It’s normal to worry about your kid and to compare their developmental pace with other kids in your life — and it’s even more normal to feel overwhelmed if you suspect your child may have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) or otherwise be neurodivergent. But the rise in ADHD diagnosis rates means more and more parents are seeking out answers to their questions about their child’s behavior. ADHD is now the most common neurobiological disorder in the United States, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), “and more than 9% of children aged 2-17 receive an ADHD diagnosis during their childhood.”
Here, parents of children who have been through the diagnosis process share what they wish they’d known sooner about parenting a child with ADHD. (We’ve used pseudonyms to protect the privacy of their families.) The wisdom other parents have gleaned can’t replace an official diagnosis — or the care of a qualified professional. But it can make parents who are asking questions about their child’s mind works feel less alone — and less frightened of the answers, whatever they may be.
ADHD doesn’t always look obvious.
“I wish I’d known that ADHD isn’t just inattention, hyperactivity, and poor academic performance. There are so many other hallmarks of ADHD that aren’t well known. After my son’s diagnosis, I learned about them and it was like hearing someone talk about my kid specifically.
My son always performed well in school. Prior to his diagnosis, teachers noticed he could be energetic and often inattentive. He would struggle to start or finish work. But ultimately, these struggles didn’t negatively affect academic performance (his test scores and assessments remained pretty high) and because he was also socially well-adjusted, teachers and doctors assured me I had no reason to be concerned about ADHD. But he was an explosively emotional child, to the point that I took him to Yale to see if he’d qualify to be part of a study for children with anxiety disorders. They told me that while he didn’t meet the criteria for an anxiety disorder, he showed a lot of signs of ADHD. Emotional dysregulation (emotional outbursts, disproportionate reactions to situations, anger or anxiety spiraling) and impulsivity (not just rashness but, for example, having to do something just one more time after you’ve told them to stop), are very common in kids with ADHD. Other, less dire things, like time blindness and a tendency to interrupt or narrate/talk to themselves are also pretty common but never anything we associate with ADHD. I wish I had known all this because he could have gotten help (and probably more compassion from teachers) sooner.” — Hannah, mom of 2
Medication helps them grow in ways they couldn’t have before.
“I was very hesitant for my child to try medication, but learning that stimulants work right away, and only stay in a child’s system for that day, helped me to feel comfortable trying some options. Ultimately, we discovered that one medication really helped my child to come down into himself enough to connect with the people around him, follow through on activities he enjoyed, and participate in life around him, in a way that has benefited him significantly. As a family, we now spend less time on behavioral guidance and more time bonding. We see that it helps to make quiet space inside him, so that he can grow in ways that weren’t really happening without it. For now, we consider medication to be a valuable tool in our toolbox.” — Lucy, mom of 2
Medication is a tool for your child, not a crutch.
“I wish I had known sooner that medication is not a crutch, but rather a tool that allows my child to be their best version of themselves in a world not designed for neurodiverse individuals. I see so many parents trying every other option under the sun before finally turning to medication, and I wish they would consider how much data there is about how it really can help. When my child began medication, it was like the noise in their head quieted down and they could really engage with the world fully for the first time. It’s the first time I saw them play functionally, reciprocally play with peers, and sit and do LEGO with us. I am not saying medication is a fit for every child, but I just wish it wasn’t seen as such a boogeyman. In fact, after going through the diagnosis process with my child, I was finally diagnosed with ADHD at age 38, and medication changed my life too. For the first time in my life, the chaos in my head was reined in and I could focus. I now know a bit of what my kid felt.” — Natalie, mom of 4
ADHD can look totally different in boys and girls.
“I’ve learned that ADHD is heritable, and I wish much earlier in the process I had thought, OK, kid one has ADHD — maybe check the parents and the sibling, too, because it doesn’t just pop up out of nowhere. Now that we know we all have it — my husband and both my children — I can be more intentional about when I am dealing with my own ADHD, versus when one of my children needs help. I get to really explicitly model strategies and coping mechanisms, because they know that I have it, too. It has created more of an understanding.
It is also helpful for parents to know that ADHD often looks really different in AFAB [assigned female at birth] people and people who are socialized female. When you have a little boy who’s bouncing off the walls and jumping up and down, not listening to you and leaving us stuff everywhere, your mind kind of goes there. The way that it presents in girls can often be really different and we can miss it because we’re not aware of how environment and socialization impacts that experience.” — Quinn, mom of 2
You’ll have to reframe your expectations for your kid.
“Potty training is a pain in the a*s for ADHD kids. Feed them often. When they lose their sh*t, offer food, water, rest, love. Sometimes in a weird order. They’re like Tomagatchis — hit the needs until you get the right one. Candy will not make them more hyper. Brush their teeth for them, probably forever.
Make use of an official accomodation (often called a 504) in school if you can — and as soon as you can. Protecting your child’s ability to learn even in the face of difficulties is so critical. Schools have come a long way but it many still have a long way to go.” — Maria, mom of 2
We feel guilty for all the times we thought he was being a bad listener and not just himself.
“My 11-year-old boy has had an ADHD diagnosis for about two years. I hesitated for a long time before having him evaluated because I really didn’t want him to feel the stigma from the diagnosis or be put in a box. But I wish we hadn’t waited because I feel like we were so hard on him for things that weren’t his fault. We just hadn’t experienced those things with our other two kids and so we thought he was just a bad listener or too wild or just plain annoying. Now my heart breaks when I think back to all the times the rest of us in the family shushed or shamed him for just being him. Which is a lively and lovely little guy. (Who is still himself with medication, but more able to focus and remember instructions.)” — Julia, mom of 1
Finally getting the diagnosis itself was so helpful.
“I wish I had known how hard I would have to work to get a clear diagnosis — and that it would be incredibly helpful once we got one. My son had been diagnosed with dyslexia before 4th grade and we got him help for that, but he was still having so much difficulty connecting to school work and regulating himself. Instead of pushing to find out if something else was going on, I waited to see if a teacher or school administrator would come to us and say “I’ve noticed something about your son.” I was so worried about being pushy or overbearing, or that somehow I would undermine my son by foisting a label on him or pathologizing his behavior. My husband and I waited, watching him struggle, but we never got any direct feedback from school. If you read his reports, you’d think everything was great, but I could tell he was a kid in distress. Finally, I decided to seek out more guidance, making an appointment with a psychiatrist who could help us figure out if what we were dealing with was anxiety or ADHD or just something that fell into the general category of ‘growing up is hard.’ When we got a definitive answer, it made everything so much easier in terms of seeking out care, support, and medication, which has helped him tremendously. Best of all, instead of feeling burdened by a diagnosis or label, my son feels liberated and can begin to understand how his own mind works, what supports he needs, and to connect with other kids and adults who have ADHD.” — Zara, mom of 2