“I had been diagnosed with ADHD for 20 years before I understood how it affected me,” McCabe said. This is true for many children with ADHD because there’s no clear path to figure out what works and what doesn’t for each child. Still, that doesn’t mean they’ll never find a way -- and parents can be a big help. Here’s what you can do.
1. Pay attention to symptoms. The fact is, the symptoms of ADHD are not exactly unique to those with ADHD. “Most children will be impulsive or hyperactive at times,” Sharma says. Since these “symptoms” don’t only affect people with ADHD, it may be difficult to know what’s normal behavior and what’s worth noting.
Consider your child’s symptoms and when they experience them. In school? At home? With friends? “ADHD does not simply show up in one place,” Shatkin says. “Instead, it’s spread throughout a child’s life.” So, it’s not just that your child is struggling to manage their attention in school, but you also might observe impulsive behavior, or a tendency to hyperfocus, at home. Additionally, these symptoms are usually clear from a young age. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average age of an ADHD diagnosis is seven.
But it’s not just an issue of frequency; it’s also a matter of intensity. Every person has their moments when they’re having difficulty managing their focus, or staying on-task, but if it’s getting to a point where “the child’s functioning is impaired,” that’s when you should consider getting your child evaluated for ADHD, Sharma says.
2. Get a professional evaluation. Meeting with a professional – whether they’re your longtime pediatrician or a child psychologist – is an important step because they’re more likely to pinpoint what’s giving your child a difficult time. “You might think your child is having an attention problem, but, it could be something totally different,” Sharma says. For example, they might be acting out, or struggling to focus, but really, it’s a deeper issue of trauma, or a learning disability. On the other hand, Sharma says undiagnosed ADHD could resemble – or even cause – a learning disability.
So if you suspect your child has ADHD the only way to be sure is to have them evaluated by a professional you trust. Since there are a variety of conditions that might resemble ADHD, and a certain amount of this behavior is perfectly normal in children, getting a professional evaluation will give you a better understanding of what next steps you and your child should take.
3. Consider medication. Once a child is diagnosed with ADHD, many parents might have a difficult time deciding whether they should put them on medication. And if they do, it can be hard to know which medication, and what dosage. And medication – while it can drastically help some people – isn’t always a guaranteed cure-all and may not be the right fit for your child. And even if it is, it can be incredibly expensive, and it might not be covered by insurance. So, it’s complicated – and there’s no perfect solution. But there is, however, a lot of information that can help you navigate this decision.
Consider how often your child struggles, and how negatively it impacts their daily life. “Every parent has to help their child develop life skills, such as checking their homework and filing it away in their backpack,” Sharma says. “The possibility of medication comes up when children cannot absorb these skills.” Since these skills – such as organization and time management – are critical to a student’s academic performance, medication can often help.
In fact, for some people with ADHD, medication can be an absolute gamechanger. “It changed my life,” Ali wrote on Twitter – and many responded feeling the same. But it isn’t for everyone. “A lot of parents say, ‘I don’t want to put [my child] on medication,’” Sharma says. And this reluctance is understandable. After all, ADHD medication reduces ADHD symptoms by changing – and improving – the brain’s neurotransmission, which can have some potential side effects.
One helpful note? “The medicine is in and out of the body in the same day,” Sharma says. So, it doesn’t stay in the system like other medications, such as SSRIs, which are prescribed to treat depression. “Hearing this can make some parents more open to trying it.”
4. Consider behavioral strategies. While medication can help many children, it doesn’t mean they’ll suddenly be “cured.” Moreover, it’s not a parent’s only option when it comes to helping their child with ADHD.
Children with ADHD can often be strong-willed, or even defiant, depending on the severity of their symptoms. This defiance may lead them to reject the structure they actually need, creating frustration for parents. One option to consider is a parent-training program, which equips parents with strategies to navigate this behavior.
But there are other everyday options too. For example, does your child with ADHD struggle to use a planner? According to McCabe, bullet journaling can help. Or what about when they need to clean their room? Asking for their input – or giving them options (i.e., do you want to organize your closet or pick up your toys first?) – can make it more manageable. And when they need to manage their time? McCabe recommends Brili, a visual timer created to “help families with children stay on task and on time every day.” (And yes, it was created by a parent whose child has ADHD!)
Another solution? Immediate positive feedback. Throughout the day, children with ADHD are constantly given very specific instructions to stop talking or stay seated. While this direction is necessary, it can also have an impact. According to experts, children with ADHD receive “20,000 more negative messages by age 12 than those without the condition,” which can be detrimental for their self-esteem. So, when you can, tell your child what they’re doing well, right as they’re doing it. “People with ADHD can have shorter time horizons, so knowing we’ll have an immediate response can make us more effective,” McCabe says. And since their corrections are often so specific, it helps to make your positive feedback specific, too.
Navigating behavioral strategies for children with ADHD isn’t always straightforward; it requires a delicate balance of accountability and flexibility. “Give your kids agency, independence, structure and support,” McCabe says. “That can help them invest and take ownership.
5. Talk to your child. Of course, the single most important thing you can do is talk to your child. While Shatkin points out it’s “not the way to diagnose ADHD,” it will give you insight into how they’re feeling and can help you decide how to proceed.
ADHD can be a challenge for both parents and children but working together and learning how to deal with the idiosyncrasies can make all the difference. In the words of Ali, “We need you to understand that we don't intend to upset you with what seem like failures to you. We don't mean to let you down. When you have ADHD it's like seeing what you want in a glass case you don't have access to. We want to accomplish so much, we just need the keys.”
As a parent of a child with ADHD, you can help them find those keys. Or, more likely, you can support and encourage them as they invent a completely new way to open the glass case.
From treatments and approaches to managing everyday challenges, check out Understood.org for more information on how to help your child with ADHD thrive.
*Disclaimer: This piece is not meant to replace advice or recommendations from a medical professional. If you have any questions about your child's health, please seek advice from a doctor.