Special needs

10 things NOT to say to the parent of a child with ADHD

When your kid has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, you're on the receiving end of a lot of unsolicited comments and advice. Please give us parents a little credit!

10 things NOT to say to the parent of a child with ADHD

Photo: iStockphoto

We were lucky: when our child was first diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), we found ourselves surrounded by friends, family, teachers, coaches and doctors who were either familiar with ADHD symptoms or open to learning about them along with us. If there was a fearful holdout, someone saying wrong-headed things, it was me.

“Isn’t extra-active, extra-talky and extra-impulsive behaviour part of being a kid?” I’d insist.

Or, “Who wants to pay attention all of the time anyway?”

It didn’t take long for me to learn how naive I was to downplay the realities of this developmental disability. Now that I know a bit better, I’d like to share a few things us parents—and our kids—really hope you can avoid saying.


1. “He just needs to try harder.” Or “…listen better.” Or “…concentrate more.” Or “…knuckle down.” Trying to will away ADHD is like trying to will your brown eyes green. I see firsthand every day how much effort my son has to put into simple things like pulling away from a tantalizing pile of Lego to perform a dull chore like putting on socks and pants. And yet, with the help of his strategies, he persists. As a teacher once told us: kids with ADHD can feel like they need to work ten times as hard as other kids—or harder—just to try and keep up.

2. “That kid just needs some good old-fashioned parenting.” Or along the same lines: "Give that kid a weekend in my house and I’ll whip him into shape." Sigh. Routines, clear expectations, a well-established reward system and tons of patience—that’s what parenting around our house looks like, thank you. Permissive parenting does not cause ADHD and strict punishments for undesired behaviours don’t work the same way when a kid has ADHD either. Trust us parents—we tried everything, pre-diagnosis.

3. “She just needs to play more sports.” The old “run them like a horse until they get tired” advice can help some kids—up to a point. But it’s not going to make their ADHD symptoms magically disappear, and please don’t assume we’re not doing everything we can outside of school already to support our kids. The parents of kids with ADHD are super-Googlers.


4. “Too much sugar!” No, it’s not a candy thing. It a brain thing. The link between sugar and hyperactivity or the inability to focus is an old myth that just won’t go away. Let’s move on from it, shall we?

5. “Your kid mustn’t respect you very much.” A kid doesn’t get up in the morning and say “today I’m going to make Dad angry.” She isn’t acting rambunctiously or tuning out her parent or teacher or coach because she doesn’t respect them—there’s nothing she’d like more than to get positive feedback from the important people in her life. In a low moment on a tough day, a comment like this, even in jest, could really wound a patience-depleted parent.

6. “Was your child brought up in a barn?” This one isn’t always spoken out loud quite, but it’s often communicated with horrified looks or a whispered tsk-tsk. Busybodies can struggle with some unconventional behaviours. But if you take your child to a restaurant and he eats standing rather than sitting at the table, yet he is talking politely with his brother and eating up all of his spaghetti, where is the harm?

7. “So, you drug your kid to make him behave?” No, but we parents might try medicine to help our child focus in class, make friends and not feel perpetually impatient and frustrated. Choosing to give a child medicine for ADHD is never a decision parents take lightly. But for those of us who make this choice, and combine it with behavioural therapies, it can be a game-changer.

8. “How come we didn’t see you at drop-off or pick-up for Aiden’s birthday party Saturday? Because my child didn’t get an invite. When other kids see their classmate struggle in school, the tendency is for them to ostracize that kid. And here we have one of ADHD’s more devastating side effects: it can be a total self-esteem wrecker. Our kid’s dwindling social relationships are the thing that worries us the most—please be sensitive to that and talk to your kid about how to be inclusive.


9. “Wow, you must be so tired.” Empathy is lovely. But when these words are spoken with a pitying tone or a head-shake, they can make us parents feel like you’re suggesting our child is a burden.

10. Can you aim to make tastier lunches? Your kid won’t eat. This is the kind of teacher’s note that can make us want to bang our head against a wall. One of the main side effects of ADHD medicines is that they can rob kids of their appetites. Because these stimulating medicines are timed to straddle the day-time hours when focus is most needed, lunch is often the toughest meal for a kid with ADHD. In our home, our expert consultant—the child who will attempt to eat the lunch—is a part of our ongoing lunch-making strategy, so please don’t jump to conclusions about why his applesauce or sandwich was left untouched today.

So what do we parents want to hear? We would really love you to see past our child’s behaviours and look at our child, then focus on some of their many, many qualities. If you’re having our kid over for a playdate (THANK YOU!), ask us about the strategies we use to take things down a notch, if they become hyped up. Compliment our kids on their big imagination or their prowess on the soccer field. And ask us about their interests. If you do, you’ll hear a lot about tectonic plates, elaborate cake-decorating plans, or their latest 2,000-piece puzzle. Because one of the blessings of ADHD is that a child with the condition can really zone in on what excites them. Let's focus less on the struggles and celebrate that lust for life!

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