It takes a lot of time, effort, and patience to be a good parent, especially if your child has ADHD. But even though millions of children have the disorder, faulty ideas about it are widespread. Here’s what some parents of kids with ADHD want you to know.
Don’t label my child a “bad kid.”
ADHD causes some children to act hyperactive or impulsive, struggle to follow directions, or have trouble controlling their emotions. Kids with symptoms like these aren’t making a mischievous choice to act out or buck authority. They’re living with a brain disorder.
“That really hurts me when other parents think our kids are just ‘bad kids,’” says Yakini Pierce, a mother of two and a global product manager in Cleveland, OH. Both of Pierce’s children -- daughter Reyna, 12, and son Rickey, 10 -- have ADHD.
She says that when a child with the disorder has a meltdown or gets frustrated in the moment, “they really are trying to communicate and just do not know how. Once they learn, it takes them to a whole other level.”
Experts aren’t sure why some kids get ADHD, but they think genes play a big role. What we know for certain is this: It’s a myth that the disorder happens because of mistakes that a mother or a father makes.
“I think a lot of people see ADHD as this over-diagnosed label for bad parenting,” says Nicole Schlechter, a special education advocate in Hampshire, IL, whose 11-year-old son has ADHD, autism, and anxiety. “It’s not a parenting issue, and I think that is a huge misconception about ADHD.”
Kirsten Hecht, PhD, a scientist and researcher in Gainesville, FL, has an 11-year-old son with ADHD named Dmitry. “There’s a lot of parent-shaming that goes with it,” she says. “Like, ‘you guys must’ve done something wrong.’” Or, as another mom once told her: “‘You must’ve let him watch a lot of TV when he was little.’ I thought, ‘That makes no sense.’”
ADHD is real.
That’s according to federal health agencies, medical associations, and doctors around the world. But some people remain skeptical.
One time, Pierce sent her son Rickey to a camp that disregarded her instructions about managing his ADHD. Someone on the staff didn’t believe in the disorder, and Rickey ended up struggling.
“There are a lot of people who do not think ADHD is real,” says Pierce, who shares her insights on social media using the handle @adhdlove2020. Skeptics could benefit by learning more about the disorder, which might help them empathize with children who have it, she says. Once that happens, “the kids know that they’re being understood, and they feel like the adults have their back.”
You can’t punish the ADHD out of a child.
When Schlechter’s son was in third grade, he was suspended for behavior issues for 10 days within 3 months -- even though Schlechter had met with the school to explain that his hyper, impulsive behavior and trouble controlling his emotions were part of his ADHD.
“I wish that there was less focus on consequences at school for behavior and more focus on proactive solutions,” she says. “Suspension doesn’t teach them anything.”
Hecht says some teachers tend to think they can punish the ADHD out of a child, as if they were “just being bad” or willfully disobedient. There were a lot of times when her son Dmitry would have meltdowns “because he was constantly getting in trouble for … trying to exist with ADHD.”
Traditional parenting advice might not help.
When Pierce was growing up, her parents raised her with the “because I said so” approach. Now a mother of two kids with ADHD, she patiently gives her daughter Reyna and son Rickey detailed feedback and encouragement to help them understand life’s spoken and unspoken rules.
“We can’t just do it the way our parents did it,” Pierce says. “We have to be flexible parents and meet our children where they are.”
What’s more, parenting tips that work for children without ADHD might not help kids who have the disorder. Schlechter knows this from her own experiences as a mom and as a special education advocate who supports families of children with social, emotional, or behavioral delays. Through her work, she’s met parents of kids with ADHD who tell her about the conventional advice that other people give them.
“The school or their family or their friends say things like, ‘Well if he was my kid, this is what I would do.’ Or, ‘My kid would never get away with that.’ Or, ‘Maybe you should try a sticker chart, some sort of motivation.’”
As well-intentioned as advice like that might be, it may not meet the needs of a child with ADHD.
Raising a kid with ADHD can be exhausting.
Some parents put a massive amount of time, energy, and research into creating a structured daily routine for their child.
“It is completely exhausting,” says Schlechter, the special education advocate. Parents who call her for help aren’t looking for easy answers, she says. “They’re parents who are doing all the research and they’re calling all the doctors and they’re spending hours and hours on Google trying to find help for their kids.”
“It is completely overwhelming at times -- especially now during COVID, my son is still doing home school,” says Hecht, the researcher in Gainesville. “I also think there’s this feeling like you’re failing, like you’re not doing your best for your kid. That’s really hard.”
“Every day is very active, it’s an event,” says Pierce, the global product manager in Cleveland. “The reality is, it's not an easy journey -- but you can get there."
Treatments like talk therapy and medication can help a child take charge of their ADHD. Assistive technology and an individualized education plan can help them learn more easily, too. You can ask your child’s school to give them an ADHD evaluation to find out if they qualify for a plan.
Look for the silver lining.
Hecht doesn’t want her son, Dmitry, to think of his ADHD as a bad thing. She feels it gives him gifts, too. She admires how Dmitry thinks outside the box, finds new ways to look at things, and focuses intently on subjects that interest him.
“All the good stuff about ADHD never gets mentioned,” she says, “and I think partly it’s because the school system and the world aren’t really set up for people that are necessarily outside the norm.”