Now What? Processing Your Child’s ADHD Diagnosis
Your child just received an ADHD diagnosis. What does this mean? —For you. For your child. For the future. Explore ways to process this & make a plan.
You just received your child’s diagnosis of ADHD. Your Amazon shopping cart is full of all things ADHD—a little Russell Barkley, a little Thomas E. Brown, some Ross Greene, perhaps a bit of wisdom from Nancy Rappaport or Ned Hallowell too. You’ve Googled ADHD until your eyes are bleary and your mind is overwhelmed by the statistics and facts that you have combed through in an attempt to wrap your own brain around this diagnosis. Inside, you are thinking, “What does this mean? —For me. For my child. For their future.”
For many of you whose child has received confirmation of an ADHD diagnosis, the first question is typically…”Now what?!” And then you follow a typical progression of coping mechanisms—anger, denial, grief, relief, and education immersion.
Here are just a few of the possible scenarios that might be running through your mind:
• This wasn’t what you I signed up for! It wasn’t part of your my pre-conceived plan for my child.
• You may feel an immediate call to arms— “know thine enemy” and establish a battle plan!
• Perhaps a diagnosis evokes that immediate instinct to wrap your child in a cloak of protection—bubble-wrap and all.
• For most parents, it can be a big “aha!” moment that helps you begin to put pieces of the puzzle into place.
By formal definition, ADHD is a chronic, neurobiological disorder characterized by persistent pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity/impulsivity that interferes with functioning and development.(1) What does that mean? In simpler terms, ADHD is a condition in which the communication circuits in your brain are wired a little differently. Messages sometimes get lost or filed away in the wrong place. Sometimes these messages move so fast that your might act impulsively before the brain have time to weigh the consequences of those actions. The ADHD brain is wired for interest, therefore making it really challenging to pay attention to those things that are of little to no interest. The average ADHD brain may be delayed by as much as 30%(3-5 years behind peers) when it comes to executive functions such as decision making, planning, and managing emotions. This is why many people might label someone with ADHD as distracted, impulsive, hyperactive, scattered, immature, etc.
This isn’t a dream. It isn’t going to disappear overnight. Ignoring it won’t make it “go away.” The best way that you can help your child and your family move forward is to move through the five stages of awareness designed to set your family up for success in navigating ADHD.
1. Sit with your emotions. As uncomfortable as it sounds, this initial step is very important. It’s okay to feel sad, angry, uncertain, hopeful, resolute, relieved. It is perfectly normal to mourn the loss of whatever story you were telling yourself before this diagnosis. Sit with your feelings and take time to process them. ADHD impacts everyone in the family. As the parent, you will be leading your pack into this new arena. It may be helpful to write down your hopes and dreams for your child and also your fears. Know that ADHD is not caused by your parenting skills.
You are NOT alone! Remember that 11% of all school-aged children are diagnosed with ADHD in the United States.(2)
You may benefit from a local parenting support group or CHADD chapter in your area. Finding other parents who get where you are can be incredibly empowering and therapeutic. In the ADHD sphere, this is called “finding your tribe.” Some of my closest friends are other parents with ADHD and/or with children who have ADHD. They get it. You can search for a local CHADD chapter near you at chadd.org or consult a mental health professional in your area to see if there are any groups nearby focused on ADHD.
2. Get Educated: Information is your friend. Arming yourself with accurate information is key. You are already the chief subject matter expert on your child. Now you are about to become a subject matter expert on ADHD. There are hundreds of books to read, websites to comb through, articles to digest, parenting classes and seminars that you can attend. Understanding what works for others can lead you to find what works for you and your family. There are fantastic resources such as the international organization CHADD (www.chadd.org) and the National Resource Center for ADHD (www.help4adhd.org). Your mental health provider or doctor can also be an excellent resource of information for you.
