The ADHD series: Accepting that your child has ADHD
This is the second of a series of three articles on Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Read on to find out what you can do once your child receives a diagnosis of ADHD.
By Dr Meghna Singhal
When your child received a diagnosis of ADHD, what did you feel? Was it relief or was it fear and worry? Or a mix of the two?
There are many obstacles to accepting your child’s ADHD diagnosis. Grandparents, extended family, or even your spouse may insist that your child’s problems are caused by lack of strict discipline. They may blame you for your child’s problems because they may have a limited knowledge of ADHD. Or it may be difficult for you to accept that your child is not perfect and has a problem requiring intervention; it’s even more difficult to accept when the problem can’t be ‘cured’ and will never go away. The stigma surrounding ADHD is also a reason why many parents are reluctant to accept the diagnosis.
One of the biggest problems of being in denial is that it prevents timely intervention. Valuable time is lost when parents deny a situation that warrants attention. Research has amply demonstrated that when ADHD is left unaddressed, the person is likely to develop other mental health issues, such as depression, anxiety, conduct disorder, and even substance use problems.
Being in denial could also prevent you from examining your feelings about what having an ADHD child means to you. These unprocessed feelings can inevitably leak out in interactions with your child, often in unhelpful ways.
1. Acknowledge that you have a child with ADHD. This starts with reflecting on the diagnosis and your reaction to it. You won’t be able to genuinely support your child if you haven’t explored your own feelings. Ask yourself if your child’s struggles are familiar or foreign to you. If familiar, how did you deal with these struggles yourself? If not, how do you feel about having a child who is different from you and has challenges with concentration, hyperactivity, or self-regulation? Most parents feel a roller-coaster of feelings such as grief, anger, helplessness, frustration, worry, uncertainty, or embarrassment.
What can you do?
- Figure out what you feel. If you’re feeling sad, give yourself time to mourn. It’s okay to acknowledge that the path you had in mind for your child’s future is now redrawn. Process your emotions in order to release their hold on you.
- Understand that it’s not your fault. What you ate in pregnancy or how you disciplined him has nothing to do with his symptoms. ADHD is a genetic condition and blaming yourself for his behaviour only does a big disservice to yourself and your child.
- Seek out information from reliable sources. There are books, podcasts, articles, and websites, that will help you appreciate that ADHD is very common, ‘normal’, and manageable.
- If your child’s diagnosis makes you realise that your own issues with concentration, memory, or emotional outbursts may have been ADHD too, seek professional help from a qualified mental health professional, such as a clinical psychologist.
2. Find out your child’s response to getting an ADHD diagnosis. Again, for most children it is a mixed bag. For some children, it could be a relief to get a name for what they knew was different about them. For others, it indicates something is wrong with them. The visits to a ‘doctor’, unfortunately, may not convey that ADHD is ‘normal’—after all, we go to a doctor when we are sick and something isn’t right. For most children ADHD is a negative label.
What can you do?
- Find out how your child understands his behaviour. Does he feel he is different from his peers? Is he able to see what may be difficult for him is easy for children his age (or vice versa)? What does he feel works well for him?
- Explore your child’s understanding of his challenges, since his view of his challenges may be quite different from yours. For example, he may not care that he is unable to follow your 5-step instruction to clear up his table, but what may bother him is his difficulty in remembering and recalling a poem for recitation in front of his class.
- Explain what ADHD is in age-appropriate terms. Once your child has received a professional diagnosis, even if the CP has explained to her about what ADHD is, she may still rely on you to explain the term to her in ways that makes sense to her. When your child grasps the biology and the facts about ADHD it can be a source of hope, empowerment, and collaboration.
- ‘Bullet speed’, ‘race car brain’, ‘fast paced’, ‘this minute only brain’ are some terms that children have devised to refer to themselves when explained about how ADHD wires their brain differently. It is a good idea to explore with your child his experience of having ADHD and together come up with a term that fits in with this experience, a term that doesn’t make him feel labelled or judged. So, instead of using a medical term that can feel scary or diseased to some children, you can help reduce the stress of the ADHD label by focusing on what’s personal about it for your child.
