When Hal Meyer learned that his son, 5, had ADHD, he couldn’t believe it. When his child was at school, “He was rambunctious, he couldn’t stay in his seat, he was going around, helping everybody,” Meyer recalls. But to him and his wife, these were signs of brightness and curiosity, not symptoms of inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity.
But experts told them, “You don’t understand. These are not typical of a 5-year-old.”
After they explained the disorder, the couple took a long time to accept the news. “We went through a year or two of denial,” Meyer says.
That was 20 years ago. Since then, Meyer has learned a lot about raising a child with ADHD. He shares those lessons with other parents who are dealing with the power struggles, tantrums, low self-esteem, and school problems that often come with the disorder.
Shortly after his son’s diagnosis, Meyer co-founded the New York City chapter of Children and Adults with Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD), a nonprofit education and advocacy group. He also founded the ADD Resource Center in New York City, which provides parenting classes and support groups, among other services.
In New Jersey, Eva O’Malley also knows the challenges first-hand. She has ADHD and so do her daughter, 22, and son, 17. O’Malley founded the Monmouth County CHADD chapter.
When O’Malley’s son was diagnosed at age 12, her husband worried about his son being “labeled.” Would people see the ADHD and not the boy?
The children have grappled with school problems, forgetfulness and disorganization, O’Malley says. Sometimes, ADHD makes both offspring live only in the moment. “You don’t learn from your past, and you don’t have a vision to the future,” O’Malley says. But there have been bright spots, too, including her son’s improved grades.
WebMD asked these parents, as well as a developmental pediatrician, to share insights on raising a child with ADHD.
1. Be honest with your child about ADHD.
Meyer never thought about keeping the news from his son. “I told him exactly what was going on,” he says.
In contrast, some parents hide the disorder by telling their child, for example, that their ADHD drug is a “magic vitamin,” he says. But Meyer has done ADHD coaching with kids who have confided that they aren’t fooled: they know that it’s medication.
ADHD isn’t a child’s fault. It’s a brain disorder that causes youngsters to have trouble with concentration, ability to complete tasks, or plan for the future. By being open, Meyer lessened the stigma for his son.
Once, he took his son, who was 7 or 8 at the time, to a restaurant where they spotted a youngster in perpetual motion -- so much, in fact, that one parent had to hold them down. “My mouth must have dropped,” Meyer says. “And my son said to me, ‘Don’t look at him as hyperactive. Look at him as being in a hurry to see the world.”
“We can reframe things,” Meyer says. “We don’t have to always look at the most negative.”
Patricia O. Quinn, MD, a developmental pediatrician in Washington, D.C., agrees that it’s best to tell the truth. “It’s really important to be honest and upfront,” she says. "The child really needs to understand that it’s just part of who he or she is and it’s really something they can control.”
Quinn specializes in treating children and adults with ADHD. She has the disorder, as do three of her four children. She has consulted for pharmaceutical companies and has written numerous books about ADHD.
2. Don’t turn ADHD-related problems into a character issue.
Children with ADHD may not perform as consistently as peers who have no problems with focus and concentration.
“I don’t expect consistency from a child with ADD,” Meyer says. “One day, a child may come in with a 90 on a test. The next day, it may be 60. The next day, 70. The next day, it might be 95.”
When grades bounce around, “It’s typical for any [parent] to say, ‘Well, you did so well yesterday. Why aren’t you doing it today?’” he says.
“Often, kids with ADHD are very bright," Quinn says. "They know what to do, but they simply don’t know how to get started, they don’t stick with it, and people may misinterpret that.”
3. Don’t let ADHD become a convenient excuse
Yes, ADHD makes many tasks harder, but children should learn to take responsibility, Meyer says.
“Don’t let them make ADHD an excuse for something.," Meyer says.
"For example, many young children quickly learn to say things, such as, “I don’t need to do my homework because I have an attention deficit disorder,” Meyer says. “That’s not going to cut it."
The reality? “It may be harder for me to do my homework because I have an attention deficit disorder.”
4. Enforce rules and consequences calmly.
For a child with ADHD, it helps to have verbal and written expectations. For example, parents could post a chart that lists the child’s responsibilities and the house rules.
Rewards are fine, Meyer says, but make them immediate, such as TV time or gold stars that can be redeemed for prizes. Since children with ADHD have trouble with planning for the future, it may not work to offer a new bike for a year’s worth of good grades.
Parents must be clear about consequences and enforce them right away, calmly and clearly. While parents may often feel frustrated, avoid punishing in the heat of disappointment or anger, Meyer says.
That can be hard when a parent has ADHD, too, Quinn says. The disorder can run in families.
Parents with ADHD might yell because they have trouble with impulsivity, according to Quinn. “We really do try to help the parent remain in control in these situations," she says. "Often, I say that the child doesn’t need a time out -- sometimes the parent needs a time-out before they discuss the situation.”
Parents need to get their own ADHD under control so that they can model appropriate behavior, Quinn says.
5. Help your child discover their strengths.
Children with ADHD are often compared unfavorably to others. Hence, some develop low self-esteem and depression, Meyer says.
Problems with self-esteem occur as early as age 8, says Quinn. Many teens with ADHD, especially if undiagnosed, develop a learned helplessness. “They say, ‘Nothing ever goes right for me. Why should I even bother to try?’ There’s a lot of demoralization and depression that goes along with it," Quinn says.
Meyer wanted his son to discover his own best abilities -- “islands of competency,” he says. “I would say to him, ‘Look, you have weak spots and you have strong spots.”
When his son found subjects dull, “He couldn’t care about it, period,” Meyer says.
“But when he was interested in something, he would master things five years above his age [level],” he says. For example, his son knew how to wire electrical outlets and replace computer parts well ahead of peers. “That stuff stuck with him and he knew that was one of his islands of competency. So he had things to look at other than negative things.”
Meyer would offer a favorable comparison: he told his son that few people his age could master such tasks. “High expectations in the proper areas, I think, is very important,” he says.
6. Don't overprotect your child.
As children with ADHD grow, they’ll need to learn independence.
“We tend to try to solve everything for kids with issues,” Meyer says. “I’m adamantly against that. I want them to learn how to be on their own, to be successful. I don’t want them to feel, ‘I have a disability and Mommy and Daddy are going to be there to solve all my problems, to make everything good.’"
With his son, that involved “not telling him what to do, but having him telling me what he should do,” Meyer says. “He had to learn to be able to do it by himself, which is very hard for kids with ADHD.”
For parents, that might mean allowing children to deal with their own traffic fines instead of paying on their behalf. Or letting them solve their own roommate problems when they leave home.
O’Malley, the mother of a college student with ADHD, learned that lesson in hindsight. When her daughter had dorm-mate troubles, O’Malley and her husband asked the president of the college to intervene. The couple “went to bat for her,” O’Malley says. After they gave her some solutions, the young woman ultimately rejected the ideas.
Don’t rush in and present solutions for a child with ADHD to select, O’Malley says. “This is a lesson you learn when you have teenagers and you’re always giving them choices. You’re never really teaching them how to solve problems.”