How to Talk to Your Child or Adolescent about Learning Disabilities and ADHD
Why is it important for children and adolescents to have an accurate understanding of their condition(s)?
Parents have a variety of reasons for not telling their child about a diagnosis, including fear of labelling, protecting them from feeling different, the belief that the child is too young to understand, and worries that the child will use the diagnosis as an excuse for inappropriate behaviour or lack of effort. Though these concerns come from a place of caring and wanting what is best for their child, they are often misplaced.
Children are often the first people to become aware that they are struggling. In the absence of accurate information, they come up with their own explanations, many of them much more negative than a diagnostic label – “I’m dumb”, “I’m no good”, “I can never learn this”, “Something is wrong with me”, “No one can help me”. Children may begin to do their own research and, unfortunately, this can lead to misinformation that may reinforce their fears and negative self-statements.
Telling children about their diagnosis can actually be quite comforting as they learn that they have an identifiable, common, measurable, and treatable condition. This can actually go a long way in preventing depression and anxiety. If a child has been struggling with no understanding of why they can internalize negative feelings and/or act out with externalizing behaviours. Therefore, accurate information can reduce defiance, frustration, social withdrawal, school refusal, and/or somatic complaints such as stomach aches and headaches. When a child knows the source of their difficulties and that they are supported, they can learn to cope and accept themselves.
By not talking about diagnoses like Learning Disabilities (LD) and Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), it gives power to the idea that these are shameful conditions that are too terrible to talk about. This only serves to increase feelings of inadequacies and reduce the likelihood that children will seek help when they need it.
Knowing about their LD and/or ADHD is the first step to being able to advocate for their own needs. Self-advocacy skills are highly important for students with disabilities for a successful transition from school to adulthood. Such skills can and should be developed at all grade levels. Students must understand that they not only have a diagnosis but what that diagnosis means for them – what their personal strengths and weaknesses are. This will allow them to understand what supports are helpful and how to ask for them.
When are children ready to learn about their diagnosis?
Once you have decided to tell your child or adolescent about their diagnosis, the question becomes when. As a general rule, sooner is better than later. According to Edward Hallowell, a child and adolescent psychiatrist who specializes in ADHD and has ADHD himself, a child who is old enough for psychological testing is old enough to learn the results. However, the amount of details given will depend on age. Sharing a diagnosis with a child is not a one-time discussion, but rather a series of talks. Information should be shared gradually and informally. Children can guide these discussions through their questions. As such questions may arise spontaneously, use these as “teachable moments” to answer them honestly in a simple and sensitive way. When more intentional conversations are planned, pick the time wisely – do not begin a conversation when your child is about to run out the door to meet friends or in the middle of a video game; pick a time when they are not distracted and leave time to answer follow-up questions.
How do I begin the conversation with my child?
The way you talk to your child about their diagnosis will have a lasting impact on how they see themselves. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance that you take a sensitive and developmentally-appropriate approach. Younger children need less information than older ones. Your conversations with your child will change and grow over time as they do. Start with basic information and let their questions guide how much more you tell them.
The following are some recommended steps to follow. In addition, the resources listed below provide further examples, including creative metaphors, of how to present this information to your child.
- Make sure you have an accurate understanding of LD and/or ADHD and you have had a chance to process the diagnosis yourself prior to talking to your child about it. You may even want to rely on a professional, such as the psychologist who completed the assessment, for the initial conversation.
- Make sure your child knows they are loved and accepted. Remember that LD and ADHD are only a part of who your child is. Help your child understand that ADHD and LD have nothing to do with their intelligence and they are capable.
- Do not focus on the negatives. Make sure you speak to your child about their strengths and weaknesses and the fact that we all have challenges in life. Your child can learn and succeed, but in a unique way that requires hard work and some classes, activities, and/or tools that may be different from those of their peers.
- Let your child know that they are not alone. Share stories of others with LD and/or ADHD who have found success. Share stories of your own struggles and how you have overcome them. Continually remind your child that they have a strong support system – you and their teachers are there to help them and listen to them.
- Do not let your child use their diagnosis as an excuse – it is not a reason to give up or stop trying. It is a reason to work hard at finding what strategies and accommodations work for them and to use those so that they can do their best. With the right kind of support, children with LD and/or ADHD can do well!
- Listen to your child’s questions and concerns. Be empathetic and validate their concerns rather than brushing them away. Work together to find solutions.
Ultimately, the goal is to help your child develop an accurate understanding of their condition(s), accept themselves, and learn how to work with their strengths and areas for growth in a way that allows them to find success and continue growing. This will not be the result of one conversation, but rather an ongoing process, which should be positive, allow the child to feel safe, and build on their strengths and needs.