You may have seen it coming, but it’s still overwhelming to hear: Your child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. He’s been getting into trouble at school, his grades are slipping, and getting him to sit down and focus on homework—or even making it through a family dinner—is impossible.
But now you know why, and you can do something about it. A diagnosis of ADHD is an important first step in helping your child, as other learning disabilities are managed differently. And know that you’re not alone—about 1 in 10 American children has been diagnosed with ADHD. (And they’re not all boys; girls have ADHD, too.)
1. Learn about ADHD treatment—and empathize with your child.
Listen with an open mind as your child’s pediatrician—or, in some cases, a mental health professional—proposes a treatment plan. Dr. Baler says for very young children like preschoolers, the treatment will probably be therapy-based, while school-age children usually require medication in addition to therapy. ADHD drugs are effective, but they are also stimulants that require monitoring. Ask your child’s doctor what side effects to watch for, and always give the medicine as directed.
It’s important for parents to remember that ADHD is a biological disorder; it’s not their fault and not the child’s, either, Dr. Baler says. “It’s not that the patient doesn’t want to pay attention or follow directions. He can’t pay attention or follow directions.”
2. Talk to your child’s teacher.
Your child’s teacher undoubtedly knows your child has an attention problem. In fact, many parents find out their child has ADHD as a result of getting one too many emails or phone calls from frustrated teachers. Now that you have a diagnosis, it’s time to work as a team.
“The school needs to know,” Dr. Baler says. “They can help him to be more organized, allow him to sit closer to the teacher or give more time to finish a test.” Your child’s teacher can also help determine whether an individualized education program, or IEP, is needed. These personalized plans for children with learning disabilities can make all the difference. Not all children with ADHD require them, Dr. Baler says, but some do. Learning disabilities and ADHD often go hand in hand.
3. Keep going back to the doctor—and tell all.
In the early months of ADHD medication treatment, a provider needs to see the child about once a month, Dr. Baler says. This is to ensure that the medicine is working properly and not causing any major side effects. Typically, patients start at a low dose and then their doctor re-evaluates at their monthly check-ins.
Some children experience decreased appetite, stomachaches or depressed mood as a result of the medication, which would prompt their provider to make adjustments. But sometimes, parents don’t tell doctors that the child is still struggling with behavioral issues. Dr. Baler says it’s hard for him to give the most effective treatment when he doesn’t know how the child is doing.
“We are not here to judge; we are here to help,” Dr. Baler says. As kids grow, their needs change. Getting accurate feedback from parents and teachers helps ensure that children are getting the correct care. Once patients are doing well, provided that their doctors have no further concerns, follow-ups can be limited to every three to six months.
4. Consider therapy—and be ready to participate.
Even if your child is on medication, behavior therapy can go a long way toward helping him better control his behavior, which will improve functioning at school and home. A therapist trained in ADHD can teach skills that can help minimize problematic behavior, such as disrupting class or fighting with siblings. This improvement in behavior and self-control can raise the child’s self-esteem.
A behavioral therapist might be a psychologist, licensed counselor or social worker. Dr. Baler suggests asking potential therapists to explain their approach to ADHD. He says it’s best to find someone who has experience working with the entire family. Yes, that means you’ll be in training, too, to learn methods for helping your child deal with his symptoms.
5. Manage your expectations.
Sometimes parents’ expectations for their child’s treatment are just too high, Dr. Baler says. They might expect a child on medication to behave near-perfectly, or that a student who struggled in school will suddenly get top grades. Focusing on your child’s success in that way will put too much pressure on both of you. Remember what really matters, and don’t show your child you’re disappointed if he doesn’t change overnight.
“They’re not machines. They’re still children,” Dr. Baler says. “We need to create realistic expectations when they start on medication. They need to be happy, not get A’s.”
It’s also important to know that children with ADHD often want to get off their medication during the teenage years, which can lead to disruption at home and school. Dr. Baler suggests involving teenagers in decisions about their treatment to encourage them to take ownership of their progress.
If you suspect your child might have ADHD, talk to your pediatrician. If you don’t have a pediatrician, find one near you.