Emotions & Shame

“What Is Wrong With Me?” ADHD Truths I Wish I Knew As a Kid

I grew up feeling something was wrong with me — that I was lesser, or maybe broken. Now I know that what others misidentified as ‘wrong’ or ‘different’ was actually extraordinary — and that ADHD can be an incredible asset if appreciated.

A girl with undiagnosed adhd sits and wonders what is wrong with her.
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ADHD After All These Years

I heard my third grade teacher’s voice, but the flowers outside the window were calling my name louder, so I paid attention to them. She clapped her hands in front of my face and snapped, “Why aren’t you paying attention? Stop daydreaming.” I was paying attention, just not to the correct things, apparently. Embarrassed and ashamed, I wanted to run away and cry. I wondered what is wrong with me?

“ADD can cause feelings of shame, fear, and self-doubt,” says Edward Hallowell, M.D. As parents, we need to know this. We need to recognize when our kids are hurting under the strain of ridicule, challenges, and frustration. We need to remind ourselves to see the beauty, joy, and wisdom in our children.

Here’s what I wish I knew when I was a child with ADHD.

Boy has mild ADHD
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1. I wish I knew that I was smart.

Deep down inside, I had a feeling that I was brighter than the other kids. But if I was so smart, why was I afraid to raise my hand when I knew the answer? Because I didn’t trust my instincts — they’d been wrong so many times. I didn’t tell anyone that I was fascinated by science; that I couldn’t wait to study bugs under the microscope. I thought they would laugh. It wasn’t until high school literature class, when philosophical discussions sent a thrill up my spine and into my brain that I finally said, “Hey! This isn’t for dummies. And I love it.”

The most discouraging comments of my youth came from teachers: “She’s got so much potential if only she worked harder; she could be on the honor roll.”  The teachers probably had the best intentions, but the results were negative. Where was this so-called potential? I tried so hard to find it. As a child and later as a parent, that phrase stabbed me in the heart like a dagger. I dreaded the pain and frustration of parent-teacher conferences. I guess no one knew how to find my children’s potential either. As I grew older and discovered subjects that I enjoyed (art, books, music, and science), I began to see that the catalyst for potential is not hard work; it’s passion.
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2. I wish I knew how to recognize my potential.

The most discouraging comments of my youth came from teachers: “She’s got so much potential if only she worked harder; she could be on the honor roll.”  The teachers probably had the best intentions, but the results were negative. Where was this so-called potential? I tried so hard to find it. As a child and later as a parent, that phrase stabbed me in the heart like a dagger. I dreaded the pain and frustration of parent-teacher conferences. I guess no one knew how to find my children’s potential either. As I grew older and discovered subjects that I enjoyed (art, books, music, and science), I began to see that the catalyst for potential is not hard work; it’s passion.

[Self-Test: Could You Have ADHD?]

It’s true; I didn’t think or act like the rest of the kids. Being different felt like I wasn’t good enough. I tried, but I couldn’t fit into the mold. Parents and teachers didn’t know how to deal with my unusual style of thinking and behaving. I wish I knew then about the myriad famous artists, composers, musicians, scientists, and actors who were chastised for being different, too. I would have loved someone to tell me that my differences put me in a special group of people who brighten and enlighten the world with music, stories, and masterpieces. 
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3. I wish I knew that it’s okay to be different.

It’s true; I didn’t think or act like the rest of the kids. Being different felt like I wasn’t good enough. I tried, but I couldn’t fit into the mold. Parents and teachers didn’t know how to deal with my unusual style of thinking and behaving. I wish I knew then about the myriad of famous artists, composers, musicians, scientists, and actors who were chastised for being different, too. I would have loved someone to tell me that my differences put me in a special group of people who brighten and enlighten the world with music, stories, and masterpieces.

Girl bored with a pen in class.
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4. I wish I knew how to explain what was going on inside my head.

