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How to Explain an ADHD Diagnosis to Your Young Child

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After a battery of diagnostic tests, you finally have your child's diagnosis: ADHD. Now you have to explain the complexities of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder to your young child. These suggestions and resources can help.

Digesting the Diagnosis

Before you talk to your child, take a little time to absorb the diagnosis and its implications. Your child naturally takes cues from you about how to react to new situations. Your attitude will largely determine how your child responds to the diagnosis.

As the candid reactions of the parents quoted in this ADDitude article demonstrate, feelings of guilt, fear, or anger are quite normal after the initial diagnosis. You may even feel some relief at finally naming the condition your child has been dealing with.

If you have ADHD yourself, you may have mixed emotions about your child's diagnosis. While you can relate to your child's strengths and struggles, you may have unresolved feelings about your firsthand experience of ADHD.

Whatever your own feelings about the diagnosis, you will need to acknowledge and accept them before you talk to your child. If you are struggling with feelings of guilt and shame, for example, your child may internalize those feelings.

Consider drawing on your own support network as soon as possible. Plan to include medical professionals, your child's teachers, and other parents of ADHD children.

While you do not want to delay telling your child about the diagnosis for too long, you should take a little time to understand more about ADHD before approaching your child. In this way, you can accurately answer some of your child's questions.

Dr. Thomas E. Brown, Associate Director of the Yale Clinic for Attention and Related Disorders, presents a comprehensive ADHD primer in this video. Dr. Brown provides a detailed understanding of ADHD and how it affects children in particular. He addresses a large range of concerns, including the social and emotional impacts of ADHD.

Approaching Your Child

Once you're ready to talk about the ADHD diagnosis with your child, you may be worried about how to broach the topic. Bear in mind that your child is already aware of ADHD-related problems at school and at home, even though he or she may not understand what is causing them. Further, after the diagnostic testing, your child may suspect that something needs to be discussed.

ADHD specialist Dr. Ned Hallowell compares ADHD to having a race car mind with bicycle brakes.

Even though you and your child will talk about ADHD many times over the years, your first conversation about the diagnosis is particularly important. ADHD expert Dr. Ned Hallowell recommends taking a strong, positive approach when breaking the news of an ADHD diagnosis to your child. In this short video, he explains how he tells newly-diagnosed ADHD children that their brains are like race cars with bicycle brakes. He also tells these children that working with ADHD coaches and specialists will help strengthen their brakes. As Dr. Hallowell advises his patients, ''Instead of saying 'I have some deficit/disorder that needs to get treated,' say, 'I've got a race car, and I need to strengthen my brakes, so I can be a champion!' —And that's the truth.''

Explaining the Impact of ADHD

It's important for your child to understand what ADHD is, and how it could affect him or her. You can explain ADHD to your young child realistically while still staying positive. Here are some examples of what you might say to your child about ADHD:

  • ''ADHD means you think a little differently than most kids—and that's okay. Everyone thinks and learns differently.''


  • ''You may do some things better than other kids. You might have more energy, or be able to focus really well on things you like.''


  • ''You may need extra help with other things—like keeping track of time, focusing on subjects that don't interest you as much, or remembering instructions that your teacher gives you.''


  • ''Knowing you that have ADHD makes it easier for other people, like your parents and teachers, to understand better ways of working with you.''


  • ''Other kids might not understand about ADHD, and we can talk about whether it's a good idea to tell your friends or classmates about it. We'll also talk about what you might want to tell other kids if you do talk to them about ADHD.''


Again, you set the tone for your child. While you should acknowledge the potential for difficulties that ADHD might cause, try to be both compassionate and matter-of-fact about its effects.

Dispelling ADHD Myths and Misunderstandings

To allay your child's worries about having ADHD, you may wish to touch upon some potential misconceptions. Here are a few discussion points to consider.

ADHD Isn't an Illness

Since ADHD is usually diagnosed by a medical professional, your child may believe that the condition is a type of illness. If ADHD medication has been prescribed for your child, he or she may decide that having ADHD means being sick, and that the pills will ''cure'' the condition.

Dr. Thomas E. Brown makes the analogy that taking ADHD medication is like wearing eyeglasses: Not a cure, but an improvement.

ADHD specialist Dr. Thomas E. Brown makes the analogy that ADHD medications are like eyeglasses: The pills don't ''cure'' ADHD any more than glasses ''cure'' poor eyesight. However, both are useful tools that make each of these conditions better.

ADHD Isn't the Same as Intelligence

ADHD affects children and adults across the whole spectrum of intellectual ability. Regardless of someone's intelligence, managing ADHD well is important. Without intervention, ADHD symptoms like inattentiveness, disorganization, and impulsiveness can impact academic performance. Addressing ADHD will allow your child to better fulfill his or her potential.

ADHD Isn't Laziness

Especially for younger children, who may be more sensitive to what they perceive as criticism, it is important to make the distinction that ADHD is not the same thing as laziness. Reassure your child that you will try your best to understand when ADHD makes it difficult to avoid procrastination, complete tasks, or remain punctual.

ADHD Isn't an Excuse for Not Trying

Having ADHD can make life more challenging. However, while you will always be supportive, you will still expect your child to make honest efforts to achieve.

ADHD Doesn't Mean Failure

Lots of famous, successful people have ADHD. Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin brand, is frequently cited as an example of a wealthy businessperson with ADHD. In fact, a recent study suggests that having ADHD may benefit entrepreneurship.

Olympic champion Michael Phelps focused on his love of swimming and won more gold medals than anyone else in history. Pop star Justin Timberlake, actors Channing Tatum and Bex Taylor-Klaus, and Adam Levine (Maroon 5's lead singer) all have ADHD, success, and fame in common.

ADHD Doesn't Mean that You're Alone

Millions of people all over the world have ADHD. Your child will have the support of parents, friends, teachers, and coaches. Through your involvement in parent support groups, your child may meet other children with ADHD who can become friends and confidantes.

Like their parents, children with ADHD should develop a support network.

Resources for Explaining ADHD to Children

There are many resources available to help you explain ADHD to your young child. A number of books have been written for this purpose. Featuring main characters with ADHD, these books cover everything from impulsivity and executive function issues to hyperactivity and inattentiveness.

Consider reading some of these fictional ADHD tales with your child:

Author Book Theme(s)
Barbara Esham Mrs. Gorski, I Think I Have the Wiggle Fidgets (The Adventures of Everyday Geniuses) Creativity & Impulsivity
Donalisa Helsley My Warp Speed Mind Impulsivity & Hyperactivity
Jim Forgan, Ph.D. Terrific Teddy's Excessive Energy Impulsivity & Hyperactivity
Bryan Smith What Were You Thinking?: Learning to Control Your Impulses Impulsivity & Executive Function Issues
Raun Melmed, M.D. Marvin's Monster Diary: ADHD Attacks! (But I Rock It, Big Time) Impulsivity, Hyperactivity, & Inattentiveness

For additional ADHD stories your child may enjoy, check out this list from Study.com.

A non-fiction book, The Survival Guide for Kids with ADHD by John F. Taylor, Ph.D., addresses many facets of ADHD life for children. It includes tips on social relationships, school, and self-care, plus a glossary to help children understand terms related to ADHD and its management.

Reassure your child that the two of you will continue to learn about ADHD...together.

ADHD Adventures

Your child looks to you for reassurance. It's okay not to have all the answers. Let your child know that the two of you will learn more about ADHD all the time. ADHD is an ongoing adventure, and you are taking it together.

By Michelle Baumgartner
November 2018
k-12 parenting tips & tricks

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