ADHD parents are up there with the anti-vaxxers in terms of how harshly they are frowned upon. With parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, common sense and piles of actual research back up the judgment. In the case of parents whose kids are diagnosed with ADHD, people are armed with a self-righteous lack of insight that is common with ‘invisible’ disorders and diseases.
I know this because I’ve been there, quick to roll my eyes every time I heard someone claim their child had ADHD. I am now at the other end of the spectrum, as the parent of a sweet funky kid who was diagnosed half a year ago. What I have found on the other side of the fence is, quite often, a lot of unintended judgment and some glaring misconceptions.
1. ADHD just means hyperactive kids, right?
There are two main misconceptions about ADHD. The first one is about the disorder itself. Most people have the vague knowledge that kids who have ADHD are hyperactive, rambunctious, possibly bad-behaved because of lack of discipline and lazy parenting. ADHD is much more complex than that. It is a neurological disorder that involves six different skills that are regulated by the frontal lobe part of the brain. Here’s the 101 on these, based on the book “Mindful Parenting for ADHD” (I know, kooky title, but very helpful book):
- Attention management: as in not only having trouble focusing (especially in over-stimulating environments, like, uhm, an elementary school classroom) but also being way too focused at times and having difficulty shifting attention and transitioning from activities.
- Action management: basically impulse control, monitoring your body and behavior. This is what makes it almost impossible for some kids to control certain reactions, or stop themselves from throwing a perfectly still eraser across the room.
- Task management: organizing, planning, prioritizing, monitoring time. This plays a big role in their ability to handle schoolwork and becomes a bigger issue as children get older.
- Information management: working memory, which holds short-term information, allows you to follow a set of instructions that might include a bunch of steps. Tell a young child with ADHD to do four things, and on his way to work on the third he’ll likely get distracted by a toy on the floor and plop down to play, having 120% forgotten what he’s supposed to be doing.
- Emotion management: kids with ADHD may be quick to get angry, frustrated, upset, or to give up. Outbursts are often swiftly followed by regret or embarrassment, as in when my young one yells at his older brother and smacks him after being accidentally stepped on and the one crying is the one who just did the smacking.
- Effort management: processing speed is an important factor here, as some kids with ADHD have an impaired ability to work quickly and effectively. They typically need more time than their peers to handle things from school work to get out of the house. Living in a world where everyone is expecting to zoom through things, this can be a big source of stress for ADHD kids.
Now, imagine that you’re an 8-year-old boy who, like my younger monkey, struggles to some degree with all six of them. And now, imagine going through a school day, in a noisy classroom, sitting still, being quiet, jumping from one assignment or activity to another. Then another school day. And another. Imagine working so hard every day to catch up, control your impulses, keep up with the transitions, handle all the stimulation. Constantly noticing that you are lagging behind your peers, getting in trouble regularly because you can’t always control those impulses, finding it difficult to sustain friendships.
It’s so funny when I hear from people that “we didn’t have ADHD in the 70s, or in the 80s!”. Right, back then those kids would get cast aside, labeled as ‘troublemakers’, get used to bad grades, and hate school by 5th grade at the very latest. Thankfully we live now in a time when ADHD children can get meaningful support, in the form of inclusion classrooms, well-trained teachers, therapy, and in some cases medication. The more support we can give them, and the earlier they can start receiving it, the better. That means more compassion, less eye-rolling, and more listening.
#2: Pediatricians hand out diagnoses and prescriptions like it’s going out of style
Now, the second big misconception is the diagnosis itself. Common lore says shady pediatricians declare a patient has ADHD after a solid five minutes with them, and readily write up a prescription for some medication or another without giving it a second thought. While everyone’s experience is different, I know ours was similar to many other families, so I’ll share our timeline as a sample.
Last Spring, my second grader was having trouble at school. It had never been smooth sailing for him, but we kept running into the same issues, and more often. I spent a lot of time talking to his teachers, paraprofessional, and therapists. All of them were well-versed in special education, agreed his symptoms were textbook ADHD and recommended doing an evaluation. I consulted with his pediatrician, who has known him for years. She referred him for an evaluation with a pediatric neuropsychologist at NYU. I called to make an appointment and got a date four months later (hooray for private healthcare!). And then we waited.
To prepare for the evaluation, the neuropsychologist requested my child’s IEP (which includes reports and recommendations from his teachers and therapists) as well as report cards and detailed medical history. The actual evaluation took place over five hours. Besides the exercises and observations she went through with him during that time, we spoke for about an hour and I filled out three lengthy questionnaires. A week later, I went back to get the report, and she walked me through his ADHD diagnosis.
It is one thing to kind of know your child has ADHD, and another to sit there and see it all in print over 14 detailed pages. Like with his previous diagnosis though, I mostly felt relief, knowing we now knew what we’re dealing with and would keep on working to give him the best support possible.
Oh, and the meds? Not a quick trip to the pediatrician’s discount mart either. First I had to obsess over it for a couple of months, read a bunch of books, talk to anybody I knew with ADHD kids about their experience, and so on. Our pediatrician thought it was a good idea. We saw a pediatric neurologist, who also thought it was a good idea. We decided to check with another pediatric neurologist, and he too recommended we try medication. My now third grader is on a low dose of Vyvanse, and it’s made a very positive difference. Remember earlier when we went through a school day? Well, this is what’s been happening since we started with medication:
Because he’s able to focus for longer periods, his schoolwork has improved and he’s catching up to his peers. That’s a nice self-esteem boost right there. Being able to have better control over his impulses makes it so that he’s not getting in trouble every day, resulting in less anxiety and smoother relationships with his friends. Another good self-esteem boost. Feeling better about himself and getting that cloud of negativity off his head gives him an all-around better disposition, which helps continue the cycle of positive behavior. We’re on a good path.
Medication doesn’t work the same way for everyone, and I’m not saying everyone should try it. I don’t mean to start any debates on that. I’m just sharing our experience as far as the prescription process, and the changes that we’ve seen since we started medication. The goal here isn’t to get a rowdy kid to chill and leave you alone. It is to give them a chance to excel, have a good experience at school, discover their talents, be happy. That’s what any parent wants, isn’t it?
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for listening. While at this point I am so used to the staring and the eye rolling and all of that, it is truly heartwarming when people show empathy and compassion, or just a lil’ bit of patience. So thank you.