Talking About ADHD

Having “The Talk” with Black Children Impacted by ADHD and Race

A Black mother with ADHD shares her advice for having “the talk” — teaching her Black children the racial facts of life — while also explaining how they can manage their attention deficit.

Ideas and brainstorm concept. Happy child school student with lightbulb and chalk question marks
Ideas and brainstorm concept. Happy child school student with lightbulb and chalk question marks

By now, you’ve heard of “The Talk.” This is how the parents of African-American children explain the racial “facts of life” to their sons and daughters.

It is the greatest joy — and the greatest burden — to bring children into the world. The challenges of parenthood multiply with Black children; more so when they have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD). How we handle those challenges can make the difference between success or failure for all kids. For Black children it can mean the difference between life and death.

Black Children with ADHD Face Unique Challenges

Children of color must learn to navigate certain challenges. We expect the challenges of ADHD. But they also navigate the racism baked into society. Systemic racism is rampant in our education and criminal justice systems. With children diagnosed with ADHD, we worry about bad decisions and risky behavior. Parents of Black children with ADHD also worry about how implicit bias and stereotypes affect them. Our children will face harsher discipline, missed opportunities, and even adultification, particularly of our girls (treating them as older than they actually are, including sexualizing them).

I was a single mother, struggling with my own ADHD, while raising two sons with ADHD — on the South Side of Chicago no less! It was a balancing act. I had to share the things all Black children need to know to survive (“The Talk”).

I also had to share the “extra” things they need to know and do because of ADHD. How could I do that without scaring them to the point of anxiety? It was especially tricky during the tumultuous tween years. Despite a few stumbles, we made it, so I’d like to share a few things that helped.

Black Children with ADHD: Meet Them on Their Own Level

This may seem obvious, but it’s important: Children with ADHD are often several years less mature than their peers. Both of my sons were academically advanced, but lacking some social/emotional skills. We had conversations about their safety: what they should do in an encounter with the police, how to be careful about where they were, what they were doing, and whom they were with. I tried to adjust what I was saying so they could understand and relate. My sons are seven years apart. Conversations with the 11-year-old were very different from those I had with the 18-year-old. But I tailored all of our conversations to their unique personalities and development.

The Dangers Black Children Might Face

I am an advocate for honesty with children about the challenges they face. After all, how can they navigate them if they aren’t prepared for them? This applies to both their ADHD and the challenges that come with being Black. Helping them identify how ADHD affects them — both negatively and positively — is important in helping them develop coping skills. So is helping them understand and identify the problems they will face because they are Black.

Role-play is a great vehicle for that, and if you can turn it into a game, all the better. For example, we spent a lot of time in the car. I would use this time to throw scenarios at them. We would talk out how they would handle a possible incident: “What would you do if the police stopped you walking home from school?”

[How Race Impacts ADHD Diagnosis and Treatment in Children]

Black Children Deserve Honesty

My children always knew when I was angry, sad, or hurt. It didn’t matter if it was about something they’d done or something someone did to them. My own issues with emotional regulation and frustration tolerance resulting from ADHD ensured that they never wondered how I felt when staff followed us in a store. Or when police pulled us over for a bogus broken tail light. Or when officers approached our vehicle with guns drawn.

Black children need to see their parent’s reactions when injustices occur. Life will provide plenty of opportunities. It’s important to use them to discuss those emotions, and to understand and work through them. It’s also important to help them be aware of their own volatile emotions when those situations arise — and develop skills to handle them.

Be a Role Model for Black Children

I let them see my reactions, but I was also a role model for how to handle tricky situations. Their understanding that I also dealt with intense emotions because of ADHD was helpful. It allowed me to show them that you could have these feelings of anger or hurt, but still deal with the situation in a way that both kept you safe and kept your dignity. It was important they saw me maintain my cool despite my anger at the situation.

[Read: We Need Equity in ADHD Health Care for African American and Latinx Children]

I was calm while demanding to speak to a store manager when staff were following us around the store. I was calm while explaining why we would not buy anything from their store. I was still calm as I told the manager I would report the incident to the corporate office. They needed to see me politely dealing with police officers during the traffic stop. But they also needed to see me file a complaint once we were home. We must demonstrate how to survive these encounters while maintaining our dignity. We must call out racism when we see it and stand up for ourselves. That’s the only way they’ll learn to stand up for themselves and stay alive.

Life is hard. It is even harder when you have ADHD and are Black. Depression is a very real issue in the Black community. And anxiety and depression are prevalent in folks with ADHD. Finding humor, even in absurd situations, will keep depression and anxiety at bay. We found things to laugh about, including that ruined trip to the store and even the traffic stop by police.

Give Black Children Time and Space to Process

This is heavy stuff. Having ADHD can be difficult. Being Black can make it even harder. Give your kids time to process things that happen to them. The same is true for incidents they’ll see in the media, at school, or with friends. Encourage them to talk about what happened and work through the issues. Let them think about it in their own time. Then be available to talk when they are ready.

Children with ADHD are more likely to have issues with impulsivity and emotional regulation. These conversations and strategies may seem logical for any tween with ADHD. But Black tweens with ADHD probably need to be even more aware. They need to have these conversations more often. And they need to know these strategies well.

Black Children with ADHD: Next Steps

Evelyn Polk Green, M.S.Ed., is a past president of ADDA and CHADD. Evelyn works as an administrator with the Chicago Public Schools, planning professional development programs for early childhood special education professionals and families. She holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees from National Louis University and a master’s degree from Northern Illinois University.

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