As a child with ADHD, I often felt misunderstood. I’m sure that I looked lazy, lost, and confused to everyone else. While in my mind, I was analyzing, examining, and exploring endless possibilities. I didn’t feel lazy at all. My mind was constantly in motion. Thoughts were racing through my brain at the speed of light, and I didn’t know how to shut them off. I wish I could have explained what was going on to someone who would understand. A child with ADHD can be frustrating for parents, but remember the child is probably frustrated as well if her outside appearance is completely opposite to what she feels inside her mind.

Girl with ADHD at school makes a silly face
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5. I wish I knew that my attention wasn’t a deficit.

Parents, teachers, and friends thought I wasn’t paying attention. I was; it’s just that my attention was diverted — focused on something more exciting to me. My ADHD brain doesn’t like to be bored, so it pays attention to the most interesting things it can. It’s hard for me to listen to something that bores my brain. I could fight through it in school, but it was harder for me than it was for the other kids. Now I know that tasks are more difficult for me because my attention is diverted. But my diversions are where I discover wonder, magic, and beauty.

6. It’s okay to take a break when I’m overwhelmed. There were times when I felt that I needed to run and hide to be alone. If there was too much noise, too much commotion, or too many people, I needed time to find some calm amid the chaos. I found serenity in my books, crafts, and favorite movies. The ADHD mind is active and exhausting. It’s important to know when to release the pressure and take a break. I wish I knew then that “zoning in” — when people thought I was “checking out” — had serious benefits.
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6. It’s okay to take a break when I’m overwhelmed.

There were times when I felt that I needed to run and hide to be alone. If there was too much noise, too much commotion, or too many people, I needed time to find some calm amid the chaos. I found serenity in my books, crafts, and favorite movies. The ADHD mind is active and exhausting. It’s important to know when to release the pressure and take a break. I wish I knew then that “zoning in” — when people thought I was “checking out” — had serious benefits.

[Free Download: Your Ultimate ADHD Diagnosis Guide]

7. I wish I knew that one day I would love having ADHD. The ADHD mind sometimes feels like a curse, but it can also be a blessing. After several attempts in careers that did not fit my thought and behavior patterns, I worked at several jobs that did suit me perfectly. When I find something I love, I do a great job and give myself to it completely. The challenge is always about learning to adapt the work for my unique style. Once I do that, I can accomplish anything. The impossible becomes reality.
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7. I wish I knew that one day I would love having ADHD.

The ADHD mind sometimes feels like a curse, but it can also be a blessing. After several attempts in careers that did not fit my thought and behavior patterns, I worked at several jobs that did suit me perfectly. When I find something I love, I do a great job and give myself to it completely. The challenge is always about learning to adapt the work for my unique style. Once I do that, I can accomplish anything. The impossible becomes reality.

Doctor with a bottle of ADHD medication
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8. I wish I hadn’t been afraid of ADHD medication.

Medication can be scary for a person with ADHD. Kids and adults imagine turning into zombies — or at least I know I did. Even if your thought system doesn’t work so well, it’s the only one you’ve ever known. Plus there is comfort in familiarity, especially if you have ADHD. When it came to medicating my children, I feared that meds would open the door to a drug abuse pattern, encouraging them to use drugs to alter their moods. Unfortunately, the opposite was true. If you don’t medicate them when they need it, they will medicate themselves with drugs and alcohol.

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9. I wish I knew about ADHD coaching.

As an ADHD child, I felt there was no one who really understood, who believed me, and could help me manage my busy mind. Therapists would provide clarity and understanding, but it wasn’t until I discovered ADHD coaching that I learned to implement the therapists’ recommendations. There is nothing as comforting as being guided by someone who has ADHD; someone who truly knows what it feels like inside your head, and can offer customized tools for daily success.

10. I wish I knew that I’d learn how to manage my ADHD in time. Daily struggles can be discouraging. It was hard to get through projects that didn’t work the way my brain worked. I wish I knew that one day I would learn how to get through a homework assignment, finish projects on time, find my lost keys, be punctual, and make smart life choices. ‘Hard’ doesn’t mean ‘impossible.’ One of the positive traits of ADHD is that we are clever, resourceful, inventive, and creative. We find ways to work through tough situations, exploring, growing, and changing all the while.  
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10. I wish I knew that I’d learn how to manage my ADHD in time.

