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“My Child Was Diagnosed at Age 3 — and Thank God She Was.”

Many clinicians insist that ADHD evaluations are worthless before age 5 or 6. But I knew something was wrong with my 3-year-old. Deep in my bones and my heart, I knew. So I began fighting early and often until my daughter finally got the evaluation she deserved. And, no, age 3 was not too early. It was almost too late.

How many times was she sent to the office? Was she aggressive? Did she nap today? How many outbursts did she have? Are we going to have a tantrum leaving today?

On an almost daily basis, these are the thoughts that bombard my brain as I drive to my daughter’s school. The uncertainties are endless — and so, too, is the worry.

When I found out I was going to be a mother, this is not how I pictured preschool pickup. In my vision, she ran up to me — a smile spread across her face, so excited to see me — embraced me with a bear hug, and unpacked her entire day for me. Oh, how I was mistaken.

As I pull around the circle drive of my daughters’ school, the anxiety creeps in. As I turn off the car, I engage in a personal pep-talk while checking off the list in my head.

Incentive sucker waiting in the car? Check. Soothing music queued up? Check. Favorite blanket on hand? Wait, where is her blanket?!? Panic washes over me.

[Click to Read: When Toddler Tantrums Are Actually ADHD —Early Signs of ADD and Emotional Dysregulation]

I tell myself it will be fine, but I know that one item missing will cause a tailspin that sets the tone for the evening. All I can do is pray for the best. Three deep breaths and let’s do this.

Our oldest daughter, Gwen, just turned 4. She is vivacious, tenacious, bright, and independent. She feels well beyond her years, but emotionally she cannot handle the stresses of life.

For as long as I can remember, I have asked myself “What is going on in her sweet little brain? I don’t understand why she doesn’t ‘get it’ like her peers. Why does dropping her off take 20 minutes, when the other Moms are in and out in 5? Can she please just LISTEN, one time? Someone, please help!”

Two years ago, she became a big sister and this was a very jarring life change for our whole family — shifting from 2:1 to 2:2. Sharing the spotlight was a pivotal shift in the at-home dynamic, and that was when we really started to see Gwen’s behaviors spin out of control.

[Read: ADHD in 4-Year-Old — Safe to Diagnose and Treat?]

Did I do this to her? Did making her a big sister cause this pain? I was wracked with guilt.

The answer is simple, but has taken an army of friends, family, and medical professionals to sink in: No. No, I am not the cause of this.

I am constantly reminding myself that it isn’t my fault. As I write this, tears well up in my eyes, wishing I could take it away. The impulsive behavior is so hard to watch. She reacts before she can even grasp the situation. The pain I see in her eyes as she realizes what she has done or said is debilitating.

“I’m so sorry, Mom,” she says.

“I didn’t mean to, Mom,” she says.

Biting my tongue in frustration, I try not to let the words hurt any more than the transgression already has.

I just have to embrace her and not let her see the tears or frustration. I put on a façade, I pretend everything is OK, and keep on praying she wake up one morning and the behaviors will be gone.

Why won’t anyone listen? Why is everyone afraid to recognize that there is a problem going on? I understand that she is young, but I am begging you to meet her and help us.

The conversation — with medical professionals, counselors, the school district and friends — began when my daughter was 3. The emotions flowed as I refused to back down. The convincing I had to do was tedious and endless as the behaviors at home and in school worsened.

Finally, we got in for an ADHD evaluation. I believe it was due to my persistence and the degree to which I annoyed the nurses. They finally caved, thinking I was a hypochondriac parent with toddler problems. I am so thankful they did because every medical professional we have seen since has made me feel like I am not crazy — finally, my concerns were validated when the doctors recognized that she does, in fact, have ADHD.

We have traveled a long road, and a longer one stretches out before us. As I write this, we are now a week in to starting ADHD medication for the first time and I am finally seeing my child back and learning.

Last night before bed she said, “Mommy, that white medicine makes me feel happy and a lot calmer.”

I know the feeling, my love. We will get through this together. One day at a time.