3. Understand your child’s struggles. Its not uncommon for parents and teachers of children with ADHD (whether its diagnosed or not) to think that they are lazy and unmotivated. However, it is important to remember that the tasks or chores your child has to do may be hard or stressful for her. Children with ADHD have executive functioning deficits, which means that they may have trouble paying attention, organizing and planning, starting tasks and staying focused on them, and keeping track of what they’re doing.
What can you do?
- Acknowledge that its not a problem of willpower. Completing a seemingly simple task such as hanging the milk basket outside is a multi-step process that requires many executive functioning skills—including remembering to do it all. It is also challenging for a child with ADHD to switch from one activity to another, especially if the latter requires the skills he lacks (or has been told he lacks). It’s a good idea to break down tasks into smaller chunks, and only assign one part of a task at a time. Also, give enough time for your child to switch from one activity to another.
- Acknowledge that it may be a fear of failure. No child wants to feel stupid or bad about themselves. But if the task in front of your child creates stress for her or evokes a fear of failure, she will want to avoid it. So, remember not to criticize how your child ends up completing the task. Praise the effort, even if the outcome doesn’t meet your expectations. You could also brainstorm with your child and tailor chores to suit her needs.
- Don’t compare your child to other neurotypical peers. “Your child wants to feel understood and accepted for who they are, even if they don’t understand or accept themselves,” says Dr Sharon Saline, clinical psychologist and author of What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew. “Meet your child where they are, not where we expect them to be. Letting your child have a say in the task you’re assigning to them will go a long way in helping them own it.”
- Empathise with your child. Let your child know that you understand what she must be going through.
Watch what one of the world's leading authorities on ADHD, Dr. Stephen Hinshaw (Professor of Psychology at UC Berkeley, and a Professor of Psychiatry at UC San Francisco) has to say about ADHD.
4. Focus on your child’s strengths. When your child receives a diagnosis of ADHD, its easy to see her neurodifferences as deficits. But its extremely important to see your child through a strengths-based lens, and focus on enhancing those strengths. That will not only help in developing her confidence and self-esteem, but also add valuable skills to her basket.
What can you do?
- Notice when you highlight deficits. When you focus on your child’s difficult behaviours (“He’s very lazy. He just doesn’t want to do anything.”), that’s all you (and others) see. It also prevents you and your child from recognising and nurturing his strengths.
- Recognize when you’re being rigid. It is unhelpful to view your child’s behaviour through a lens of ‘shoulds’ (“She should be more organized” or “She should clean up after herself”). It’s important to recognize the executive functioning difficulties your child has and to manage your expectations accordingly, even for chores or tasks seem ‘too easy’ for her age.
- Reflect on your child’s strengths. Use a notebook to write down what you really like about your child, what he does well (include special talents, interests, and hobbies), what you do for fun together, and how you show him that you are upset but still love him. Consider how you can help him enhance his strengths, how you can help him take his hobbies to the next level, and how you can keep fostering the connection with him even in the face of difficult moments.
This is the second of a series of three articles on ADHD. In the first article, we covered the current scientific understanding about ADHD. In the third article, we will cover ADHD intervention and management.
In a Nutshell
- If you suspect that your child has ADHD, get a professional assessment done right away. A clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist are mental health professions who can diagnose ADHD in India
- If your child does receive a diagnosis of ADHD, think about what it means to you. Process all your feelings and take time in reframing the future path you had in mind for your child
- Find out how your child understands his behaviour. Make an attempt to understand his behaviour and challenges he faces in light of his executive functioning deficits
- It is extremely important to see your child through a strengths-based lens, and focus on enhancing those strengths
What you can do right away
- Explain what ADHD is in age-appropriate terms to your child
- Talk to your child about what he perceives as his strengths and give your own view on his strengths
- Use a notebook to write down what you really like about your child, what he does well (include special talents, interests, and hobbies). Brainstorm together with your child what he can work toward enhancing these
About the author:
Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD on 26 March 2020.
Dr. Singhal is the Manager, Global Content Solutions at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).
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