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Empowering Your Child with ADHD: A Parent's Guide to Communication

Updated: Feb 24, 2023


This is an image of a young girl talking with her mom

You have spent years trying to understand your child and finally received a diagnosis from their doctor: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.


What a relief to have answers!


You communicate the diagnosis with their teachers and begin creating systems for them to be more successful.


Now what?


Should your child know about this too? Will it cause them distress or embarrassment?


This article will provide reasons for why discussing ADHD with your child is important and offer practical tools for meaningful and productive conversations.


Table of contents


Should I tell my child what their ADHD diagnosis means?


According to recent statistics, around 6 million children (or 9.8%) aged 3-17 have an ADHD diagnosis.


People with ADHD are at increased risk for depression and anxiety. It is important to support understanding as your child grows so that they do not feel negative about their neurological differences.


If children understand they are not alone in their challenges, they may be more willing participants in their treatment and may utilize more tools.


It's important to normalize the challenges and understand how the ADHD brain works.


ADHD coach and director of Behavioral Medicine Clinic of NW Michigan encourages parents to have a conversation with their kids sooner than later.

You want them to be involved, to understand, and to be on board...I have two children with ADHD, so I can speak from experience.
This is a visual of a colorful brain with terms that state benefits of adhd brains.
ADHD Brains

What age is appropriate to start talking about their diagnosis?

It's never too early to talk your child about what ADHD means.

Many doctors and professionals in the field of psychology share this belief.

Recognize your child's age and shape your words in a way that makes sense.


Children with ADHD need to feel supported and be part of the treatment plan from the beginning.


According to Dr. Terry Dickenson:

The goal is to help your child understand what ADHD means, what it doesn't mean, and how to be successful at school and in life. You'll talk about it many times as your child grows and develops. You need to help your child feel special, and like he is part of the plan.

It's important to share and answer questions early so that they gain an accurate picture of themselves.


Do's and Don'ts of explaining ADHD

We often have the assumption ADHD simply means a child has a lot of energy or trouble focusing. These do not provide the full picture of a person with ADHD.


To understand the full picture of ADHD, it helps to be familiar with the concept of the ADHD Iceberg. The ADHD Iceberg is an analogy for explaining all the challenges that a person is experiencing "below the surface".


To learn more about this concept, check out the article, Parenting Students with ADHD: What Is The ADHD Iceberg? (2022).



Dr. Hallowell, author of 20 books, including the Distraction series and Super-parenting for ADD, believes parents should teach a strength-based model.


While there is a potentially serious downside to ADHD, there also is a potentially spectacular upside to it as well.

Consider these recommendations as you prepare to discuss ADHD with your child.

DO

DON'T

Make your child feel loved

Expect them to have full buy-in

Pick a good time with no distractions

Make it bigger than it should be

Focus on the positives

Use negative tone or words

Keep open communication

Ignore concerns

Answer questions

Let them use ADHD as a crutch


What is the best way to describe attention deficit hyperactivity disorder?


"We found out you have an amazing brain."


Not what you expected?


When a new child is diagnosed, Hallowell says you can share your child's diagnosis in the following way:


Your brain is very powerful. Your brain is like a Ferrari, a race car. You have the power to win races and become a champion...though, you have bicycle brakes. Your brakes just aren’t strong enough to control the powerful brain you’ve got. But not to worry...if you work with me, we can strengthen your brakes.

As parents, you can take the same approach. You are helping them harness the gifts of their powerful brains.


Talk openly about how everyone's brain is different and has strengths and weaknesses. They have what's called a neurodivergent brain.


Educational Psychologist Dr. Liz Angoff provides simple statements that may be helpful:

  • "ADHD means your brain is built in a way that makes memory and creativity easy, but writing and waiting your turn more difficult."

  • "ADHD means your brain is noticing a lot of things at once, but it may be tricky to focus in on the one thing your teacher is asking."

  • "ADHD means your brain enjoys things that are new and exciting, but it may be harder to learn things you have to repeat a lot, like math facts."

  • "ADHD means your brain is great at organizing people, but struggles to organize things."

Some of the benefits or "superpowers" of ADHD are:

  • Curiosity

  • Creativity

  • Energy

  • Hyper-focus

  • Resilience

  • Conversational skills


They are now in the company of some brilliant minds...olympic athletes, famous actors and actresses, and talented musicians. Even Walt Disney & Albert Einstein were believed to have lived with the diagnosis.


These individuals did not allow ADHD to limit their success and many attribute ADHD as one of the reasons for their success!


What are strategies I can use to talk with my child about their ADHD diagnosis?

Go into the conversation with a positive attitude and also be prepared to address some of the challenges and empathize with them.


  • Discuss what your child has been feeling. They may be experiencing:

    • forgetfulness

    • emotional dysregulation

    • feelings of restlessness

    • impulsiveness

    • difficulty starting or finishing tasks (even if they want to do them)

    • exhaustion


  • Express understanding for their emotions and how they might feel different from other kids.

    • ADHD may feel like the examples below:



  • Describe school and home accommodations as a way to help your child be in control of their ADHD brain, instead of the other way around.


  • Tell your school-aged child that they can talk with their teacher to help them be successful. They can ask their teacher for help with:

    • Breaking assignments into smaller parts

    • Organizing work

    • Sitting in a calmer and less-distracting location

    • Taking movement breaks

    • Reviewing missed information


  • Help them understand that they can take care of themselves by:

    • Being active, sleeping and eating healthy

    • Talking with parents and teachers about what they need when they have trouble paying attention or staying on task

    • Using strategies for self regulation

    • Identifying what their brain is doing and having compassion for themselves

    • Taking medication if given to help calm their brain down


Addressing the positives and challenges will demystify ADHD and empower your child.


Important Topics to cover

It takes time, patience, and effort to manage ADHD.


With open conversation about their diagnosis, children with ADHD can have a positive self-image and feel successful.


Spend time brainstorming about ADHD by discussing:

  1. What ADHD is

  2. Strategies for self-regulation

  3. A daily routine/schedule

  4. Motivators and interests to help when their brain is disengaged

  5. Plans for keeping the brain energized and healthy (sleep, diet, exercise)


Explaining ADHD to your kids is not an easy task. But it's an important one. You can utilize outside resources such as your child's doctor and coaches for help.


Executive function specialists are specially trained to support students with ADHD and can also help to begin conversations individually and with family. To find out more see Executive coaching: The definitive guide.


Resources to use with your child

When you sit down to process together, these visuals and short videos about ADHD and self-regulation strategies are great for getting started:


Further Reading


About the author:

Kelsey Sinclair is an executive function specialist with EFS. She was a special educator for over 10 years in public school settings. She completed her masters degree in Education with an emphasis on educational therapy to support students with executive functioning deficits. She specializes in social/emotional skill development and provides interventions to those with learning disabilities such as dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia. Kelsey utilizes a strengths-based approach to coaching, supporting her students toward independence and a positive self-concept.


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EFS started with one teacher deciding that kids with ADHD needed better access to quality executive function coaching services. Since then, we have grown to a team of specialists working both private students and public schools to enhance executive function skills for all students. 

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