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Lose the Shame Already!

The stigmas that those with ADHD face for not fitting into the traditional system can be more harmful than the ADHD itself.

I remember sitting in my third-grade classroom, dancing to a song I was singing in my head, when the teacher turned around and said, “Emily! Sit still, pay attention! Did you take your meds this morning?” I hadn’t realized that I wasn’t sitting still. I didn’t feel like I was misbehaving – all I felt was shame. Looking back on those days, I don’t believe that my fidgeting was impeding my ability to learn; it helped me focus. What really hurt me that day was the feeling that I was not OK the way I was – that my natural inclination to move made me frustrating and intolerable. That is the experience for many children with ADHD.

I was lucky to have people in my life who championed my unique ways of learning, and, over time, I learned how to mitigate some of my ADHD symptoms and harness others as superpowers. In graduate school, I completed my doctoral dissertation on ADHD and success without the use of medication. The interviews I conducted with adults who had achieved financial and occupational success, despite (and often because of) their ADHD, were brimming with ADHD “hacks” and inspiring tales of resilience.

One theme, though, that wove its way through almost everyone’s experience: shame. My interviewees recounted stories of exasperated teachers and exhausted parents and psychiatrists who pushed meds within five minutes of meeting them, and the feelings of confusion and indignity that resulted.

After two years of research and writing, my primary conclusion was this: the stigmas that those with ADHD face for not fitting into the traditional system can be more harmful than the ADHD itself. Being supported and empowered to figure out one’s own way is more predictive of success than the elimination of symptoms.

Yes, some children with ADHD need medication to function in their environment. Yes, some children’s symptoms are problematic and hinder their ability to learn. But nothing eats away at a child figuring out his or her place in the world like shame. When we make space for people to be who they are while supporting them in dealing with their difficulties (be it through the use of meds or otherwise), we send the message that they are valuable, worthy, and loved — struggles and all. Here are a few ways that parents and teachers can reduce ADHD stigma and shame:

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  • Have certain times of day during which your child can be exactly who he or she is. Make time for them to play and dance and yell and be silly. Make sure they know that you love this part of them, even if it is not appropriate for all settings.
  • Critique your child’s behavior, not the child. “I am feeling frustrated by what you’re doing right now” sends a very different message than “You are being very frustrating.”
  • Help the child contextualize her feelings. It is common for children with ADHD to be confused about why they are eliciting negative reactions in others. Check in with them often and help them put words to how they feel about teachers, parents, and peers.
  • Reinforce the ways in which their ADHD tendencies can play a positive role in their lives (for example, when you notice that they are able to focus intently on tasks they enjoy).
  • Make sure they know you’re on their team. Think together about how to best harness their ability to learn. Perhaps they need music or television on in the background while they work. Maybe a white noise machine during dinner makes it easier to sit at the table for a whole meal. Playing with Silly Putty may help them deal with long car rides. Children are different, and it’s important that they know they have your support in figuring out their unique needs.
  • Take care of yourself. It is difficult to accommodate and support children who learn and interact with the world differently. It is reasonable to get frustrated. However, children are perceptive and can internalize these reactions. If you make space for yourself and prioritize self-care, everyone will benefit.

[Click to Read: “I Believe In You!” How to Vanquish a Child’s Low Self-Esteem]