But even parents themselves sometimes have trouble accepting a diagnosis of ADHD, for a different reason. When I probe, I find that it isn’t really the diagnosis they resist—they see the problem behaviors very clearly—rather the possibility of medication being recommended as part of their treatment. They don’t want to “drug” or be seen as “drugging” their children. The popular misconception that doctors are peddling scrips to normally developing kids has the effect of stigmatizing the diagnosis, even to the extent that parents who understand their child is suffering with a problem will avoid diagnosis—and the treatment it allows.
When parents of a child who has ADHD say to me, essentially, “I’m afraid of the diagnosis,” I urge them to see that not treating their child’s ADHD is the thing they should be afraid of. What’s important is to agree that ADHD behaviors are causing impairment, and to help the child before the disorder severely undermines his success in school, his friendships, his relationships with his family members, and his sense of who he is and what he can accomplish.
The Risks of Ignoring ADHD Are Serious
The diagnosis is a necessary tool; the behaviors are what count.
I often use height analogies as a comparison. I say, how inattentive do you have to be before you’re considered really inattentive? You’ve got to be the equivalent of 6' 3". Most of us, when we see somebody who’s 6' 3" coming down the street, we register, “that’s a tall person.” And the same is true of impulsiveness, inattentiveness, or hyperactivity. We’re not talking a little restless, a little distracted, occasionally wild. Kids we diagnose with ADHD are seriously impaired in these areas, and their parents are usually suffering, along with the children themselves.
We need to see ADHD as a condition like high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, or diabetes—something we wouldn’t think of dismissing. The risks of not treating ADHD are just as serious to the health and happiness of the child.
Steven Kurtz, Ph.D., ABPP, is one of the nation’s leading clinicians in the treatment of children’s behavioral problems and disorders, particularly ADHD and selective mutism. Dr. Kurtz is senior director, ADHD and Disruptive Behavior Disorders Center, and director, selective mutism program at the Child Mind Institute in Manhattan. He has appeared on NBC’s “Today,” CBS’s “The Early Show,” and PBS’s “Keeping Kids Healthy” as an expert addressing children’s mental health.
The Child Mind Institute is an NYC-based nonprofit organization dedicated to transforming mental health care for children everywhere. Visit childmind.org for a wealth of information related to your child with special needs, including strategies for dealing with diagnosis and behavior, symptoms and signs, practical tools, videos, and more.