How We Talk To The Boy About His ADHD

I’ve never been the kind of parent to tiptoe around a subject with my kids. Like, when The Boy asked me in the car one day (Mother’s Day, actually, he was just about to turn 6) how a baby gets into a mom’s tummy in the first place, I said, “This is probably going to sound weird, but it’s the truth: grown ups do something called sex, and what that is, is, a man sticks his penis inside a woman’s vagina, and then some stuff squirts out of the penis, and it mixes with an egg inside the woman. But the egg is tiny, not like a chicken egg, it’s just a little speck, and then it grows slowly over time into a baby. Sex is something grown-ups do, not kids, and it’s also a topic that can make parents feel uncomfortable, so it’s a good idea not to talk to your friends at school about it. Let their parents tell them, OK?” And The Boy was like, “Huh. OK.” The Hubs helpfully pointed out that the stuff that comes out of the penis is called semen and it’s little tiny things in the semen called sperm that do the mixing with the egg. And I was like, “Oh, good point, The Hubs.”

Did I feel mildly weird about it? Sure, I mean, I don’t talk about semen and vaginas every day, and certainly not to a kid, so it did feel a little outside my comfort zone. But it would have felt weirder to be like “We’ll tell you when you’re older” or “That’s private” or “There’s a magical stork that does it.” I just find that the best way to handle a situation with my kids is to tell them the truth, in as straight-forward a way as I can, instead of tiptoeing around it. It’s like ripping off the bandaid, there’s some minor discomfort for a second but I feel a lot better in the long run.

So, we’ve done the same with The Boy’s ADHD. The day he got diagnosed, we sat him down and I said, “So, remember when we talked to your doctor about how you have trouble focusing in class? Well, he suggested that we talk to one of the people who works in his office to see if they think you have something different about your brain that’s making it harder for you to concentrate—it’s called ADHD. And the person DOES think you have it, and thinks that maybe there’s a medicine you can take that’ll make it easier for you to focus. So, we’re going to try out the medicine starting tomorrow, and see if it helps.” And he was like, “What’s the thing called again? That they think I might have?” And I said, “It’s ADHD, which stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. It’s basically a fancy way of saying your brain works a little differently and that makes it hard to concentrate.” And he was like “Huh. OK.”

The next day, we checked in with him quite a bit about how he was feeling on the meds—we’re obviously a little worried about side effects, and we wanted to make sure it was working. At one point, The Boy and I were sitting at a table while he ate lunch and I said, “So, how does your brain feel today?” and he said, “I can focus better.” And I said, “That’s great!” And he said, “I like learning about how my brain works. Like Rudy did.” And I said, “Sure, Rudy learned about his dyslexia and that made it easier for him to learn, huh?” And he said, “Yeah, I like that.” YES! We always talk about Rudy and his dyslexia when we watch that movie, and how he had to learn about how his brain works differently, and how much easier it was for him to learn after he knew how his brain worked. It made me so happy to see him make that connection to his own brain, because Rudy really is one of his heroes.

Last week, The Boy asked me if we knew anyone else who has ADHD. And I told him about one of our adult friends who has it. I said, “In fact, she told me she takes the same medicine as you. Would you want to maybe talk to her about it sometime?” And he said, “Yeah!” And I said, “She told me when she started taking the medicine, she felt like everything was buzzing. Like, everything around her. Did you feel like that?” And he said, “No. That’s awkward.” (That’s one of his favorite words now.) And I said, “Well, I’m glad you didn’t feel that way. You know, maybe we could do a play date with her and her kids, and you could chat with her about ADHD.” And he was like, “Yeah, that sounds great!”

The other night, after The Boy’s meds had worn off for the day, I sat down with him for reading time, and man, it was brutal. He was resistant to even trying to read a book he’d picked out at the book store that weekend (it was a Star Wars Angry Birds book, so, definitely one I knew he’d like). So I said, “Sweetie, is it hard for you to focus now that the meds have worn off for the day?” And he said, “Yeah, it is.” And then IMMEDIATELY calmed down, and was ready to try to read. It was like the frustration just melted away. We got a couple pages in and it was clear he was really struggling to focus—his eyes were darting all over the page instead of looking at the words, and the book was already one that was pushing the boundaries of his reading ability. So then I said, “How about we try this other book that you’ve read already, since it’s hard for you to focus right now? Would that be better?” And he said, “Yeah, that would be better.” And he was able to pull it together to read the other book to me.

What I took away from that experience was this: when The Boy struggles with focus, it can make him feel VERY frustrated. But he’s not yet at a point where he realizes that his ADHD symptoms are why he’s frustrated. So, if we talk about it, name it, openly and without shame, then he isn’t so down on himself. He can say, “Oh, this is because my brain is working differently” and then the layer of frustration with himself that goes on top of the layer of inattention is peeled away. When he understands why he’s struggling, he doesn’t feel so shitty about struggling—he knows there’s a reason why it’s happening, and that it’ll be better the next day when he’s taken his meds again. Just like I feel better now that I know what’s going on with him, because I know it’s not some fault in my parenting that’s making him struggle, and I know how to help him struggle less.

I also learned that reading a brand new difficult-for-him book after his meds have worn off is probably a really dumb idea that I won’t be repeating! Duh!

2 thoughts on “How We Talk To The Boy About His ADHD

  1. This is why I love you. You’re honest, straightforward, and empowering. By talking to your kids openly and giving them information to help them understand what’s going on and what is true, you’re giving them some of the best tools they can have. I’m a HUGE advocate of using this kind of language with kids–knowledge is power. And when you frame things like ADHD as a matter of fact difference rather than something to be ashamed of or something that’s less than, you’re building up your kids, preparing them for how to handle situations that arise, and setting them up to succeed.

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  2. I’m a big believer in straight-forward (at an age-appropriate level) talk with the kids. I had much the same “sex” talk with my daughter that you did with your son. And I love the way you’re approaching the ADHD–simple, straight-forward. It’s not a bad thing. It’s exactly what you said–his brain works differently. Kudos to you for your approach. Your son is in great hands. Looking forward to hearing more about your journey.
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