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Educating, Reframing, and Demystifying ADHD

Children with ADHD face a daily struggle with adult disapproval and other negative interactions that result from their behavioral and social difficulties. Such frequent negativity can easily lead to a loss of confidence and low self-esteem that, if left unaddressed, can result in even more self-defeating behavior. Designing an effective treatment plan is one way to prevent this negative cycle from occurring with your child because it is likely to lead to more positive feedback and better self-control.

You can further increase your child’s chances for improvement by taking the following steps:

  • Educate your child about ADHD and how to manage it.
  • Reframe any negative attitudes or assumptions and reshape the responses that have developed as a result of these attitudes and assumptions.
  • Demystify the treatment process and clear up any misunderstandings.

The more fully a child with ADHD can begin to understand and “take ownership” of his own challenges, the more committed he is likely to be to treatment, the more successful he may become at self-management, and the higher his self-esteem is likely to be. Thus educating your child about the nature of ADHD is a critical part of successful treatment at every stage of development. From very early on, you and your child’s pediatrician can begin talking with your child about the nature of ADHD, what it is and what it is not, and how he can learn to manage it.

As he grows older, his pediatrician or other health care professional can meet with him alone so that he can feel free to seek any information he needs to become the most active participant in his own care plan. He may also benefit a great deal from your efforts to provide him with developmentally appropriate books about ADHD and responsible Web sites that provide updated information on ADHD and related disorders. Support groups for children and families with ADHD are another source of valuable information as well as an emotional resource. By his teenage years, your child should have had the opportunity to build up an informed knowledge base on which to rely when he (with your support) is making decisions about treatment, social and academic pursuits, plans for the future, and so on. Taking control of his own life in this way can be enormously empowering for a child who has struggled with ADHD and can make all the difference in how he views his life and academic, professional, and personal potential.

As your child grows, keep in mind that he may forget or misinterpret some of what he is told about the nature of ADHD. To minimize his confusion, make sure that you and his pediatrician talk with him regularly and repeatedly about ADHD (not just at the first meeting) and ask him to repeat back to you what he understands, listening carefully to his interpretations of what he has learned. Always keep these discussions positive, simple and brief enough for him to participate fully. The clearer he is about who he is and where he stands in relation to ADHD, the more competence and confidence he will have in managing his challenges.

Because discouragement is a constant danger for children who face such frequent obstacles, be prepared to confront your child’s negative ideas and statements, and help him reframe them in positive ways. “Everyone has attention problems from time to time. I just have them so often that they interfere with my best functioning—but I have learned that there are plenty of things I can do about this.” If he begins echoing the feedback he gets at school (“I’m different. I can’t do anything right.”), get out any supportive evidence you have—his report cards, test scores, artwork, or other concrete forms of achievement—to show him in objective ways how he is making progress.

In some cases, it may also help to focus on your child’s effort (how persistent he was or how much thought he gave to the organization) rather than the outcome (what grade he got)—particularly because it is so common for ADHD to involve work production problems. “I’m so proud of you for working so hard on that report” is as powerful a comment, coming from you, as “I’m so proud of you for getting an A.” You may also find that it helps to put your child’s struggles in context for him. Point out that nearly every child has some type of challenge to overcome—whether it is a learning disability, coordination problems in sports, difficulties with friendships, or a complex home situation.

Reframing negative attitudes goes a long way in helping a child focus on his strengths rather than his disabilities. Your child will also feel much more empowered if you help him develop tools to actively improve the negative situations that disturb him most. Many of the tools for this are similar to those you, your spouse, and your other children have developed yourselves, and sharing your experiences and the responses you have developed will help him feel supported and understood. Your child’s pediatrician or counselor can also help him practice specific techniques. For example, many children are advised to deal with teasing by ignoring it, yet ignoring or displaying a sense of anger rarely works, and often even escalates the teasing. Reframing the teasing by turning it into a joke or putting a humorous spin on it can be much more effective. (If teasing becomes a major problem, it needs to be dealt with at school.)

Demystifying the nature and treatment of ADHD can be very helpful because children often see their diagnosis as a stigma and their treatment plan as something “done to me” by pediatricians, teachers, and parents instead of seeing themselves as active participants and acknowledging their own successes. Help your child understand that he can shift from perceiving himself as a victim of this disorder to recognizing that he can actually learn to master many areas of difficulty. His pediatrician’s explanations about the nature of ADHD— that it has no relation to intelligence, that it is a disorder that can be managed, that many successful adults have this condition—may also help reduce some of his major concerns. At the same time, remind him that other adults in his life—including his teachers and his relatives—are supportive and can serve as advocates for his well-being.

Often the issue of taking medication is especially sensitive. Your child may initially feel devastated by the prospect of taking medication for a “brain problem.” He may worry a great deal about other kids’ or adults’ reactions should they learn he is taking stimulants. He may even assume that this treatment decision means there is “something wrong” with him, that he is “stupid,” “weird,” or “different” from everyone else. Educating your child about how stimulants work—in any brain, not just in those with ADHD—can demystify some of his fears and help him feel more positive about treatment.

Beyond these steps, you can emphasize to your child that medication is a tool that he can use—like glasses for a person with poor vision who is learning to read, or a hammer for a carpenter building a house. Instead of thinking of himself as a passive recipient being “fixed” or “cured” with stimulants, your child needs to understand the active role he must take in improving his functioning while using medication as a tool that allows him to focus better than before. The more you can encourage him to learn how to use and to take advantage of medication, rather than relying on it to “take care of him,” the more progress he is likely to make—and the better he is likely to feel about himself as he learns just how well he can do.

Last Updated
ADHD: What Every Parent Needs to Know (Copyright © 2011 American Academy of Pediatrics)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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