What Your Child Would Tell You About ADHD If They Had the Words

The emotional toll of ADHD is often invisible and impossible to describe, especially if you’re a child with limited vocabulary and perspective on the world. Here are six of the hardest things about living with ADHD that your child may never tell you in words.

Frustrated, furious girl yelling because she can't explain how hard it is to have ADHD, her emotions
Frustrated, furious girl yelling because she can't explain how hard it is to have ADHD, her emotions. newsletter

Having ADHD is hard.

Our kids tell us this — sometimes in words, more often in actions — every single day. We know it’s true. But what many parents don’t always realize is this: Having ADHD is hard in ways we could never imagine; in ways our kids could not possibly describe; in ways you’ve gotta live to understand.

When many parents think of attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) and its difficulties, they think of the ways it inconveniences them: the forgotten homework, the tantrums, the extra school meetings. They think, yes, it must be hard forgetting your lunch repeatedly. It must be hard listening to people yell at you all the time. It must be hard losing friends over impulse control issues.

These are not untrue, but they are almost certainly not the top reasons why having ADHD is hard when you’re a kid. I’ve been that child myself, and I have three boys who are living their childhoods with ADHD, so I can say this with some certainty: If your child had the words, here is what they would tell you about having ADHD.

Having ADHD is hard because it’s embarrassing.

Having ADHD makes you different from everyone else. In a world where kids are expected to sit still — without fidgeting, moving, getting up, making noise, or talking to people — and complete tasks for an hour at a time, your child needs special accommodations.

These accommodations may make them stick out. They may look (or think they look) weird and different. And no one wants to stand out unintentionally from the crowd, especially when the thing that makes you different looks a lot like being a “bad kid” — and to few people know the difference.

[Download This Free Guide: Help Your Child’s Peers ‘Get’ ADHD]

Having ADHD may leave you demoralized about being labeled the “bad kid” or the “spacey kid.”

Too often, the “bad kid” label is affixed to hyperactive boys who are unable to sit still, control their impulses, or stand in any kind of line whatsoever. These challenges sometimes lead to fighting or speaking out of turn — behaviors that most teachers and parents consider “bad.”

Girls with ADHD like me get labeled spacey. “Stop looking out the window.” “Why can’t you concentrate?” “Eyes up front.” “Your head is in the clouds again.” “Stop daydreaming.” “Earth to Miss Space Cadet.” I actually once had a teacher regularly quote Bowie and say, “Ground control to Major Tom,” which the rest of the class thought wildly funny. I, however, did not.

Your kid probably feels like this label is deserved. No matter what you tell them, they think their challenges are their fault because the rest of the world makes them feel that way. It’s wearing and tiring and makes them sad. No wonder children with ADHD have so many self-esteem issues; it is eroded at every turn.

ADHD makes them disappoint you, and they hate that.

Sometimes, you blow up. No parent can control themselves all the time, and you need to give yourself grace when you mess up. It’s wearing to parent a child who forgets their lunch again and can’t find their sneakers again and loses their hat again. But when you lose it, they blame themselves. They feel like if they just tried harder, mom and dad wouldn’t be so mad or frustrated or disappointed. It hurts really bad, even if they never show it.

[Get This Free Resource: 10 Things You Should Never Say to Your Child]

ADHD makes you feel pretty dumb a lot of the time, even if you’re really smart.

You know all those lectures your child hears on “trying harder” and not making “careless mistakes?” They add up — and not in a good way. I used to cry in frustration because I was literally incapable of proofreading my own papers (I still do, as a matter of fact). Because I couldn’t remember things that other people remember so easily, like lunches and backpacks and school books. Because it’s frustrating to turn around and go back to get a bag, or to hear a parent call out, “Did you remember your x, y, or z?” in a mildly accusatory voice.

These interactions, though maybe well-intentioned, may make your child feel stupid and deficient somehow, even if you spend time building up their self-esteem in other ways.

Children with ADHD need a “special thing” that can’t be taken away no matter what.

My “thing” was horseback riding; for my oldest, it’s diving; for my middle son, it’s learning about, catching, and collecting amphibians. My sons both live for their things. These activities boost their self-esteem. They get them through the hard days. These things are the best parts of their day, and they help my boys connect with other people on an equal footing where they don’t feel stupid and dumb and afraid. They cling to their things and beg you to never take them away as a punishment. They couldn’t bear it.

ADHD means you sometimes can’t shut up, and that is the worst.

