Talking About ADHD

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Do you field unsolicited advice from judgmental family members and friends who don’t understand ADHD? Are you worn down by hearing that ADHD is a character flaw and that stricter discipline will solve your child’s difficult behaviors? The criticism is not only exhausting, it is unhealthy and demoralizing. Here is how to respond with science.

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Q: “My 13-year-old son has ADHD. He’s fidgety, impulsive, and not aware of the way he comes across to others. His behavior raises eyebrows and provokes unsolicited parenting advice from neighbors, friends, and family members. They believe ADHD is an excuse for bad behavior that can be corrected with discipline. We’ve learned a lot about the condition and use positive parenting and proven techniques with our son, who has made progress. Their disapproval is demoralizing for him — and painful and frustrating for my husband and me. How can I get them to see ADHD as a real condition and respect our approach?”

A: ADHD is invisible. It is concentrated in the brain’s frontal cortex, which can’t be seen with the naked eye. People with ADHD look like everybody else and, in a society where people are often judged on their appearance, those with ADHD often receive little empathy or understanding. Without obvious physical evidence to ‘prove’ that ADHD is real, many people believe that its challenges aren’t real symptoms — they’re choices.

The fact is that ADHD is scientifically documented and not debatable. ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disability wherein the brain’s frontal lobe — the self-control part of the brain — develops about 3 years behind the rest of the brain. So, while a 13-year-old boy with ADHD may physically resemble an older child, his emotional maturity level is more in line with a 10-year-old child. In neurotypical people, the frontal lobe is fully developed by age 25 or 26. In a person with ADHD, the frontal lobe continues developing until the age of 28 or 29.

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What’s more, “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” is a really misleading term since not all kids with ADHD are hyper. In my opinion, a more accurate name for ADHD is executive function developmental delay (this isn’t the same as executive function disorder). Your son’s behaviors — likely those your relatives consider unacceptable — are the result of his uniquely wired brain and reflect delays in the brain’s executive functioning.

These behaviors are not uncommon; children and adults with ADHD often have difficulty in the following areas due to brain chemistry, not willpower or intelligence:

  • Emotional regulation: ADHD causes difficulty putting problem size — small, medium, and large — in a relevant context, which can lead to overreactions.
  • Social thinking skills: People with ADHD don’t learn social information intuitively. Their brains make perspective-taking nearly impossible — they don’t think about how others perceive them and aren’t able to relate to others’ emotional experiences. This also explains the reason many gravitate toward playing with younger kids, who are more forgiving when social cues are missed.
  • The resiliency to persevere through non-preferred tasks: Tasks or activities they find “boring” are exceptionally challenging for them to get through. So requests to do something necessary (homework, for example), especially if they are engaged in an activity they like (video games), are met with an extraordinary amount of resistance.
  • Impulse control: ADHD makes it difficult to use self-directed talk or internal dialogue to guide their behavior and understand what to do next.
  • Episodic memory: Children with ADHD don’t always apply information gleaned from past experiences and emotions to the present. That’s why they often repeat the same things over and over.

Step One is explaining to your family members that your son’s behaviors are the result of the brain’s development and not because your son is a brat. Step Two is explaining that no amount of discipline or punishment is going to speed up your son’s executive functioning. There are effective coping strategies and proven techniques that your family is learning to use, but these are not a quick fix. It’s hard work and takes a good deal of practice, but you’re seeing progress and would appreciate their support.

One other point you can make to address complaints about “silly” or inappropriate behavior is that learning disabilities (dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia, etc.) and social anxiety often accompany ADHD. Silly behavior is usually a coping mechanism that kids use when they feel ashamed or embarrassed by their challenges inside and outside of the classroom.

If the critical relative continues to see your son’s behavior as a “character flaw” rather than a challenge not fully within his control, let them know that refusing to understand your son’s behavior may have a negative impact on their relationship.

If none of this works to change their view, you can feel good knowing you presented the facts, explained the challenges thoughtfully way, and tried your hardest to appeal to their sense of empathy.

[Get This Free Download: Boost Your Teen’s Executive Functions]

This content came from the ADDitude webinar by Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW, titled “How to Best Explain ADHD to Your Child, Family, and Friends.” That webinar is available for free replay here.

Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW is the facilitator of the ADHD Dude Facebook Group and YouTube channel.