Daily struggles can be discouraging. It was hard to get through projects that didn’t work the way my brain worked. I wish I knew that one day I would learn how to get through a homework assignment, finish projects on time, find my lost keys, be punctual, and make smart life choices. ‘Hard’ doesn’t mean ‘impossible.’ One of the positive traits of ADHD is that we are clever, resourceful, inventive, and creative. We find ways to work through tough situations, exploring, growing, and changing all the while.

[“Once I Accepted My ADHD, Life Began to Change”]

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  1. I grew up in the 60s, so a lot of this stuff wasn’t known, or if it was, my parents, teachers and friends certainly didn’t know about it. I could not memorize the multiplication table, and it was humiliating. I felt so stupid. I was very aware of my surroundings, and I noticed details, wondering why others didn’t see those things, but that didn’t give me an “A” in anything (although I always did well in art classes, something I loved). My feelings were easily hurt, and I could dwell on that to the point where it was all I could think about. And, to be very honest, I still struggle with managing my ADHD. It’s an ongoing effort, and I do so many things right, but it never goes away. I do want to add that, I have a fantastic life. What I’ve liked a lot about myself is my ability to take care of myself. I refuse to be stuck, and I do not allow people to abuse me. Oh and I love how interesting so many things are to me. Yes, when it’s boring, forget it, but I’m endlessly fascinated by the world.

    1. AnneHW – I am strugglng to find answers to my “boyfriend’s” mood swings. Although I understand it is different for women, I wonder if you can comment, please. He is 65. He gets very anxious and drinks alcohol to excess in order to “relax”, then blacks out to blot stuff out and sleep. The biggest problem for me is that he can just “erupt” angrily at the least little thing I say – possibly what he perceives as criticism or the onset of an alarming discussion or potential “row”. He just WILL not discuss problems, as I suspect he is terrified of them blowing up into a row. So I walk on eggshells. I used to think it was the alcohol talking, or the withdrawal as he never drinks or smokes when I am there, but there are other things I cannot “put my finger on”, which I don’t understand. ADHD seems to be the most credible explanation so fsr, but he has never been diagnosed, and others on this site seem to think it is just a bad reaction to the booze, and typical verbal domestic abuse on his part. I’d really like to think that, so that if he ever stops drinking he will stop having these symptoms – but I am not so sure. He does not seem to understand the “rules” of society (especially regarding dating only one women), is hopeless with money – spends it recklessly, even though he is in debt. He lends money he does not have to people. He is very kind (a people-pleaser), and will do anything for anyone (except me!), to the point where they take advantage of him – and that worries me. He can be very blunt and hurtful in what he says (especially when he is drunk) although he does seem to know he is, and usually says he is just joking or “windng me up”. He gets very, very anxious, but trys to cover it up. He has OCD – keeping and placing things in a very particular place and order – which I guess could be his way of organizing himself (to be admired!!). But, as I say, the worst one is just erupting like a volcano over absolutely nothing. He is very sensitive and takes things too much to heart – making more of them and dwelling on them forever. We have fallen out at the moment, which often happens, and he has blocked my phone calls. I have tried reaching out via email, but not sure he is getting them. I wonder whether it is time to leave him to his own devices, but I do love the “nice” him and worry about him, and feel I should make contact, just to know that he is OK. He has no close friends, other than the woman next door who he drinks with. What do you think, please? I would really appreciate your input. Lorna

      1. Hi. I’ve just read both articles from Lorna and AnneHW. I can identify with both. I also grew up with ADHD but I was born in the 1950s. From a young age I felt different to other children and didn’t get along with them. I’ve never been able to cope with crowds and parties and did very badly at school, but like Anne, I excelled in art. I also loved music and passed piano exams. Maths was a nightmare and I was bullied by the teachers because of my hyperactive nature. After school I taught myself a lot. I refused to let school put me off learning so I went onto college and then went to university and got my degree. I then went overseas and worked in the Middle East. I’ve fought to try to do normal things and fit in because I didn’t know I had ADHD until a few months ago. It all makes sense now. I wish I’d known earlier. The positive thing about having ADHD is resourcefulness and the ability to be independent and strong in the face of problems and adversity. I met my late partner (John) in the Middle East. He sounds so much like your partner Lorna. I had a child with my partner who appears to have Aspergers. His personality is like his father’s. I could never put my finger on what exactly was wrong with John. But after reading literature on Aspergers I’m convinced that’s what he had and that is what my son has. Erupting like a volcano was normal as was being a people pleaser and not understanding the rules of society. It all sounds so familiar. My son possibly has Rejection Sensitivity Disorder as well. He never socialises, has no friends and doesn’t really want any much like his father was. Reading the two articles was a breath of fresh air for me. Just knowing that we aren’t on our own, that there are other people out there who have the same issues to deal with on a daily basis. Alexandra

    2. It is fascinating and sort of retrospectively reassuring to read this as a 67yr old. I never mastered the times tables either..really just not good at rote learning. No one ever believes me when I say I never learnt them, they seem to just think I am being amusing. I was good at maths as I worked things out my own way. I was the last kid in the class to be able to tie my own shoes too, and when I did I invented my own method. It works neatly and makes a nice even and tidy bow, but it is slow and looks a bit cumbersome so people still stop and look at me asking ‘what on earth are you doing, why don’t you just tie them the normal way’. And I also was teased and chastised by teachers for being a daydreamer. Could go on…
      Finally I have found my tribe

  2. Yup. I was born in 1950. Every night I went home intending (though not expecting) to do my homework, and every night it just didn’t happen. I loved English and loved to read, but never got the knack of diagraming sentences because it was so boring. Hated arithmetic and to this day can’t learn languages through academic study, although immersion would probably work well.

    I initially flunked out of college in four quarters. I was always accused of “not applying myself.” Even in graduate school I was supposedly “not engaged.”

    I can’t blame my parents or teachers for not knowing about ADHD back then. But I wish that I would have known about it. It would have saved me a great deal of self-doubt and inappropriate guilt.

    1. I can identify with this so much…even diagnosed at 33…all the negative messages we hear is basically a slow death of self esteem and self worth. The worst part of ADHD for me is the emotional component- I wonder sometimes if I had been diagnosed in childhood if my feelings of deep shame and guilt and feeling “less than” others would be a little less crippling.

  3. At about ten years old, I realised that I thought differently to ‘the group’.
    The only part I played in the group was the art and craft expert. Everyone had roles and the silly competitions we had were really just reinforcing the existing hierarchy and roles.
    I wasn’t ashamed, and didn’t feel stupid.
    I knew that I was smart, but just didn’t fit in with the bizarre social expectations. Many social things did not make sense. They still don’t.
    So I either ignored them or worked around them, and did my own thing.
    This led to several problem years.
    At university, I found my real self, as did many others.
    Being diagnosed a lot earlier would have helped a lot!

  4. A lot of this article I have thought to myself verbatim. Having undiagnosed ADHD has so many more implications than anyone who is neurotypical can imagine. I was 33 when I was diagnosed and a year later am basically rebuilding my life thanks to therapy and medication. The hardest part is feeling so misunderstood. I remember telling my high school boyfriend that I felt like I was defective and that some people just aren’t meant to thrive and that was me. In hindsight it breaks my heart. Thank you for so beautifully conveying this in your piece.

  5. I love articles that I have a personal connection to. It is an amazing feeling to know that so many other people felt as I did growing up…and into my 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s when I was FINALLY diagnosed. Unfortunately I never made it to graduate college (48 credits in eight years!) I was lucky to land a job with a record company that was fiun, and overlooked a lot of my flaws. I am now retired, and I still work daily to find self compassion for myself. I’m not able to finish a newspaper article, I lose things constantly, and I have a hard time meeting new people, especially Uber successful ones.
    So everyday I need to remind myself that I am enough, that I have strengths, that I have value.
    Practice self compassion.
    God doesn’t make junk!

  6. When I read “deep down inside I felt I was smarter than the other kids” nothing could have been further than the truth. I didn’t start to feel intelligent until I went to work and realized I had an aptitude for computers.

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