ADHD Diagnosis: The Good, The Bad, and The Parent’s Role

Dr. Ed Hallowell

The Benefits of ADHD

All 3 of my children have ADHD. When they were diagnosed, my reaction was not typical. Because I’m an expert in the field and I have ADHD myself, I was actually excited. I know that ADHD is as much a marker of talent as it is a potential problem, and I know the problems can be taken care of.  

I am thrilled my kids can think outside the box, are intuitive, persistent, and creative, have a “special something about them,” have huge hearts and a desire to march to the beat of their own drums. All these positives are what make people with ADHD so interesting and potentially successful.  Knowing all this, I was thrilled that my kids had a condition that could lead them into phenomenal lives.  But I was so happy only because I have the special knowledge most parents do not yet have. I embrace the condition of ADHD.  I do not see it so much as a disorder, but as a trait, a trait that can lead to huge success, joy, and fulfillment in life.   

My wife was a little more skeptical.

The Challenges of ADHD

It is true that people with ADHD tend to contribute to the world in a very positive way. But first, they must get a handle on what’s going on. And they cannot do it alone.

My wife, being married to me, also understands ADHD and how positive it can be.  But, being a mom, she was also a bit afraid, especially with our first child.  Would things REALLY work out all right?  Did I (me, Ned Hallowell) REALLY know what I was talking about when I said this could be a blessing, not a curse? At the beginning, she was apprehensive.

ADHD is a trait that can lead to very bad outcomes (the prisons are full of people with undiagnosed ADHD). With tendencies toward impulsive behaviors, and stimulation-seeking activities, people with ADHD are at increased risk. They are more likely to suffer from addiction, to get into accidents, to engage in not-well-thought-out-risk-taking behaviors. Having ADHD is like having a race-car engine for a brain, with weak brakes.  Once you strengthen your brakes, you’re ready to win races! But those breaks really need some work, first.

The challenges of ADHD show up in all aspects of our children’s lives – in school, in social dynamics, in family relationships, and especially in their self-concept. Our kids run the risk of believing that their “bad behaviors” are a reflection of them. It is our job, as the adults in their lives, to teach them to manage their challenges, while celebrating their strengths.

What’s the Role of the Parent?

One of the reasons my kids, thank God, are doing well is because my wife provided the love and structure that they needed.  I could not have done that on my own, nowhere near.  My wife, Sue, deserves so much credit for being such an awesome mom.  She always has faith in the positive, even when she is dealing with problems and conflicts.  She never gives up.  This is what these kids need more than anything else. Love that never gives up.

Ultimately, like Sue did with my children, a parent’s love, combined with a healthy amount of structure, can steer a child with ADHD to success in adulthood.

Team-Work – Everyone Has a Role

Just as we encourage our children to find their islands of competency, we parents should make an effort to do what we do best. In our family, Sue was a master of structure, organization, and making sure each child went off to school fully clothed, book bag in hand, with a good breakfast in the belly.  I was more the fun-maker, the new idea generator, the soft touch.  This sometimes led my wife rightly to resent that she had to be the “heavy,” and I got off easy being the fairy-god-mother.  But we worked this out with discussions. I tried hard to follow her lead and not undermine her attempts to create order.

There is usually one parent, more often the mom than the dad, who takes on the role my wife does in our family. It definitely helps when one parent can take the lead. But when there are reasons that will not work – like when both parents are ADHD, themselves – then dividing responsibilities based on strengths can make all the difference in the world.

This varies from family to family. Let the best organizer tend to organization and the best cook make the meals. Let the best mathematician help with math homework, and the best ball player play catch.  There are many tasks that both can do equally well.  The point here is to try to make sure those tasks are divided more or less equally. And, don’t forget to give your kids chores as well!

Finally, my most important single rule for parents is this: Enjoy your children.  If you are doing that, you are doing it right, almost for sure.

What Else Do Parents Need?

The most important thing for parents to do when their children have ADHD is to find the support you need, and use it!  Get parent training that will help you understand your child’s experience, so that you’re able to help your child more effectively learn to self-manage. Join support groups or coaching groups so that you don’t hold the frustrations inside. Tell trusted others about what you’re up against. 

As you get the training and support you need, for your child and yourself, you’ll have the skills and the strength to persevere. And you’ll be teaching your child the valuable lesson of reaching out for help and support.  You cannot do it alone, nor should you try.

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