Typically, a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) faces additional difficulties growing up due to ADHD symptoms—especially when peers and adults lack understanding of the disorder. Get an inside look at the challenges, experiences, and successes of children with the disorder to better understand what they go through.
The Facts on ADHD
Much has been learned about ADHD over the years. We now know:
- It is a neurobiological disorder. Symptoms are caused by problems with brain functioning, not bad parenting as some have erroneously believed.
- The disorder is usually diagnosed in childhood, but it can be lifelong.
- ADHD symptoms include inattention, hyperactivity and/or impulsivity that is inappropriate for a child’s age.
- ADHD can be managed with individual and family therapy, medication, and self-help strategies.
While those are the facts, what exactly do we know about how it feels to grow up with ADHD? Research anecdotes and expert commentary offer clues.
How ADHD Affects Childhood
In research conducted by Shattell, Bartlett, and Rowe in 2008, 16 young adults with ADHD attending college looked back on their childhood and reported how they felt growing up with ADHD. Here are some of their insights:
Home Life: “Getting Along With My Parents”
Young adults in the study reported more difficulty getting along with parents in their younger years than children without the disorder. They recalled loud arguments and feelings of frustration with both parents and siblings.
Disagreements with parents centered on not doing chores by the time they were expected to be completed. Distraction and hyperactivity contributed to the inability to clean rooms and perform other tasks.
By the same token, many of the young adults acknowledged their parents' loving support at that time. Most sons and daughters appreciated the listening ear and affirmations parents offered in the face of low self-esteem and poor academic performance. Some even sympathized with mothers and fathers having had to deal with unpredictable behaviors.
How a Parent Can Help
While every good parent gets frustrated at times, it pays to be extra patient with an ADHD child. Try to avoid getting caught up in the problem behaviors of the moment. Instead, really get to know your child by spending quality one-on-one time together. Some other tips:
- Tackle problem behavior directly: Explain what is wrong, then give positive reinforcement for any improvement you see.
- Establish routines for meals, homework, chores, playtime and bedtime.
- Help your child get organized for homework: set up folders, create a checklist for assignments, and employ a timer.
- Study participants noted specific strategies their parents used to aid study, such as making flash cards, devising memory games, and proofreading papers.
School Life: “I Missed a Lot of Stuff” but “I Learned to Manage”
Only about 8% of school children have ADHD, so it’s common for kids with the disorder to feel different from other students in the classroom. According to participants in Shattell, Bartlett and Rowe's research, these differences became apparent as early as first grade, when ADHD kids had more difficulties with learning than their peers. They struggled to comply with requests to sit still and pay attention in class, and failed to grasp new concepts quickly. ADHD students also reported trouble listening, completing homework and staying on task.
While ADHD treatment improved focus somewhat, these students continued to feel the stigma of their diagnosis. They remembered being called “retarded,” “slow” and “stupid” by peers.
Receiving special education services caused embarrassment, too: Specialists interrupted class to whisk the ADHD student away to another room. ADHD students said they preferred to receive services discretely and felt less "different" when caring teachers offered patient, individualized instruction in a typical classroom setting.
How a Teacher Can Help
ADHD students appreciate when teachers take extra time to help them with schoolwork. A teacher might:
- Give instructions one at a time and repeat them to the youngster with ADHD. Using visual aids also helps.
- Teach a difficult lesson early in the day when an ADHD student may be more alert. Establishing eye contact helps an ADHD child pay attention.
- Notice how the ADHD student learns best. For example, does the student perform better when giving answers orally rather than written?
- Place a kids with ADHD in a quiet spot, away from distractions, for test taking; allow extra time for the exam, if possible. (Parents may request academic accommodations).
- Let a child digitally record the lesson for playback at home.
- Notice and comment positively when a child with ADHD does the right thing, such as sits down quickly.
Friendships: “I was different…and misunderstood”
Feelings of being different and misunderstood severely affected the ability of participants in the study to form social relationships. In fact, many of these young adults erroneously believed they couldn’t develop friendships.
Even when friendships did develop, students said challenges with communication and focusing led to interpersonal difficulties. Peers would talk about activities that those with ADHD could not easily do. Some with ADHD recalled being unable to respond to friends’ questions because the disorder would cause them to start thinking about something else in the middle of conversations. Peers might make fun of those with ADHD by imitating, “I do not have to work because my ADHD is acting up” or, “Oh, I forgot.”
Surprisingly, children and adolescents with ADHD were well aware of the skills needed for successful social relationships, but they found these skills difficult to acquire.
How Parents and Teachers Can Help
- Teach skills that don’t come automatically. When a child with ADHD commits a social blunder, discuss what went wrong, why, and what the child could do differently for a better outcome.
- Help explain ADHD behaviors to other students in the classroom to avoid misunderstandings.
- Teach a child to handle bullying in a constructive way.
- One study participant suggested seeking a compassionate friend to help when the child with ADHD loses focus. The friend might call his name or tap his shoulder to help him re-focus his attention.
- Allow an ADHD student to have friends with younger kids, since they may get along better.
- Be comforted that an ADHD child will likely develop resilience over time. By late adolescence, a child may have significant resources.
In summary, a child with ADHD may struggle with feeling different, misunderstood, and isolated throughout childhood. But support and encouragement from parents, teachers and friends can nurture greater self-esteem. Educating others about the disorder is also key. Taken together, these efforts will help an ADHD child not only survive, but thrive.
By: Stephanie Torreno
HelpGuide. Teaching Students With ADD/ADHD. Available at: http://helpguide.org/mental/pdf/Teaching_tips_ADHD_PDF-1.pdf. Accessed on: July 27, 2011.
Partners Resource Network, Inc. Available at: www.partnerstx.org/PDF/ADHD_Part1.pdf . Accessed: June 21, 2011.
University of North Carolina at Greensboro, School of Nursing. Available at: uncg.academia.edu/MonaShattell/Papers/23263/_I_Have_Always_Felt_Different_The_Experience_of_Attention-Deficit_Hyperactivity_Disorder_In_Childhood.pdf. Accessed: June 21, 2011.