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It’s Not an Excuse. Or a Label. Or a Weight to Carry. It’s Just Who You Are.

I don’t talk to my daughter enough about her ADHD — in part because I don’t want her to feel different or burdened, but also because it’s just really, really difficult to strike that perfect balance between explaining her brain chemistry, encouraging her to do her best, and reminding her that I’ll love her no matter what.

Mother explaining ADHD to her child at bedtime
Mother explaining ADHD to her child at bedtime

I hesitate to talk openly to my daughter about her attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). What if she feels like something’s wrong with her? What if blaming an acronym for her behavior makes her feel helpless? What if it lowers her self-esteem or makes her feel different in a bad way? All of these questions shroud, but don’t fully hide our elephant in the room.

I know she knows something about ADHD; I know she knows I know… but we aren’t talking about it. Not often enough, anyway.

Experts urge parents to talk to their kids about their ADHD, and while I see the many benefits — helping them understand the biology of their brains, teaching them coping mechanisms, giving them more control — I still struggle to actually open my mouth and say the words that need to be said.

We All Saw It Coming

We came home late from a fun evening out recently, and I sent my two daughters upstairs to quickly get ready for bed while I unloaded the car. My daughter who doesn’t have ADHD immediately complied, but the fun evening had left my daughter with ADHD too hyper to even change into pajamas. She was talking a mile a minute and bouncing all around the house. It was late, my nerves were frayed, and I really needed her to calm down and get. to. bed.

“OK, that’s enough,” my husband told her. “It’s time to go get ready for bed.”

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have ADHD?]

Hyper immediately flipped to meltdown. She protested loudly and stomped up the stairs, only to turn around, right outside her sleeping brother’s bedroom, and scream at us about the unfairness of it all.

She knows she isn’t allowed to make noise upstairs when her brother is sleeping — and yelling is a definite no-no. She received an immediate consequence, which only caused more screaming (in her room, with the door shut). My husband and I sighed and retreated to a quiet place.

A few minutes later, repentant, she calmly found us and wrapped her arms around me.

I wondered: “Should I explain ADHD right now? Should I tell her why her brain was suddenly hard to control?” I didn’t know if it would excuse the behavior. I didn’t know if it would make her feel terrible. But I took a breath and plowed forward.

The Moment of Truth

I put my hands on her cheeks and said, “You know you have ADHD, right?”

[Explaining ADHD to Your Child]

A solemn nod.

“It makes your brain go so fast!” I continued. “This is so great because it makes you super smart, you learn things so quickly, you’re creative, and you have a lot of good ideas. And it made you super hyper and happy tonight!”

She grinned. “But it’s hard sometimes to slow and calm down your brain. And sometimes, that makes it hard for you to control your temper.”

Big breath. Did I just give her an excuse for losing her temper?

“And that’s something you have to learn to control.”

Another big breath. Now am I asking too much of her?

“Because when you let your temper get out of control, it can hurt others — like waking up your brother tonight.”

Panic. Am I going to make her feel she’s defective?

“You’re calm now, and you’re feeling good,” I continued. “You’re understanding what happened, right?”

She nodded yes.

I touched the top of her head. “So make a memory right now of this moment, and try and remember how good it feels to understand your brain. Try and remember this calm moment. The next time your brain goes so fast you feel you can’t control it, try and pull up this calm memory.”

Did I just ask her to do the impossible?

I gave her a big hug. “You’re doing a good job. You’ll get better and better.”

She apologized, hugged me, and calmly went to bed to wait for us to kiss her goodnight. My eyes filled with tears as they met my husband’s gaze. “Did I do OK?” I asked. “Asking her to remember this feeling the next time she’s upset — how can she do that? Am I putting too much pressure on her? Should I have left ADHD out of it?”

He wrapped me in a hug, and said, “No, you said it perfectly. You explained it so well.”

As the carrier of ADHD in our partnership, my husband is my barometer on how well I’m handling our daughter. I do the research; he lives the life. Am I putting the research into practice correctly? His assurance calmed my fears for the moment.

But I still doubt.

Every parent doubts their reactions, rules, and reasoning from time to time. But I find I doubt everything — every day — when it comes to my daughter with ADHD. Even during this one conversation about ADHD, my doubts contradicted each other and I felt a helplessness I rarely feel with my other children. Will I be enough? Will she maintain her bounce and self-esteem her whole life through?

If you’re a parent like me struggling with how to talk to your child about ADHD, all I know is that we must keep taking deep breaths and trying. As for me, I make sure to always give my daughter a kiss goodnight.

[Your Child’s ADHD Is an Iceberg]