How to Talk to a Child who has Recently been Diagnosed with ADHD
By: Lewis S. Odell, Ph.D.
Lewis Odell, Ph.D. is the Founder and President of LearningWorks for Kids, an educational technology company that specializes in using video games and interactive digital media to teach executive-functioning and academic skills. For the past 25 years, Dr. Odell has also been the Clinical Director and President of South County Child and Family Consultants, a multidisciplinary group of private practitioners that specializes in assessment and interventions for children with learning disorders and attention difficulties.
One of the most difficult challenges facing the parents of children with ADHD is talking to them about their diagnosis. Most kids recently diagnosed with ADHD already have some awareness of these concerns. Most likely, they have been experiencing concentration problems at school, difficulty in following directions, or negative feedback about their behavior. Many children recently diagnosed with ADHD have been through some type of psychological assessment or have at least observed their parents discussing concerns with their pediatrician. So for the most part, it’s no surprise to children that something is going on.
How parents frame their child’s ADHD diagnosis can have a powerful impact on the child’s response to this knowledge. For some children, the diagnosis of ADHD may provide an explanation of what makes certain situations difficult for them. It may also help them to recognize what they need to do in order to improve themselves. Unfortunately for other children, it may serve as an excuse that allows them to rationalize their behavior and to expect less of themselves, rather than to learn how to improve themselves.
Some parents choose not to inform their child of their diagnosis but provide the youngster with interventions at school and medication at home. From my perspective as a child psychologist, I see restricting information as confusing to children, and I advise providing them with an age-appropriate explanation of ADHD. I suggest talking more about the symptoms than focusing on the name “ADHD,” describing concerns such as short attention span, fidgetiness, or problems following directions. Because these children are most likely to have heard the terminology of “ADHD” associated with them, it is generally better to be upfront about what these symptoms are called than to pretend otherwise. Providing children with a basic understanding of ADHD may help to avoid the confusion and fear that ADHD is something far worse than it actually is.
As a general strategy, I suggest a multi-media approach over the course of a few meetings to help your child understand more about his ADHD. Initially, a quiet meeting with parents and perhaps his pediatrician or the psychologist who made the diagnosis could be very helpful. Next, providing the child with some information about what we mean by ADHD could be useful. This could be in the form of books, videos, or even meeting with friends or family members who have been diagnosed with ADHD. Explanations for strategies such as 504 plans at school, tutoring at home, or the use of medication or exercise should be forthcoming and direct. Encouraging questioning is very important in helping children to feel as if their diagnosis of ADHD is not a secret or a problem.
A number of other general approaches are suggested. These include:
1. Honesty and transparency are important. Do not be afraid to use terminology such as ADHD or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactive Disorder. Similarly, if your child is on medication, provide him with the name of the medication (even if he can’t pronounce it) and learn enough about it so you can describe how and why it works.
2. Normalize ADHD. Help your child to recognize that others in the family may have been diagnosed with ADHD. Assist him in seeing that other people display many of the symptoms of ADHD and that they are perfectly fine. It may be useful for him to know about kids in his class who have ADHD or about famous people who have been diagnosed with ADHD.
3. Talk to your child at an age-appropriate level. While I am stressing openness, too much information can be confusing. If you are unsure of how much your child understands, state things as simply as possible and listen for follow-up questions. In a similar fashion to how we talk to children about difficult subjects such as death, sexuality, and disease, we need to be careful about how we talk about ADHD.
4. Talk about ADHD in the context of a growth mindset. Children who have growth mindsets believe that their basic abilities can be developed through dedication, hard work, and ongoing practice. Even if they have some difficulty with attention problems, they are confident that they can succeed through effort and persistence. While I encourage parents to be realistic about how ADHD can make some things more difficult, certain characteristics and interests may become an asset for their child.
5. Create and maintain an environment for open discussion. Once you have had a talk with the child about his ADHD diagnosis, do not simply forget about it but bring it up again in the future, encouraging questions and providing feedback. Help him to see when he is making efforts to overcome any limitations caused by ADHD.
Learn more about Dr. Odell:
Dr. Odell is the author of numerous essays on the use of digital technologies for improving executive-functioning skills in children in which he has developed concepts such as “play diets” and “engamement” to help parents and teachers understand the impact of digital technologies on children. He is the author of Train Your Brain for Success: A Teenager’s Guide to Executive Functions and Playing Smarter in a Digital World: A Guide to Choosing and Using Popular Video Games and Apps to Improve Executive Functioning in Children and Teens.