The emotional toll of ADHD is often invisible and impossible to describe, especially if you’re a child with limited vocabulary and perspective on the world. Here are six of the hardest things about living with ADHD that your child may never tell you in words.
Having ADHD is hard.
Our kids tell us this — sometimes in words, more often in actions — every single day. We know it’s true. But what many parents don’t always realize is this: Having ADHD is hard in ways we could never imagine; in ways our kids could not possibly describe; in ways you’ve gotta live to understand.
When many parents think of attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) and its difficulties, they think of the ways it inconveniences them: the forgotten homework, the tantrums, the extra school meetings. They think, yes, it must be hard forgetting your lunch repeatedly. It must be hard listening to people yell at you all the time. It must be hard losing friends over impulse control issues.
These are not untrue, but they are almost certainly not the top reasons why having ADHD is hard when you’re a kid. I’ve been that child myself, and I have three boys who are living their childhoods with ADHD, so I can say this with some certainty: If your child had the words, here is what they would tell you about having ADHD.
Having ADHD is hard because it’s embarrassing.
Having ADHD makes you different from everyone else. In a world where kids are expected to sit still — without fidgeting, moving, getting up, making noise, or talking to people — and complete tasks for an hour at a time, your child needs special accommodations.
These accommodations may make them stick out. They may look (or think they look) weird and different. And no one wants to stand out unintentionally from the crowd, especially when the thing that makes you different looks a lot like being a “bad kid” — and to few people know the difference.
Having ADHD may leave you demoralized about being labeled the “bad kid” or the “spacey kid.”
Too often, the “bad kid” label is affixed to hyperactive boys who are unable to sit still, control their impulses, or stand in any kind of line whatsoever. These challenges sometimes lead to fighting or speaking out of turn — behaviors that most teachers and parents consider “bad.”
Girls with ADHD like me get labeled spacey. “Stop looking out the window.” “Why can’t you concentrate?” “Eyes up front.” “Your head is in the clouds again.” “Stop daydreaming.” “Earth to Miss Space Cadet.” I actually once had a teacher regularly quote Bowie and say, “Ground control to Major Tom,” which the rest of the class thought wildly funny. I, however, did not.
Your kid probably feels like this label is deserved. No matter what you tell them, they think their challenges are their fault because the rest of the world makes them feel that way. It’s wearing and tiring and makes them sad. No wonder children with ADHD have so many self-esteem issues; it is eroded at every turn.
ADHD makes them disappoint you, and they hate that.
Sometimes, you blow up. No parent can control themselves all the time, and you need to give yourself grace when you mess up. It’s wearing to parent a child who forgets their lunch again and can’t find their sneakers again and loses their hat again. But when you lose it, they blame themselves. They feel like if they just tried harder, mom and dad wouldn’t be so mad or frustrated or disappointed. It hurts really bad, even if they never show it.
ADHD makes you feel pretty dumb a lot of the time, even if you’re really smart.
You know all those lectures your child hears on “trying harder” and not making “careless mistakes?” They add up — and not in a good way. I used to cry in frustration because I was literally incapable of proofreading my own papers (I still do, as a matter of fact). Because I couldn’t remember things that other people remember so easily, like lunches and backpacks and school books. Because it’s frustrating to turn around and go back to get a bag, or to hear a parent call out, “Did you remember your x, y, or z?” in a mildly accusatory voice.
These interactions, though maybe well-intentioned, may make your child feel stupid and deficient somehow, even if you spend time building up their self-esteem in other ways.
Children with ADHD need a “special thing” that can’t be taken away no matter what.
My “thing” was horseback riding; for my oldest, it’s diving; for my middle son, it’s learning about, catching, and collecting amphibians. My sons both live for their things. These activities boost their self-esteem. They get them through the hard days. These things are the best parts of their day, and they help my boys connect with other people on an equal footing where they don’t feel stupid and dumb and afraid. They cling to their things and beg you to never take them away as a punishment. They couldn’t bear it.
ADHD means you sometimes can’t shut up, and that is the worst.
Many children with ADHD lack basic social skills (hell, I still lack basic social skills). A few key ones include “knowing when to stop talking,” “taking conversational turns,” (i.e. letting the other person talk), listening well, and not running off on tangents. Your kid knows they aren’t good at this basic human skill, but they don’t know how to fix it. It can be embarrassing and hurtful, because it leads to people disliking them and avoiding communication. It can be hard in the classroom, especially, when your child follows the impulse to talk and other people want them to work instead. I was voted “most talkative” in high school, and it wasn’t a positive label; it was a joke, and it hurt my feelings very badly.
Having ADHD is hard. But it’s not always hard in the ways you think. You think it’s all about forgotten shoes and late homework. But it’s far more than that. The emotional toll of ADHD, which most people rarely think about and never see, is far more devastating to kids than most adults realize — in part because they don’t have the words to tell you about it.
My advice is simple: Start talking, and start talking early. Ask your child how they feel, in specific language, about specific situations (“How do you feel when x happens?” “I know it must be difficult when …”). Try as best as you can to shut down the shame game they live every day. It will still exist, but your support can mitigate it.
Your support can make all the difference in the world.