This guide provides a roadmap to the key ADHD facts you need to know, and issues that you will most likely need to navigate parenting an ADHD child. Whether you have recently received a diagnosis, or you are still in the evaluation stage, here are some guideposts to the road that lies ahead.
So, you are somewhere near the beginning of your ADHD journey. Maybe you’ve just recently received a diagnosis for your child. Or, perhaps you are still in the middle of the evaluation process. You know something’s not right, but haven’t quite nailed down what. But, wherever you are in your journey, here’s a review of some ADHD facts you should know as you step into the world of parenting an ADHD child.
Let’s start with acknowledging that ADHD is hard. Parenting a child with ADHD is hard. And pointing to countless examples of positive outcomes probably doesn’t changes that. Not in the here and now.
At the beginning, it’s just plain hard. And, as you’re starting to get a handle on stuff, it can feel a lot like trying to drink water from a firehose. But know that you’re not alone.
My ADHD parenting journey began about two years ago. Depending on where you are in your own journey that may sound like a long time, or it may seem like just a blip. But, I get it. That intro period to trying to figure out ADHD can be overwhelming and confusing. But all of it can be managed when you have the right information and tools.
I. ADHD Facts: Basic Background & Orientation
Pretty much anyone who has had any level of media exposure has heard of ADHD. But the shorthand references that we frequently encounter don’t provide a good picture of the reality of the condition. Sometimes you will see the term ADHD used as a generic adjective to describe someone who bounces around from item to item. Or, someone who can’t sit still and is maniacally energetically active.
Basically, vague notions of not staying focused on any one thing, or aimlessly flitting around like a hummingbird. But these casual references to ADHD can be quite misleading. And, they detract from the fact that there’s an actual physical condition associated with the term.
ADHD Is An Actual Physical Condition, Not An Adjective.
ADHD is a brain-based disorder that creates difficulties with regulation and executive function. It’s characterized by pervasive inattention, impulsivity and/or hyperactivity that is beyond what you would typically expect from someone of the same age. And, the difficulties are sufficiently severe that they interfere with daily functioning across multiple settings such as school, home, work, public outings, etc.
For this purpose, executive function essentially means the management functions of your brain. Your ability to control impulses, plan, prioritize, and organize. It’s also that inner voice inside your head that guides your behavior, evaluates your performance and helps you work out problems.
In kids, this condition typically displays as the inability to ignore distractions, the inability to pause actions long enough to consider potential consequences, an inability to slow down or halt physical activity, and an inability to delay gratification.
Getting a Diagnosis
My youngest child was diagnosed with ADHD when he was still in preschool. It was a formal diagnosis after a neuropsych evaluation. The evaluation included multiple days of classroom observation, teacher consultations, and a battery of tests. We also consulted with a child psychiatrist.
Often times, a pediatrician will be the starting point for an evaluation for ADHD, but not always. Our pediatrician was also involved briefly. But she turned out to be completely useless and unhelpful. Completely counter-productive. She’s not our pediatrician any longer.
Regardless of who the point person professional is for the evaluation, any valid legitimate diagnosis for ADHD will involve an assessment under the criteria of the DSM-5. (The DSM 5 is a manual published by the American Psychiatric Association for healthcare professionals and researchers to diagnose and classify recognized mental disorders.)
The Centers For Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a great simple summary of how ADHD is diagnosed using the DSM 5 criteria.
But, for this discussion, here’s an even more stripped down explanation:
Under the official criteria for diagnosis, there are three different types of ADHD, with some example symptoms:
- Predominantly inattentive (sometimes referred to as ADD)
- Prone to frequent careless errors
- Struggles to pay attention
- Can’t seem to listen or follow instructions
- Disorganized and forgetful
- Predominantly hyperactive-impulsive
- Major fidgeter who can’t sit still
- Constant excessive movement
- Frequently interrupts or intrudes on others
- Excessive talking
- Acts as if driven by a motor
- Combined (both hyperactive-impulsive and inattentive)
- Has symptoms of both of the prior two types.
A key factors for diagnosing ADHD requires that the problems at issue have been shown in a variety of different settings. And, they must also have been present for at least 6 months.
Managing Parental Expectations
Regardless of what type or category of ADHD you’re dealing with, it’s important to remember one of the most critical ADHD facts. Your child has an involuntary medical condition. Because of the nature of the condition, it can be extremely easy to forget that. But you should try to keep it in the forefront of your mind.
Some of your child’s behaviors and actions are truly outside of his immediate control. It’s not a function of mischief or wilfulness. So, you should try to refrain from assuming that a child who is not listening to you or following your instructions is being deliberately non-compliant.