Although some parents may initially focus on the struggles of ADHD, there is also so much about the ADHD brain that makes your child unique and amazing and talented. It will be helpful to learn more about any co-morbidities (e.g., learning disabilities, anxiety, depressions, etc.) if your child has been diagnosed with more than one condition. The more you understand about ADHD and how it impacts your child, the better prepared you will be for the next step.
3. Reframe your end game: ADHD is not linked to intelligence. In fact, most children diagnosed have average to above average IQs. Those with ADHD think outside of the box. Where they struggle is in the possible 3- to 5-year developmental delay in executive function, which may explain why your 8 year old sometimes behaves like a 5 year old. Revisit those hopes and dreams. Have they changed? Although the end game may still be the same, how you get there may have shifted.
Now that you have had space to sit with your feelings and learn more about ADHD, it is time to rewrite that story in your head. A shift in understanding has the potential to create a dramatic change in your child’s story. That “lazy” student may now be viewed with more compassion and understanding for the silent struggles and unseen tenacity. That “pig pen” of a room may now be reframed as an overwhelming task for your child to clean up that needs to be broken down into smaller steps for success. That high school athlete who wants to head to college may now be surrounded by the proper academic supports and tools to empower them in the classroom.
When you are able to shift your own perspective from “can’t” and “won’t” to one of “can” and “when,” you are in the perfect mindset to empower your child.
4. Give your child the words: This step is really important and one that we parents sometimes shy away from for fear of “labeling” our child or “giving them an excuse.” ADHD is not an excuse. It is an explanation and opportunity for understanding. As Judith Stern and Uzi Ben-Ami noted, “Familiarizing a child with the definition and nature of [their] own type of ADHD greatly helps to maintain self-esteem.”(3) The most important thing you can do for your child is to help her understand her struggles and provide her with the choice of coping mechanisms, skills, and tools. Frequent and short conversations can build a level of resilience and determination to overcome obstacles. Dr. Ned Hallowell best describes ADHD as a “Ferrari brain with bicycle brakes,” which is a concept that is easy for most kids to embrace. (For more on this check out kidsinthehouse.com/special-needs/add-and-adhd.)
Recognizing your child’s strengths provides a solid foundation for building her self-esteem. Just as no two people are alike, no two ADHD diagnoses are identical. Helping your child find a way to capitalize on those strengths and interests can provide a healthy balance to the areas where she may struggle.
5. Share what you know: There may be a fear of stigmatization of your child should you choose to share their diagnosis with others. However, for those adults who play a significant role in your child’s life, it can be just as eye-opening and positive for them as it is for you! When you share what you know what works for your child as well as the areas your child may have challenges, then you have created an opportunity to help others bring out the best in your child.
If your child is struggling in school, it may be enough to kick-start an educational evaluation or the implementation of interventions and accommodations that can level the playing field for your child in the classroom.
For grandparents and caregivers, information about your child’s type of ADHD can often shift an adult’s perception of behaviors and reactions and even enhance their intersection with your child. Providing other adults some guidance on how to best react to and support your child can provide additional opportunities for your child to learn coping skills and practice appropriate social responses to frustration and conflict resolution. Surrounding your child with the patience, skills, and support that they need will only enhance their positive development and self-esteem.
Parenting a child with ADHD can be a challenge. Allow yourself the space to process your own emotions and engage in educational opportunities to better understand the disorder. Once you have a grasp of what is before you and your child, you will then be able to reframe your parenting approach and share your knowledge not only with your child but also with those who support him or her on a regular basis. Together, the challenges can turn into opportunities for lifelong learning as new information emerges.
Sources, References & Resources:
(1) DSM V diagnostic exclusion critera (Center for Disease Control)
(2) Visser, S., Danielson, M., Bitsko, R., et al. Trends in the Parent-Report of Health Care Provider–Diagnosed and Medicated Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder: United States, 2003–2011. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2014, 53(1):34–46.e2
(3) Stern, J. and Uzi, B. (2008). “Talking to Children about Their Attention Deficit Disorder.” CHADD Parent-to-Parent Workbook, pp. 1-43.