Your Kid Doesn't Have ADHD Just Because They're Distracted Today

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 
Scary Mommy and Katrina Knapp/Unsplash

“Oh my god, I cannot get my shit together today. I’m so ADD!”

“My kid takes so freakin’ long to put her shoes on in the morning. I swear she has ADHD!”

Says the person who doesn’t have an ADHD diagnosis. Says the person whose kid doesn’t have an ADHD diagnosis.

On its face, these statements hardly sound problematic, much less insulting or offensive. And honestly, I’m not here to try to dictate how you speak. But I will tell you, as a mother of a 13-year-old who has spent his entire life navigating the world with ADHD, it rubs me the wrong way when I hear people say things like this, for a few reasons.

ADHD has very specific diagnostic criteria.

It’s rare to have a case where the person seeking a diagnosis skates the boundary of having or not having ADHD. Yes, there are many variables to consider, and yes, ADHD can manifest in a lot of different ways, but the criteria are still ultimately pretty black-and-white. There is a checklist that must be filled out by multiple people who interact with the patient on a daily basis, and a certain number of boxes must be checked before a doctor can give a diagnosis.

It’s not enough that your kid climbs the walls at dinnertime and stares at himself in the mirror in the morning for five minutes instead of brushing his teeth. If he goes to school and gets most of his work done and his grades are on par with his knowledge, and he can do that without the assistance of medication or other interventions, he doesn’t meet the criteria.

The point of the diagnosis is to label the behavior as causing disorder in a person’s life so they can seek out helpful interventions. That’s why it’s called a disorder. Disorder means the condition negatively impacts multiple areas of your life.

According to the Diagnostic And Statistical Manual Of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-V), the patient must exhibit symptoms, like inattentiveness, excessive talking, and persistent fidgeting, in more than one location. The symptoms must have been present for more than six months. And, most importantly — and this is the one people always miss when they throw around the idea that they or their kid has ADHD — the symptoms must “interfere with, or reduce the quality of, social, school, or work functioning.”

In other words, it must impact the child’s well-being. A scatterbrained kid who otherwise has their shit together is not a kid with ADHD. Which brings me to my next point…

Casually tossing out claims of having ADHD minimizes the struggles of those who actually have it.

Much the same way it bothers people who have OCD to hear someone say, “I need to have all my picture frames at right angles. I’m so OCD!” or how it annoys someone with bipolar disorder to hear someone say, “My mood is all over the place this week. I’m bipolar!” people who have ADHD don’t necessarily want to hear you talk about how your one scatterbrained afternoon means you totally have ADHD, ha ha!

For people who have ADHD, the disorder affects nearly every facet of their daily life. From an early age, my son was bombarded with people constantly telling him that no matter how hard he tried, it wasn’t good enough. One of his third grade teachers flat-out told us, despite being well aware of his diagnosis, that he “wasn’t even trying.” Meanwhile she taught her class from a projector in a darkened room and wondered why a child with ADHD wasn’t taking notes to her standards.

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Also, my son may have an attention disorder, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t notice that his friends have a much easier time staying focused during an exam or finishing their homework. He has many times expressed frustration at his inability to maintain focus. So, for someone to make light of it, almost as a joke, is kind of shitty.

Without medicine, my son struggles in every environment he walks into. Obviously, the most difficult environment is school, since so much focus is required to be successful in the classroom. But, because ADHD has a huge component of impulsivity, many people who have ADHD struggle socially as well. Impulsivity in a social situations, like chirping or blurting out “odd” noises or ideas, does not always bode well for trying to make and keep friends when you’re in middle school.

Parenting a child who has ADHD brings challenges that parenting a child without it doesn’t have.

I’ve doubted my abilities as a parent, lost control and yelled at my son when I shouldn’t have, for something I knew he couldn’t control, and then felt horribly guilty afterward. It’s a different kind of guilt than when you yell at your kid but they kind of had it coming. Losing your cool over something your kid can’t control adds a whole other level of guilt.

My daughter does not have ADHD, so I know there is a big difference between parenting a kid with and without this disorder. I don’t want to damage my son’s self-worth by harping on him for issues related to his ADHD, and yet I still need to do what I can to help him learn to navigate reality. He doesn’t mean to be forgetful and inattentive, but he still has to learn not to be, and I am the one who must drill in the skills he needs to help himself and be independent. I am the one who must provide immediate rewards and enforce unpleasant consequences to help him remember to stay organized.

Parents of children with ADHD have to always be ten steps ahead of their kid, always with a plan for how to react, for how to prevent problems, for how to remain calm. You can’t rest. So when I hear a parent jokingly throw out that their kid is “acting so ADHD,” I can’t help but get my hackles up.

And now I want to be careful not to minimize your struggles. If you honestly think you or your child has ADHD, go ahead and talk about it with a friend who has experience with it. I promise we know the difference between the types of flippant phrases I mentioned before and a friend saying, “Hey, I think we may have an issue here, can I ask about your experience?” I am always happy to talk to worried parents about how my son has managed to thrive despite his ADHD diagnosis (and sometimes because of his diagnosis — ADHD does have its good points!)

Obviously, the ultimate authority will be your doctor. They can give you and your child’s teachers a checklist and complete an evaluation and see if your child indeed needs a diagnosis.

In the meantime, I would ask you to consider how your off-the-cuff remarks may affect a person who has ADHD. It’s a serious disorder with specific diagnostic criteria, and getting distracted by the occasional squirrel doesn’t mean you have it.

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