And, another one of the ADHD facts that’s critical to remember is that ADHD kids are delayed developmentally when it comes to executive functioning. So you have to recalibrate your expectations. Your ADHD child will be a few years behind peers (or siblings) when it comes to impulse control, emotional regulation, organization and time management.
II. Key ADHD Facts On Treatment
Can ADHD be cured?
Once you have a diagnosis for a condition, your natural response as a parent is “how do we fix this?” I recall innocently asking some question to that effect of a neuropsychologist. My question received a small warm chuckle in response. I was told that we don’t cure kids with ADHD. That’s just part of who they are. You adapt, treat and learn strategies to manage. (It took me awhile to truly appreciate those ADHD facts.)
Most experts, like the psychologist above, believe that ADHD cannot be cured. However, it’s effects can be mediated. And, for some folks, the symptoms may lessen over time. Proper and effective ADHD treatments can substantially decrease negative ADHD symptoms and impaired functioning. Many successful people across all walks of life have ADHD (see below).
In contrast, untreated ADHD can lead to severe negative life consequences. Including school disruptions or failures, dysfunctional relationships, substance abuse, depression, legal struggles, and impaired job prospects or job failure.
What are long-term prospects?
About 80% of people diagnosed with ADHD as kids continue to show symptoms as a teenager. And, the majority continue to show symptoms into adulthood (about 50-65%). But, based on modern research, it’s believed that approximately 20% to 35% of ADHD kids no longer show negative symptoms as adults (meaning symptoms that impair functioning).
So, while there are no actual cures, it does appear that some group of kids manage to grow or develop out of ADHD being a significant factor in their lives. Will your kid be one of the 20% who magically has no symptoms as a teenager or adult?
At this point, no way to know in advance. So, we have to focus on long term strategies.
Successful People With ADHD
Let’s preface this by saying that you don’t have to be famous to be successful! But when folks compile lists of successful people, they generally catalogue celebrities and historical figures. And, sometimes such lists can be inspirational, comforting or just plain fun. Here’s some links to check out:
- The Stars Who Aligned ADHD with Success
- Famous People with ADHD (from addadult.com)
- Famous People with ADHD (from Parenting.com)
- Seven Habits of Highly Successful Entrepreneurs With ADHD (includes list of 6 entrepreneurs)
III. Major Treatment Options
Successful management of ADHD requires support, treatment and intervention on a several different levels. This is usually described as a “multimodal” approach. And, an effective treatment plan for your child can include interventions and support on a variety of levels including behavioral, educational, psychological and social.
Regardless of how the different pieces fit together, a parent will typically be the primary point person who manages and coordinates all of these activities. And, parents who educate themselves about ADHD and research-based or evidence-based treatment options can make informed and effective decisions regarding their child’s care.
Broadly speaking, there are three main categories of treatment options for ADHD: behavioral interventions, medication options, and a combination of both. In addition to these primary categories of interventions, many families have had success managing various ADHD issues through means such as diet, special nutrients, and exercise.
Behavioral Interventions and Strategies
- Parent training – education about ADHD and skills and methods for managing challenging behaviors. Examples:
- Creation and implementation of effective structured systems for administering rewards and consequences.
- Child-focused training – assist children and teens with social skills, study skills, problem-solving, and self advocacy.
- Classroom based programs – implementing strategies in cooperation with school/teacher to monitor and manage behavior on a consistent basis. (Eg., rewards systems, consequences, and daily report cards to home)
- Research studies have shown that stimulant medications can be effective in treating 70-95% of ADHD kids for whom it’s prescribed. These include:
- The methylphenidate family — Ritalin, Concerta, Daytrana, Methylin, and other generic versions.
- The amphetamine family — Adderall, Dexedrine, Vyvanse, and other generic versions.
- Kids who do not respond well to one type of medication will often respond to another.
- The FDA has also approved a non-stimulant medication as safe and effective for the treatment of ADHD in kids –Strattera (Atomoxetine).
- Other medications that may be prescribed as part of an ADHD treatment plan:
- Antihypertensives such as clonidine or guanfacine.
According to existing research, the majority of ADHD children who receive a combination of medication and behavioral treatment improve significantly.
- Educational supports and accommodations – whether through an 504, IEP or otherwise
- Tutoring, counseling, coaching
- Brain training technology – such as Cogmed, Activate, and interactive metronome training
- Social skills training
- Identify, develop and nurture strengths and special interests (e.g., art, music, dance, theater, sports, outdoors)
Related Content: How To Manage ADHD Kids With Better Foods You’ll Love
IV. ADHD Facts: ADHD Seldom Travels Alone
You should be aware that ADHD often travels with a buddy. And, sometimes it has a whole posse.
Approximately 75% of ADHD kids also have another disorder or condition. And, approximately 25% to 50% of ADHD kids also have a specific learning disability. This will most commonly be a language-based learning disability like dyslexia.
Other conditions that frequently occur along with ADHD:
- Anxiety disorder
- Auditory processing
- Sensory processing
- Other learning differences
- Sleep disorders
- Bipolar disorder
Many of the disorders in the list above have symptoms that overlap with ADHD, as well as each other. And, some coexisting conditions can create functional impairments that far exceed those created by ADHD alone. This can make diagnosis and treatment complex.
V. Key ADHD Facts On Managing Behavior
Many of the characteristics that comprise ADHD create behavior challenges. And the topic of managing behavior issues of ADHD kids can fill a small library. Parents of almost all ADHD kids, regardless of the treatment options pursued, will have to employ some level of strategies for behavioral management. This includes kids who take medications.
You will encounter a variety of strategies, tools, tactics and suggestions floating around regarding behavioral management for ADHD kids. Some of these are focused on a classroom setting. And some are more parent centered. Regardless, you will find some common themes and principles.
Externally derived motivation with a visual or tangible record of progress.
Some of the most commonly recommended behavioral strategies center around some type of rewards system. You can find many variations on these themes of rewards and consequences, and you have to experiment to see what works for your child. And, what works may vary a lot based on age.
So, for example, you’ll see frequent references to various token economies and systems for exchanging poker chips for bounties and what have you. Or, examples of elaborate charts. That may or may not be necessary at any given time, and sometimes what works for a few weeks may need to be swapped out for something else.
I’ve had various charts and kits purchased on Amazon or elsewhere turn out to be meaningfully effective. But I’ve also had great success using a homemade chart created on the fly with only a pen, a colored note card and some gold stars.
An abundance of positive reinforcement.
It’s very easy to find reasons to correct your ADHD child every day. Many times a day. But, constantly being corrected or admonished can quickly take a toll on your spirit and self-image. So it’s extremely important to make opportunities to shine a spotlight on all of the good things that your child is and does. Even when those positive actions may be far outnumbered by the not so good ones on any given day.
Virtually every expert will say that you should find something to praise about your ADHD child every day. Some even say that you should try and have a formula of finding 2, 3 or 4 good acts to praise for every one act that warrants a criticism.
Consistent application of rules with the immediate administration of rewards and consequences.
Children with ADHD need consistent rules that they can understand and follow. Consistency brings clarity and predictability. And they know and understand what behavior is expected. But, a rule isn’t really much of a rule if it’s only sporadically enforced.
In addition to consistency, any consequences to result from your kid’s actions need to be almost immediate to be effective. Delayed consequences are ineffective and possibly counterproductive. If there is any meaningful amount of time between the event and the consequence, the child may not mentally and emotionally connect the two. Instead, it may just seem arbitrary and unfair.
Similarly, rewards that are too far in the future will not provide adequate incentive for action. You need to recognize small intermediate steps on the way to the big goal. They don’t necessarily need to be big prizes, but some level of recognition. So, for instance, stickers on a card, and when the card has 10 stickers that earns some other desired item, opportunity or reward.
For more tips on behavior strategies, check out our post on how to discipline an ADHD child.
Also, many times behavioral issues will arise from the big emotions that ADHD kids often experience. Find out more about ADHD, big emotions, and the angry ADHD child.
VI. Key ADHD Facts About School
Sorting through the key ADHD facts and issues about school and educational options can be particularly tough. And, there have been times where various school and school-related issues have literally brought us to tears.
There’s basically two buckets of issues. First, how’s your kid going to learn when he’s in school. And, second, how’s he going to get his work done outside of school.
Many ADHD symptoms present obstacles to academic success and learning. ADHD kids have impaired working memory and executive functioning. That leads to problems with organization, homework, and implementing good study skills. Issues with missing deadlines, incomplete or missed assignments, and poorly organized work product can overshadow otherwise strong cognitive abilities. And, also lead to poor academic performance and grades. Plus, you have potential conduct issues and social skills issues that can make getting through a full day of school difficult.
So, given that ADHD can create obstacles to school success, how do you tackle those obstacles? One place to start is trying to structure your child’s school setting so that it is more advantageous for his learning. This can be done through accommodations and supports.
For ADHD kids in public school, the jurisdiction where you live largely determines the amount of individual accommodations and supports available. But, in theory, federal law provides a minimum floor.
Legal Rights At School
Please note that this is a broad general overview. The law in this area can be very detailed and complex. One great resource to consult for more detailed information is Wrightslaw (www.wrightslaw.com).
Two primary federal laws protect students with disabilities, including learning disabilities and ADHD.
- Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA 2004)
- This law governs how states and public entities provide early intervention, special education and related services.
- Students with a qualifying condition must receive an Individualized Education Program (IEP). An IEP is a written plan that establishes the programs, supports, aids and services to be provided. It also requires measurable annual goals and progress reports.
- The IDEA specifies different categories of disabilities. For IDEA purposes, ADHD can often be characterized as Other Health Impaired (OHI), Specific Learning Disability (SLD), or Emotional Disturbance (ED).
- Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973
- This law bars discrimination against people with disabilities.
- ADHD kids who cannot qualify for IDEA services may still be eligible for accommodations and supports under a Section 504 plan.
More generally, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) also applies to students.
The applicable provisions of the relevant federal laws provide students with the following rights:
- A free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment appropriate to their needs
- Access to adaptations, accommodations, modifications or other supports necessary to allow participation in a general education program
- An opportunity to participate in extracurricular and non-academic activities
- Free and non-discriminatory evaluation
- Procedural due process
What about private schools?
Private schools that do not receive federal funding do not fall under the jurisdiction of the IDEA or Section 504. However, they could still be subject to the anti-discrimination provisions of the ADA (unless they are controlled by a religious organization).
But, if you are considering private school as an option, there are many private schools that provide structures and supports specifically for kids with learning and attention issues. Some may be schools intended for a general student population. While others may have as their primary educational mission providing quality educational opportunities to kids with learning and attention issues.
Helping Your ADHD Child Manage Homework
Not all learning takes place on the school grounds. Homework is an important part of the educational process. And, as your child advances in school, the homework demands continue to increase. Obviously, you can’t actually do your child’s homework for him, but there are many steps that you can take to help him get it done in a less painful and stressful manner.
- Have a consistent designated time for homework (e.g., immediately after school, after dinner, etc.).
- Set up a homework station.
- Establish a system of pre-planned breaks and set a timer. For instance, a 5-10 minute break for every 20-30 minutes of homework.
- Be in the same general area and available to help.
- Help your child make sure that everything gets packed up so that it can be taken to school and turned in on time.
- Communicate with the teacher as to how long homework should generally be taking and let the teacher know if your child isn’t able to finish in that time.
For more tips on homework help for ADHD Kids, check out the suggestions from CHADD (Children and Adults with ADHD).
VII. Home & Family Issues
ADHD can create or exacerbate normal stressors in any family. And, you should recognize that the effects of ADHD can permeate all levels of family life. For instance, how you structure morning and evening family routines will be heavily influenced by ADHD issues, and this affects all members of the family.
But two of the biggest sources of internal family stress arise from other family members and among siblings.
Parents of ADHD kids often must address a steady stream of advice and criticism from relatives, friends and passers-by about their parenting techniques and choices. This is inherently stressful and can create substantial parental self-doubt. Parents may often feel unsupported and socially isolated.
Likewise, if you have more than one child, you should know that difficulties experienced by parents of ADHD kids may also be experienced by siblings. And, siblings struggles may not be readily recognized or appreciated. The amount of attention devoted to addressing an ADHD child’s issues can breed intense resentment and jealousy among siblings. And, they may also be embarrassed or hurt by social issues that can follow an ADHD child.
Strategies For Managing Sibling Relationships
- Provide support and empathy; express acknowledgement of negative feelings and an understanding for what circumstances may have triggered them. (If someone feels wronged because they were actually wronged, glossing over it won’t help.)
- Provide some basic and age-appropriate information about ADHD. Try to help your child see how ADHD can explain some behaviors rather than an intentional desire to do the wrong thing. (i.e. some things aren’t actually personal even though they may look that way on the surface). Discuss what steps you are taking to help manage ADHD symptoms.
- Identify a spot in the home where your child can go to catch a break from his ADHD sibling.
- Avoid having an ADHD sibling negatively impair or eliminate your child’s social opportunities.
Suggestions For Managing Interfering Family Members
I have had some downright harrowing experiences that fall into the bucket of stress caused by other family members. So, I’ve spent many Google sessions researching potential responses to judgmental, hurtful or uninformed comments. Sadly, I’ve yet to find something that’s both completely satisfying and completely effective.
Often times, the suggestions will be some version of educating the offending speaker, or cluing them into the reasons certain things happen that they may not agree with. And the recommended advice involves some version of thanking the other person for expressing an interest.