[Get This Free Guide: 13-Steps to Raising a Child with ADHD]

10 Comments & Reviews

  1. I agree that 3 is not to young for a diagnosis. My son was 2 when I started observing ADHD behaviors, which I recognized due to having observed them in neices and nephews who were older and already disgnosed. It took almost a year of nagging before I got my son diagnosed. He started medication at age 4, and excelled at school after that.

    One caution I’d offer though is to watch for changes in behavior as your child reaches middle school because medication can mask other issues. My son wanted to try doing without medication, so the doctor and I let him last summer. He did pretty well so we agreed to let him continue into 8th grade without meds. Then we started noticing other problem behaviors. He just turned 14 and has been diagnosed with Autism, Level 1 (formerly Aspreger’s).

    1. Thank you for posting. You articulated advice similar to what I was retyping to give, but far more articulately. So happy for you and your son! I hope it emboldens him to know and celebrate his brilliance and difference… what my son struggled with most in high school was the repetition in class when he learned, and thought, much more quickly and differently. In addition, he tends to “feel” everyone else’s emotions, which can be particularly rough in the high school environment. Knowing now should really be a help; please watch closely for signs of depression, and keep communication open with him. Best to you,

      1. Yikes! Sorry… typing this on my iPad and posting before I checked it makes me sound illiterate. So embarrassing; hope the essence of the message still made it through! : /

  2. So happy for you you, that you challenge don’t the doctors and have a path that is working for now! Please consider keeping the door open for assessing for potential of comorbidity of autism, specifically high functioning (formerly recognized a school Aspergers)… after far too. At years of missed diagnosis opportunities for my son, we skipped quickly through a misdiagnosis of ADHD and horrible bout wig stimulant meds to an ASD diagnosis, and it changed, frankly I believe, saved, his life. Through the process, I learned I probably have both a Touch of ADD and ASD myself. Especially given how they manifest differently for females, I never knew, and always performed extremely well at work and school, but struggled in relationships. T

  3. I am so glad you persisted. We saw symptoms of adhd as young as age 2 in our son (who is going to be 15 next month). I remember dreading picking him up from preschool, as I often had to have a “behavior meeting”–albeit brief–when I picked him up. Then in Kindergarten it was the same. In first grade his teacher actually called me at the end of the year and told me that the Principal told her to tell me “many of the parents of kids in John’s class don’t want him in their class next year.” What on earth was I supposed to do with that information (I wished I’d asked that question at the time, but I was so blindsided I didn’t ask it.) I wish I could say I am no longer resentful of that, but I still am. We put our son on Concerta at the end of 2nd grade, after trying some homeopathic meds that worked but not enough. The meds helped tremendously and he still takes a 27mg pill each school morning, but not weekends nor summer. We did notice it keeping him from growing in late elementary school, but he has since caught up with his peers. It was interesting that you mentioned the birth of your second child possibly influencing your daughter’s behavior. We saw that, too, when John’s brother was born 2 years after him. I know that did not cause the adhd, but we definitely saw a shift in him after that event. Blessings to you as your raise your children. I know now why they say child-rearing is not for the faint of heart!

  4. I am in the same situation with my 6 year old. I am a special education teacher and when my little one was about 3 I felt that she was different than the kids in her daycare class and by 4 I knew something was up. Eventually, I had to ask her Pre-K teacher if she was the most wiggly in class (I needed a frame of reference) and she told me yes. That is when I started the process of having her evaluated for ADHD. This year she is in Kindergarten and things have just gotten worse, not only in school but at home as well. Almost everything we do is a struggle and it breaks my heart. She gets in trouble multiple times a day and has serious difficulties regulating her emotions. She is so incredibly smart and luckily has an amazingly understanding teacher but that may not always be the case and I worry that she will hate school or that her teachers won’t like her. I’m a teacher, I get it. We have tried changing her to a high protein, low carb diet with no artificial colors or flavorings but I can’t control her diet when she isn’t with me. We have tried supplements like magnesium and omegas but none of that stuff seems to work. She has also been seeing a therapist which is as much for me as it is for her since I just need someone to tell me I am doing good things for my kid. Her therapist suggested medication as well as the doctor that diagnosed her with ADHD. I have struggled with the decision to put her on medication and went so far as to talk to her pediatrician about it but he was not very responsive. He said he would rather wait until she is older, which I totally get and kept comparing my child to his own, stating his kid was the same and was just busy but never really got into trouble. That’s not my kid. Daily, she gets into trouble and gets angry and is so impulsive and has meltdowns. I feel stuck at this point and like we are just surviving day to day and I don’t want to feel like that but I am not sure what to do at this point. Anyone have any advice?

