Dear Dr. Wes:
I’m looking for advice on how to tell my son he has ADHD. Thank you kindly!
You didn’t say how old your son is, but I’m going to presume for this response that he’s younger. If he’s middle school or above, I’d treat him as a young adult and just say it straight up. I wouldn’t hedge much if he’s younger than that, but here’s how I’d do it. We’re using scripting a lot in our new book Consent-Based Sex Education, to coach parents, so I’ll use that method here too. I portray here that the parents speak to “Johnny” about this together. Even if you’re not married to your son’s other parent, it’s wise to get everyone on the same page. Also, I’m presuming you’ve had an actual tested diagnosis of ADHD and not just a guess. If you haven’t done this, I wouldn’t have the conversation or more correctly, I’d say “we think you might have ADHD” rather than stating it as fact.
Dad: Johnny, your mom and I want to talk to you about our visit at Dr. Wes’ office last week.
Johnny: Oh yeah, that.
Mom: Remember the tests we took?
Dad: Well, it does say that you have ADHD. What have you heard about that?
Johnny: That’s where kids are like running around jumping on stuff and can’t sit still.
Dad: That’s one kind, but the tests don’t indicate that’s the kind you have. Yours is what’s called “inattentive type.”
Johnny: Right, cuz I don’t feel hyper.
Mom: No. This is the kind of ADHD that explains why you have trouble finishing a book or short story, why you have a harder time in math than other kids, and why you kind of feel spaced out sometimes.
Dad: And sometimes you don’t quite hear us when we’re talking to you.
Johnny: So am I gonna end up in special ed or something?
Dad: Probably not. But we want to go back to Dr. Wes’ office and discuss some treatment options.
Johnny: Am I gonna have to take medication? Because Trevor is in my class and he’s got ADHD and he take medication every day for it. It makes him kinda weird.
Mom: Our goal certainly isn’t to make you weird. We just want you to learn as well as you can and to keep up in school.
Johnny: So I will have to take medicine?
Dad: Maybe. And only if it helps. And there’s some other stuff we’ll want to work on with Dr. Wes, like managing your schedule and helping you figure out some better ways to study. Things like that.
Johnny: I don’t really want to have something wrong with me or take medicine.
Mom: I don’t blame you. I didn’t like it at all when the doctor told me I had high blood pressure and I’d have to take a medication and walk more stairs and take fewer elevators in order to get it to come down. It was inconvenient. But it’s helped me a lot.
Dad: Nobody likes to feel like there’s something wrong with them, but if we work on this together it doesn’t have to be a big problem. Just like Mom’s blood pressure, we know how to treat it.
Johnny: I guess I don’t get to say much about it, huh?
Mom: Actually we think you are a big part of the team. The most important member, really. Without your input and direction we won’t know what works and what doesn’t.
Dad: We don’t want this to be a big deal and we don’t want you to either hide from ADHD and avoid dealing with it or use it as an excuse to give up on things that are hard.
Johnny: I guess we should go to see that therapist. I don’t like it when my friends have read Harry Potter and can’t even finish the first chapter. Maybe this will help.
Obviously there will be more than one of these conversations over the years. I thought my daughter had adjusted pretty well to ADHD in first grade, but it wasn’t until third grade that she started to get the painful side of knowing. She was acting out at Borders Book Store (remember those?) a favorite place of hers, and I told her that if she didn’t straighten up, we’d be leaving. She didn’t and we left.
On the way out she was mumbling protest under her breath and as I was countering her I said, “And I can promise you that when you have a little daughter you’ll do exactly what I did because you don’t want her to act so poorly in public just as I don’t want that for you.
“I”m not going to have a little daughter!” Alyssa shot back.
“Oh really?” I said, incredulous. “And why is that?”
Alyssa became tearful. “Because what if she has ADD?”
That stopped me in my tracks. It was heartbreaking to hear, but I knew I had to stand my ground while showing compassion. “Listen,” I said. “I love my little ADD daughter and I’m glad I have her.” I paused for effect. “But you’re still going to behave yourself when we’re in Borders.”
And next time she did.
This is always where and how we must stand when we talk to our children about ADHD or anxiety or depression or anything else they might face. We have to have empathy for how hard it is to be them and still be firm about what it takes to parent them. In parenting, power doesn’t work without compassion. All in all, I don’t think you’ll find it difficult to talk with your son about this. I’m guessing that he already knows. He may not have the language to explain it, but it’s the rare kid I see who has ADHD and doesn’t have any idea something isn’t right.