I have a hard time getting on board with that approach. I agree about being calm and polite. But private information is just that – private. And it should be the rare circumstance where you feel compelled to share more than you want or more than you are comfortable with.
And my concern about “thank you for your interest” is that I actually don’t want to encourage more of the same.
In any event, it’s very likely a friend, family member, neighbor, acquaintance will grace you with some type of judgmental commentary (e.g, rude commentary on medication choices; judgmental commentary on discipline choices). For peace of mind, it would be helpful to have a handful of stock answers ready that feel authentic and comfortable to you.
- I’m aware of that; or I’ve considered that. It doesn’t work for us.
- A lot of thought and care went into this decision, and we’re not revisiting it now.
- That’s not part of our plan today.
- Thank you for sharing your point of view. We have a different one.
- That’s great that worked out for you, times are different now. Or, that’s so great that worked for you. Our situation is different.
Notwithstanding the existence of a large amount of misinformation about ADHD or the high propensity for others to dole out judgment and unhelpful advice, experts say that you should inform people who spend a large amount of time with your child about his condition. This includes caregivers, teachers, close relatives and friends. Let them know about the ADHD-related behaviors that they may likely encounter and provide them with the strategies that you use to address them.
(Conversely, if you know that someone will be unwilling or unable to take steps to accommodate your child or implement your guidance, you should take a hard look at minimizing or eliminating their unsupervised interactions with your child.)
Your Physical Home Environment
There are several steps or strategies that parents can use to help make their home more environmentally supportive of ADHD kids. And that will provide organization and structure. Notably, many of these steps can benefit all family members regardless of the presence of ADHD.
- Establish a central communication system. A method or location for tracking the family’s master calendar or schedule and messages.
- Create a launching pad area where essential items needed to get out the door in the morning.
- Designate an area for rough, rambunctious, and/or messy play.
- Designate and organize a productive space for homework.
VIII. Talking with your child about ADHD
Your natural instinct may be to refrain from talking to your child about his or her ADHD. Particularly, if you are dealing with younger children. However, experts say that you should resist this impulse. Without appropriate context, your child may come to negatively label himself as bad or defective in some manner. Or lazy and stupid. Basically “less than” their peers and siblings. And they can develop poor self esteem and a negative self image.
Don’t delude yourself. At some point, your child is going to figure out on his own that there’s something different about him. If a child is receiving supports or interventions that his siblings or peers are not receiving, he’s going to notice. And, in the absence of an accurate explanation, his imagination may just fill in the blanks.
Experts believe that if a child learns about his own condition in a healthy manner, this builds an important foundation for a better life in the future. He knows what his challenges are, and he has a full appreciation for his entire array of strengths and weaknesses. Armed with accurate knowledge and information, he will be be better positioned to develop effective coping strategies to address and navigate life’s challenges. Both in the present and as he grows into an adult tasked with managing his own affairs.
But it is an explanation for why a child may need different strategies or supports to function in an acceptable manner.
Key messages to communicate:
- A basic explanation of what ADHD is.
- ADHD is not an excuse for unacceptable behavior. Strategies or supports exist to help function in an acceptable manner.
- That nature of the child’s own ADHD.
- Reassurance that he is not defective.
- Reassurance that he is loved.
- Assurance that there are people and tools that can help him.
- They have strengths and other positive attributes.
IX. Don’t Forget Parental Self-Care!
Parenting a child with ADHD can be extraordinarily stressful. In addition to the stressors inherent in managing behavioral issues and school interventions, parents will likely face stress from judgmental family and friends who do not understand the condition.
Thus, parents of ADHD kids may often feel overwhelmed, isolated and misunderstood. And, they may be anxious about their own parenting decisions and concerned about the future.
Important steps to take:
- Educate yourself about ADHD. This will increase your confidence in making what you know to be the best decisions for your child and help shield against uninformed, judgmental advice from others.
- Prioritize time for regular self-care. The opportunity to take care of your own needs, relax and destress in whatever healthy form is effective for you.
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X. More Resources For ADHD Facts and Support
The ADHD Book of Lists, by Sandra R. Rief
Taking Charge of ADHD, Russell A. Barkley
Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA) www.add.org
Children & Adults with ADHD (CHADD) www.chadd.org
Learning Disabilities Association of America (LDA) www.ldanatl.org
National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD) www.ncld.org
ADDitude Magazine www.additudemag.com
Wrightslaw www.wrightslaw.com (for more information about IDEA and Section 504)
LD Online www.ldonline.org
A Closing Thought:
Remember that the ultimate goal is progress, not perfection!
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