    1. I am a pediatrician, but have studied behavioral disorders extensively. I see nearly all the kids in my town that have behavioral disorders (my town only has 10,000 people though). But I also have ADHD. I was diagnosed at a young age but not treated until later in life.

      I don’t push medication if it’s not needed, however, there is more than just behaviors to consider. Your daughter does not and can not understand that her brain is different than other people’s. Therefore, she does not realize what causes her to do the things she gets in trouble for. To her, she’s being herself but no one “likes” it and she doesn’t understand why she’s the one who gets in trouble. That quickly turns into thinking something is wrong with her. One of two things ends up happening.

      Either, she thinks she gets in trouble for everything and can’t do anything right, so why try? In her mind, if she’s going to get in trouble anyway, she starts to not care. As she gets older, she may do things she knows she’s not supposed to, but “getting in trouble” doesn’t matter to her anymore.

      Or, she will start to think she’s not good enough for anyone and begins to become less social. As time goes on that turns into low self esteem, which comes with all its own problems. It may sound drastic but you’d be surprised how feelings of self worth, even at 6 years old, sticks around for life.

      Most people who haven’t gone through it, don’t realize the internal struggle of the child, and many doctors are so “scientific” they don’t realize there is much more than just “behavior” to consider. I have lots of 6 year olds on meds and it has changed the entire family dynamic. I do recommend counseling first, as well as Cognitive Based Therapy, but it sounds like you are on top of all that. Personally, I would start medication. Just start at the lowest dose and be aware that the first medication may not be the right fit. That doesn’t mean another one will act the same way. If you feel like any medication changes your child’s personality, it’s the wrong medication or the wrong dose. Ideally you want her to realize she doesn’t get in trouble as much, but you don’t want her to “feel” different. You should be the one to notice the changes, while she’s just glad she’s not getting in trouble!

    2. If she’s getting in trouble daily and you’re just surviving day to day, what kind of quality of life do any of you have? This is exactly why we made the decision to try ADHD medication with our son. He was sad and defeated ALL THE TIME. It was no way to live. He was age 6, because that’s when he was diagnosed, but I wished so much that someone would have suggested evaluation when he was 5 and started kindergarten, because that was one of the worst years.

      ADDitude Community Moderator, Parenting ADHD Trainer & Author, Mom to teen w/ ADHD, LDs, and autism

  5. I agree children can definitely be diagnosed with behavioral disorders at and even before 3. But there are a couple things you should know before you put a child under 6 on ADHD medication (you very well may, but for other readers).

    Those symptoms sound a whole lot more like Disruptive Mood Dysrrgulation Disorder than ADHD. DMDD can and often is diagnosed before the age of 3. The symptoms can be very similar to ADHD but are more severe. It can be treated with Intuniv, which is a great non-stimulant, that I prescribe often. In some kids it works well for ADHD also. I know what you mean about a doctor giving in and testing for ADHD, but if all they are going to do is something like the Vanderbilt forms, those are designed for 6 year olds, 3 or 4 year olds are going to fail it because they aren’t developmentally mature enough to do what it asks. If your doctor is just “appeasing” you, make sure other disorders are considered as well.

    Second, only Adderall is approved for 5 year olds and no stimulant is approved for younger than that. Obviously that doesn’t mean a child can’t take it, but just watch for unknown side effects since it hasn’t been studied in that age group.

    Now, none of this is to say your child doesn’t have ADHD at age 3, my only goal is to make sure there isn’t anything else going on that your dr is overlooking since they didn’t want to do anything in the first place! Unfortunately that happens more than anybody wants to admit. I am so glad to hear your daughter is doing better, and best wishes to your whole family!!

  6. I was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of four. I’m 28 now, and I’ve been on medication ever since. I used to think I didn’t need my medication, but I came to realize I did a few years ago.

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