears off around noon and that his afternoon dose doesn’t kick in until he returns to class. That explains his hyperactivity in the cafeteria. He asks Alex’s doctor to switch to a longer-acting medication, and the lunch-period problems stop.
If your child doesn’t understand how ADHD affects him, he can’t tell you what’s bothering him. Worse, he feels bad about his behaviors because he doesn’t know what’s causing them.
Using the Right Words to Explain the Meaning of ADHD
There are three groups of behaviors that you may need to explain. Some kids will have one of these, some two, and others all three.
- Hyperactivity: difficulty sitting still; being fidgety and squirmy.
- Inattention: This might be noticed as distractibility (difficulty blocking out unimportant auditory or visual stimulation, having a short attention span); lack of attention (difficulty blocking out internal thoughts); executive function difficulties (problems with organization of materials and thoughts, resulting in losing, forgetting, or misplacing things; difficulty organizing and using information; difficulty with time management).
- Impulsivity: speaking or acting without thinking.
Once you know which behaviors your child exhibits, use the right words to describe them. Here’s what I tell patients: