Talking About ADHD

The Meaning of ADHD: Clear Explanations for Complex Kids

The more your child understands about ADHD — its causes, symptoms, and treatments — the better. Learn how to explain attention deficit disorder in a way she can understand, and teach her it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

How parents can explain what ADHD means as having a Ferarri brain
How parents can explain ADHD as having a Ferarri brain

Your son or daughter has been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). You’ve done your due diligence, learning about the condition and how the symptoms affect him, academically and socially. But have you explained the meaning of ADHD to your child? Does she understand what it is? How it steers her focus and impulsivity? Why he is taking medication and how it works? Saying, “You are so hyper all of the time” makes your child feel he is doing something wrong. Saying, “Sometimes your brakes don’t work so well, so you say and do things that might upset your friends” is better.

How Can You Explain What ADHD Means?

Explaining ADHD to your child, and giving him the words to tell you how his symptoms affect him, will allow you to work more effectively with doctors, teachers, and family members. Martha’s third-grade teacher tells her mom that she is not paying attention during math period. Martha knows how ADHD affects her and knows the reason for her inattention. “I sit next to a window in math class, and I can’t filter out the noises coming from the playground. The noises make it hard for me to listen to the teacher.” Martha’s mom asks the teacher to move her daughter away from the window. Her grades improve.

Alex, a fourth-grader, gets into trouble running around and bothering the other kids during lunchtime. Like Martha, Alex knows about ADHD and knows how to talk about it. His dad asks him why he is acting up. “Dad, my brakes work fine until around 11:30. Then, they don’t work too good, and it is hard for me not to run around.” His dad asks, “When do your brakes start to work again?” Alex says, “When I go back to class after lunch.” Alex’s dad realizes that his morning dose of medication wears off around noon and that his afternoon dose doesn’t kick in until he returns to class. That explains his hyperactivity in the cafeteria. He asks Alex’s doctor to switch to a longer-acting medication, and the lunch-period problems stop.

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have an Executive Function Deficit?]

If your child doesn’t understand how ADHD affects him, he can’t tell you what’s bothering him. Worse, he feels bad about his behaviors because he doesn’t know what’s causing them.

Using the Right Words to Explain the Meaning of ADHD

There are three groups of behaviors that you may need to explain. Some kids will have one of these, some two, and others all three.

  • Hyperactivity: difficulty sitting still; being fidgety and squirmy.
  • Inattention: This might be noticed as distractibility (difficulty blocking out unimportant auditory or visual stimulation, having a short attention span); lack of attention (difficulty blocking out internal thoughts); executive function difficulties (problems with organization of materials and thoughts, resulting in losing, forgetting, or misplacing things; difficulty organizing and using information; difficulty with time management).
  • Impulsivity: speaking or acting without thinking.

Once you know which behaviors your child exhibits, use the right words to describe them. Here’s what I tell patients:

Explaining Hyperactivity to Children With ADHD

“Our brain is amazing. It has one area that makes our muscles move. I think of the pedal in a car that makes the car move. It’s called the accelerator. Next to this pedal is another one called the brake. The brakes slow down the car. Some children have a problem with their brakes, so the motor is always running and it is hard to slow down or stop the car. When your brakes don’t work well, it is hard to slow down your body.”

[Making ADD Less Scary: “Your Brain Is a Ferrari”]

Explaining Distractibility to Children With ADHD

“Our brain is always reacting to things we see and hear. If we paid attention to everything around us, we couldn’t pay attention to the teacher’s words or to what Mommy is asking you to do. Our brain has a way of blocking out what is not important, so that we can pay attention to what is important. I call this part of the brain the filter. One set of filters blocks out unimportant sounds and another blocks out unimportant sights. Your filter for blocking out unimportant sounds is not working well. So anything you hear comes right in and gets your attention, distracting you.”

Explaining Inattention to Children With ADHD

“In addition to being able to block out unimportant things we see or hear, we often have to block out unimportant thoughts. When I ask you to hang up your coat, you may be busy thinking about the play date you will have with your friend. Our brain has filters to block out unrelated thoughts, so that we can focus on what we should be paying attention to. If this filter is not working, you seem to be distracted because you are focusing on other thoughts.”

Explaining Executive Function Problems to Children With ADHD

“There is a part of the brain that helps children keep track of their things. I call this the organizer. Sometimes your organizer does not work as well as you would like. So you might lose, forget, or misplace things.”

Explaining Impulsivity to Children With ADHD

“Our brains have lots of thoughts and ideas running around in them. Some thoughts are helpful; some aren’t. It is important to think about all of them and to pick the right ones to act on. To do this, our brain has a part I call the pause button. When you press it, you tell your brain to wait until you have considered all of the ideas floating around in your head. If your pause button is not working well, you act on your first thoughts. Only later do you realize what you have done or said, and wish that you had thought more about it.”

Explaining Medication to Children With ADHD

“Your brakes don’t always work well, so Mommy and the teacher get upset with you. This medicine will help your brakes work better, so that you are not as hyperactive. People will not be so upset with you, and you will feel more relaxed.”

When your child understands her ADHD and how it impacts her, life becomes less unpredictable and confusing. She will understand why certain behaviors happen, and not get down on herself for having them. Find your own words for communicating with your child. You — and she — will benefit.

[A Guide to Explaining ADHD to Your Child]