ADD vs. ADHD | Child Psychology
Not Broken, Just Different: Explaining ADHD to a Young Child
It can be challenging to explain ADHD to a young child. Find out how you can reassure your youngster about this confusing condition.
By Denise Mann
Medically Reviewed by Pat F. Bass III, MD, MPH
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When he explains what attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is to a child, Robert Cullen, MD, neurologist at Miami Children's Hospital, said he often uses this analogy: “Let’s say you place a dollar bill into a vending machine, and it doesn’t go through. Sometimes, you need to turn it around in the slot to get what you want — you don’t say the machine is broken.”
Children with ADHD aren't broken — they simply process things differently than their peers and may have issues with forming memories as a result. Still, it can be hard to tell a child he or she has ADHD, especially if he or she is young. Some children may worry that ADHD means they are sick or damaged, and they may also have a lot of questions about the ADHD treatment options that doctors and parents talk about during appointments.
Before you can answer these questions, you need to understand ADHD yourself, Dr. Cullen said.
Understanding ADHD Is Key
ADHD is a brain chemistry disorder marked by impulsivity, inattention, and in some cases, hyperactivity. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as many as 3 to 7 percent of school-aged children have ADHD. If left untreated, these children are more likely to struggle in school, holding down a job, being in a relationship, and may have problems with drugs and alcohol. ADHD treatment typically includes behavioral modifications such as regular routines, therapy, and medication.
“ADHD is not a matter of being sick. You have trouble with your memory and many people have the same problem,” Cullen explained. This type of information can also help reassure everyone in the family that ADHD is not a devastating diagnosis.
Trevor Resnick, MD, chief of the neurology department at Miami Children’s Hospital and clinical associate professor of neurology at the University of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine said there is no right way to tell a kid about ADHD. “The most important issue is that it is a chemical imbalance of the brain chemical dopamine and when that imbalance is present, a person may experience some of the ADHD symptoms.”
This diagnosis does not mean the child (nor the parent) is stupid, lazy, or bad. “ADHD is independent of IQ. You can be a genius and have ADHD,” Cullen said.
“Lazy implies you can do something and choose not to, but that is not the case with ADHD,” added Andrew Adesman, MD, the chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Steven and Alexandra Cohen Children's Medical Center of New York.
Tips for Explaining ADHD to Your Child
Focus on the positives, Dr. Adesman said. “Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and when talking about ADHD with kids, it has to be within the context that there are things a child does well and things he or she does less well.”
Exactly, agreed Jamie Levine, MS Ed, founder and director of Team Esteem, a New York City-based group that helps support children with ADHD inside and outside the classroom. She advises that parents of a newly diagnosed child keep it simple and age appropriate. “To a young child, you can say ‘you have a lot of energy, which means you can do this and that, but you have difficulty with other things,’” she said. “Every brain works differently, and all kids learn differently.”
New York City based public relations executive Nancie Steinberg kept it real when she told her then 8-year-old son that he had ADHD. “I told him that he needed some extra help focusing, and that medication would help him do this,” she said. “He understood, and we saw positive changes in school really early on.” Steinberg said her son no longer takes medication and is still doing well.
Some parents may have a hard time telling kids about their ADHD medication, and many kids may ask why they need a pill if they are not sick. A lot of parents call ADHD pills vitamins in an attempt to make their kids feel less sick, but others are wary of approaching that grey area. "I say that this is a pill for memory. It’s not a vitamin,” Cullen said.
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