Talking About ADHD

Explaining ADHD to Your Child

How doctors and parents of children with attention deficit disorder can tell a child he has ADHD, frame the news positively, and answer the question: “What is ADHD?”

Mother explaining diagnosis to son with ADHD outside
Mother explaining diagnosis to son with ADHD outside

Mommy, what is ADHD?

Parents often ask me whether young children with ADHD should be told they have the disorder. And, if so, how these kids should be told.

Well, I feel strongly that children should be told. Keeping the diagnosis a secret accomplishes nothing. In fact, it does a disservice to all involved by implying that there is something bad or shameful about ADHD.

Any child old enough to go through psychological testing is old enough to be told the test results (though younger children need less detail than older kids). Often, the best approach is for both the child’s parents and his doctor to tell the child he has ADHD and to answer the question, What is ADHD?. In any case, the news should be framed positively.

Here is how I recently broke the news to one of my patients – an eight-year-old named Jed. (Jed’s parents and I had agreed in advance that I would talk to Jed in their presence. If you’re having this conversation with your child, of course, you’ll be describing both your role and that of your child’s doctor.)

“You’ve come here a couple of times, Jed, and you’ve answered lots of questions and played some funny games. Now I’m going to tell you what we’ve found out. Would you like to know?” Jed nods. “Well,” I say, “I have great news. You have an awesome mind. You are one cool dude. Your brain is just spectacular.”

Jed has never heard this before. He usually hears just the opposite.

“You have something called ADHD,” I continue. “And guess what? I have it, too. ADHD means you have a race-car brain. Do you know what a turbocharged engine is?” Jed nods. I don’t know if he really knows what it means — I certainly don’t. But like me, he’s heard the term and he can guess.

“Well, Jed, you have a turbocharged brain. It can go really, really fast. The only problem is that sometimes it goes too fast. And it needs special motor oil so it won’t overheat. But with the right brakes and oil, it wins lots of races.”

Intrigued, Jed eyes me. He wants to hear more.

“You know how you sometimes have trouble paying attention in school?” Jed nods. “That’s because your mind is zipping around all over the place, bursting with new ideas. And that’s great! That’s why you’ll do amazing things and have fun all your life. But you need help taking care of your race-car brain, so I’m going to teach you how to put on the brakes.”

If your child has questions, answer them. Just keep the answers simple, brief, and upbeat. Parents of children with ADHD certainly need to learn all they can about the disorder. The same is true for teachers who have students with ADHD.

But children with ADHD do not need to learn more. It’s important for them not to feel defined by ADHD. Having attention-deficit disorder is a bit like being left-handed. It is part of who you are, not who you are.

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