Many children with ADHD lack basic social skills (hell, I still lack basic social skills). A few key ones include “knowing when to stop talking,” “taking conversational turns,” (i.e. letting the other person talk), listening well, and not running off on tangents. Your kid knows they aren’t good at this basic human skill, but they don’t know how to fix it. It can be embarrassing and hurtful, because it leads to people disliking them and avoiding communication. It can be hard in the classroom, especially, when your child follows the impulse to talk and other people want them to work instead. I was voted “most talkative” in high school, and it wasn’t a positive label; it was a joke, and it hurt my feelings very badly.

Having ADHD is hard. But it’s not always hard in the ways you think. You think it’s all about forgotten shoes and late homework. But it’s far more than that. The emotional toll of ADHD, which most people rarely think about and never see, is far more devastating to kids than most adults realize — in part because they don’t have the words to tell you about it.

My advice is simple: Start talking, and start talking early. Ask your child how they feel, in specific language, about specific situations (“How do you feel when x happens?” “I know it must be difficult when …”). Try as best as you can to shut down the shame game they live every day. It will still exist, but your support can mitigate it.

Your support can make all the difference in the world.

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7 Comments & Reviews

  1. This is a great post, thanks so much for sharing it. I’m very lucky that on the whole my 9 (who’s nearly 10) year old girl has her self esteem and self worth still relatively intact, despite having had a handful of moments where she’s questioned her abilities, as well as putting herself down. Those moments are gut wrenching to watch her endure and listen to her heavy heart, also a precious gift to know she feels safe and loved enough to open up about her self doubt. The one comment that has stuck with me for it’s particularly demoralizing tone and the insensitivity given it was from her tutor, was ‘Has your brain gone on holiday?’ Let’s just say it was probably a good thing that I wasn’t present at the time!
    And if they’re the kinds of comments that come from a trusted adult in her life, and one who’s a trained school teacher, I shudder to think what she may have heard from children at her school.

  2. Please consider writing this article for adults with ADD/ADHD. As a woman who was just diagnosed with ADD 3 years ago, I can relate to this article on nearly every point. Few people understand ADD/ADHD and even fewer understand how emotionally devastating it can be at any age — especially to self-esteem — unless you have the support of professionals and friends who understand the emotional cost.
    Wishing understanding and support for all…

  3. Love this article, but now I’d like to read one on the flipside; how to treat, respond to, teach the child who has these feelings or issues. Not sure if questions will be answered on here, but I’m wondering at what point do we NOT help our child and let them learn through the consequences of their actions? Or will that never be possible with an adhd child? (i.e. they can’t find their shoes for the 40th time, do you help them look for their shoes and remind them for the 40th time to put them in the same spot, or do you let them figure it out themselves and maybe go to school in socks because by you doing it 40 times for them already you’re not letting them learn, or will they never learn regardless?)

  4. Excellent article. There is a lot there to digest.


    “…how to treat, respond to, teach the child who has…[ADHD]”

    How do you treat anybody who has a condition outside their control?

    My father has had two strokes.
    Do I stop reminding him who I am, when he asks me for the fortieth time?
    Do I let him figure it out on his own?
    Do I give up on him completely, and stop caring for him?
    OR, do I do what every human on earth would do, and understand his condition, and realize that he is trying desperately to understand, and remember who this person that reminds him of himself is?

    It’s not a role I would wish on anybody. It’s an unfair, difficult, and heart-wrenching task at times. There are those who choose not to take on that task, and I can see many reason why they would, and don’t blame them for giving up or falling under the weight of that kind of extra responsibility.(I have a life too..Why should I subject myself to dealing with someone else’s problems). The fact that some can actually pick up this cross voluntarily and manage it has, until recently, been a complete mystery to me. There is a word that fits in there there somewhere. I won’t insult your intelligence by telling you what that word is, but it comes with more strength than you ever thought you could have.

    There are the good sides to this too. There’s the huge, child-like smile that comes to his face, when I tell him who I am…Again. The tight hug he gives me…Again. I also see the regret in his eyes, when he remembers some of the times when he wasn’t the best parent, and I feel him…and I hug him tighter. There is that word again.

    Those of us with ADHD have been blessed, in a way, with our hyper-sensitive emotions, and the inability at times to “keep it all in”. If I’m honest, I feel more “real” or “legit” at times, than those the majority would call “normal”. This is one of the more difficult attributes of our particular brain variation that I don’t find particularly bad. (Although it does have its down-sides), I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

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