ADHD Is A Legitimate Medical Diagnosis. It Shouldn't Have To Feel Like A Shameful Secret.

by Laura Russin
Originally Published: 
Two boys with ADHD playing and running with a shopping cart and helmets on their heads
RichVintage / iStock

I’m angry.

Well, maybe that’s too strong a word.

I’m frustrated.

No, that just won’t cut it.

I’m angry, frustrated, sad, disappointed, surprised…

Over the past week this amalgamation of negative emotions has reached its boiling point. Suddenly I’m on fire, and it’s not just the crazy heat and humidity of summer that’s igniting it. In this past week alone, I have read no fewer than seven articles relating to childhood ADHD, and most of them have left me white-knuckled and aggravated. All of them, in one way or another, have touched on feelings of shame — both parental and child — associated with this diagnosis.

They reeked of an essence of bravery — a feeling that these authors were courageous in publicly admitting that their child had ADHD, or used medication to control it, or simply had run out of energy and ideas on how to deal with said child. Don’t get me wrong, these mothers are absolutely brave for sending these thoughts into the vastness of the internet, but they shouldn’t have to be. It shouldn’t be this hard to discuss a valid medical diagnosis with very real effects.

There is such an intense stigma attached to this acronym, it’s astounding. Four little letters, that in any other combination could carry a benign meaning, have parents embarrassed into silence. As if something that their child was born with, that neither they nor that child had absolutely any control over, was their family’s dirty little secret.

My son is 6. He has a medical diagnosis called ADHD.

This disorder results in severe impulsivity, great difficulty waiting for turns, interrupting children’s play activities, interrupting conversations, blurting out answers to questions not directed at him, acting recklessly without thinking of the consequences, such as darting into the street without thinking to look for cars or jumping off a high incline without considering the danger. This is only a fraction of the list, by the way.

Laura Russin

Can we say, “Acting recklessly without thinking of the consequences”?

I often try not to air my son’s dirty laundry to the masses, but guess what — this isn’t his dirty laundry. It’s a simple fact. He has brown hair, he loves pasta, he has ADHD, and he has a little sister — all just facts. Would you have felt differently after reading the sentence if it had said, “He loves pasta, he has asthma, and he has a little sister”?

I’m not embarrassed by the neurobiological medical condition that causes his challenging behaviors. I am not embarrassed by the person he was born to be, and if I have anything to say about it, he won’t be either.

A shift seems to have occurred in the 1990s: ADHD became a wildly popular diagnosis for “active” children, the large majority being boys. With the introduction of Adderall and Ritalin, it became a designer diagnosis with a designer drug wrapped up into one neat little package. If your kid was a “behavior problem” in school, it was possible that they had ADHD and needed medication to fall in line.

As the decade stretched on, the effects of an overused diagnosis and prescription pad were being felt. In an attempt move away from false diagnoses and overmedicated children who truly did not need pills, people began to believe that this disorder didn’t even exist. “Ritalin turned my kid into a zombie. He wouldn’t eat or sleep. It was terrible,” was not an uncommon complaint.

It appeared to become just another outlet for doctors and drug companies to work harmoniously at scaring the public in order to put more money in their pockets. Worse yet, as time went on, it became a popular study tool among older teenagers and college students. Suddenly, it wasn’t just a medication that a child with an actual medical diagnosis might need; it was a highly abused and addictive street drug. Why would any parent ever want to give that to their child?

Flash-forward and the damage is clear and profound. It seems like few people have taken the time to consider that behind all the media hype and over-diagnosis is a very real disorder, with very real difficult characteristics. What happens to all of the children who actually have ADHD? They are left with parents who are unaware and uneducated about the signs and characteristics to look for in early childhood. Parents telling themselves that their child will absolutely grow out of this. They are left with family members and friends saying things such as, “All kids have a lot of energy,” or “You just need to discipline a little better,” and my absolute personal fave, “Boys will be boys.” They are left questioning their own instincts that something else, something bigger, might be brewing inside of their child’s brain.

I have found that unless you are actually living through it, it is extremely difficult to grasp just how significant this diagnosis can be. How much it can invade the daily life of an entire family. It really is so much easier to just see a child as defiant. To watch them at the playground dumping sand over everyone no matter how many times they are reprimanded. To see them running wildly away from their mother into a parking lot as she runs after them calling out frantically. Then to witness that kid doing the same thing again the next day, and the day after that — same kid, same behavior, different day.

How many of you have seen that child and that parent? How many of you have secretly thought, “What a terrible parent. She can’t keep her kid under control,” or “Won’t that kid ever learn?” and even “Note to self: Steer clear of sand-dumping kid.”

Stop and consider this for a second: Do you really truly think she wants her child to continue to do these things day in and day out? That it’s so much easier to let them just behave that way? That she hasn’t tried everything, everything, in her power to help them control themselves? That every time she goes out in public with them she considers where the potential pitfalls lie?

It’s time to get out from behind this stigma, to understand that this mom is dealing with a medical diagnosis, just like the mom of a child who has diabetes. It’s not fair of me to say something like that? Diabetes can cause lifelong health issues and potentially death, whereas ADHD is only a behavioral issue? Guess what, the lifelong effect of social anxiety, depression, and poor self-esteem are pretty significant too. Being unable to maintain a job as an adult or to function successfully in society is a colossal problem. Having potential difficulty making friends and maintaining friendships, while feeling isolated, lonely, and misunderstood is not insignificant; it’s an important factor in development and the person they grow up to be. Being unable to have the vigilance to participate in a hobby or learn a subject matter that truly interests you greatly affects their quality of life.

Maybe my son will escape all of these potential negatives. Maybe he will make it through life unscathed by the effects of what ADHD does to his body and his mind. As his parent, I will do everything in my power to make this a reality for him. However, without recognizing this diagnosis and being open to all possible appropriate avenues of treatment, that would be impossible.

I will not begin to tell you that there are an infinite number of parents who deal with medical diagnoses far greater than this. I am in awe of these families, and I give them the full respect they deserve. However, I will also say that raising a child with ADHD comes with its own set of significant challenges. It is an extremely isolating diagnosis for both child and family. I’ve seen lots of posts where moms ask medically related questions, “Who does the best ear tube surgery?” “Does my baby have reflux?” “What does Coxsackie look like?” I have never once seen “Has anyone had success with [insert medication] and their ADHD child?” “What behavior mod techniques do you use for extreme impulsivity?”

Let’s stop hiding and start helping one another.

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