Think Before You "Dys" a Kid with Attention Deficit

There are words to describe my ADHD child's challenges. So why aren’t there nice neat labels for “creative artist” or “deeply intuitive child,” or her other many strengths?
Mom Is the Word | posted by Jennifer Gay Summers

I found out the Latin root of 'dysfunction' was 'badly' or 'ill.' That’s a negative stew to dump on your child.

— Jennifer Gay Summers

“Mom!” I need another pencil!” Lee slumped down in her chair at the kitchen table, an angry red flush spreading across her cheeks. Then she flipped two broken pencils onto the floor and kicked them across the room. I brought over a sharp pencil and put my hand on her shoulder.

“Don’t be so hard on yourself.”

“But I hate writing essays.”

“Of course you do. You have dysgraphia. It makes it hard for you to write.”

“Another dys?” Lee struggled to hold back tears, starting to write and jabbing through her paper. “I’m sick and tired of all these dyses! How many more am I going to get?”

I put my arms around her and held her. I had tried to explain her challenges, and, in doing so, I’d stomped on her self-esteem. Way to go, Mom.

When a parent first hears the word ADHD, it’s only the beginning for many of us. The doctor tells us that there can be “comorbid conditions” that come along with ADHD. When I hear comorbid, it makes me think of someone on a gurney being wheeled into a mortuary. Comorbid conditions can include sensory processing disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and learning disorders, like dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dysgraphia. That’s a heck of a lot of “dys-"es.

I looked them up in the dictionary in an effort to diagnose the roots of these scary labels. I found out the Latin root of “dysfunction” was “badly” or “ill.” The word “deficit” meant “less than expected,” and disorder meant “away from something.” That’s a negative stew to dump on your child.

My mission was to see Lee without the dyses, to home in on her strengths and and abilities. I always accentuate the positive and praise her gifts. Why isn’t there a label for creative artist, generous heart, deeply intuitive child?

I know I can’t change the labels. Doctors, psychologists, and neurologists need and use labels for diagnosis and treatment. Parents need positive words of hope and love when their child runs into challenges. It would have been better for me to tell Lee, “I can see you’re having a hard time writing. Let’s use the accommodation you have to do assignments on the computer. You can dictate your essay to me.”

Lee will have to come up with explanations for her challenges as she travels down the road to adulthood. She’ll need to know what they are in order to find tools to cope with them. But when you have a teenage daughter with ADHD who’s sensitive to criticism or rejection, who’s trying to find her identity as she starts high school, she doesn’t need to have her dyses lined up in a row.

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