For several years, I thought of him as a defiant kid—a boundary-pusher who liked getting a rise out of me. But, recently, he was diagnosed with ADHD—a chronic condition that often includes difficulty paying attention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness—and my parenting perspective shifted. I’ve begun to understand that these are all common behaviors associated with the condition.
Millions of children are diagnosed with ADHD each year, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Despite how common ADHD is, child and family psychologist Emily King, PhD, affirmed that many “parents raising kids with ADHD think their behaviors are planned and intentional,” especially if the children are very bright. Many of us assume our kids can adjust their behavior with verbal reminders, she added, but when those don’t work, “parents get frustrated and assume the child is intentionally doing the thing to annoy them.” Given how easy it is for parents to misunderstand kids with the condition, I spoke to several adults with ADHD to ask them what it was like to grow up with ADHD and what they wish their parents had understood.
1. Hyperfocus isn’t laziness
Alisha Grauso, a Los Angeles-based freelance entertainment editor, is one of many adults with ADHD who was diagnosed in her twenties. Due to a lack of widespread knowledge about the disorder in the 1980s, her parents didn’t recognize the signs. Grauso says her parents didn’t understand her hyperfocus, or intense fixations. “When I would start reading and get really into the story, everything else would fall away. The house could have burned down around me, and I wouldn't have budged.” Grauso’s parents often assumed she was intentionally ignoring them. She says they called her a “space cadet,” and she would get into trouble as a result.
Virginia-based special education teacher Elizabeth Joy Gavin, also diagnosed with ADHD in her twenties, had the same issue—hyperfocus while reading. “It's not that I'm lazy and just trying to ignore my responsibilities. It’s that I'm hyper-focusing,” she says. “ I wish that we had had a name for that and been able to pinpoint that when I was younger.”
2. Being distracted has nothing to do with intelligence
Both Gavin and Grauso described themselves as excellent students, but they often got bored and distracted in school. As Gavin put it, “my mind [was] running faster than the teacher [could] keep up with.” In fact, Dr. King emphasized that intelligence has “nothing to do with [kids] ability to control their impulses or stay focused. These skills have more to do with their executive functioning [abilities].” High school was easy for Gavin, so she never developed the necessary study skills to succeed in college, and she floundered at that point.
Gavin’s experience is common. Grauso said that girls and women tend to get diagnosed much later in life, especially if they’re good students—their ADHD doesn’t present in the same way it does for boys, who tend to be more hyperactive. While Grauso could “wing it” in college, she ran into trouble in graduate school when she couldn’t write her papers the night before they were due. Finding the right ADHD medication was a revelation for her, but it was also upsetting because she realized that life could've been much less challenging if she'd gotten support earlier.
3. Impulse control isn’t a choice
Impulse control issues are another common ADHD symptom. “[Kids with the condition] can understand and know that they shouldn’t touch, say, or do something but aren’t able to stop their body before they act,” says Dr. King. And because they know this and can’t stop it, they “increasingly feel unsuccessful. This is what can lead to negative self-talk,” such as calling themselves “dumb.”
Gavin recounts spending time in the principal’s office due to her impulsivity. Eventually, she says she was labeled “aggressive.” As a Black girl, this was particularly harmful—teachers and schools discipline Black kids more harshly. Gavin says she began to internalize the “problem child” label. Her story exemplifies the way kids with ADHD engage in negative self-talk because the adults around them have unrealistic expectations for their behavior.
Similarly, Grauso described herself as a “mouthy” kid, which is caused to emotional dysregulation (trouble regulating emotions). “That's something that my mom could never seem to understand,” she says. Grauso remembers that her mom would say, “‘You're such a smart kid. You’re so good at reading people. Why can you just not talk back?’ And I remember just being like, ‘I don't know, my mouth just says stuff.’” The lack of impulse control also meant Grauso had (and still has) trouble not interrupting or dominating conversations—even when she knows she’s doing it.
This dynamic is especially tough for girls and women, who are often socialized to be quiet and conciliatory, Grauso says. “We are told, ‘you're too much, you're really intense, you're just a lot.’ And I've heard that all my life.” This critique made her feel like she should dim herself, she says, because she was constantly afraid of taking up too much space.
4. Stimming isn't "childish"—it's helpful
Beyond impulsivity, emotional volatility, and hyperfocus, parents should be aware that kids with ADHD often engage in stimming, or self-stimulatory behaviors like foot-tapping, hair-twirling, and other types of fidgeting. Lynne Peskoe-Yang, a science and tech journalist based in New England, was diagnosed with ADHD when she was 12. “I still stim regularly to get the input I need—by dancing, stretching, and little movements like tapping with my feet and fingers and flapping my hands.” Although to a parent, it may seem like kids are not paying attention while stimming, she said it helps her focus, describing it as “about controlling input so you don’t get overwhelmed with irrelevant sensations.” Nonetheless, “It was seen as childish when I was a kid and teenager, so I suppressed it for years.” She lamented that people with ADHD have to “grow out” of their ADHD traits, “even if it makes us miserable.”
Grauso described a similar behavior, saying she sometimes plays a mindless game like Candy Crush on her phone while screening a movie for work. “If I have to just watch it, I’ll start getting really fidgety, and my mind will start wandering.”
5. ADHD comes with gifts
It’s important to note that ADHD also has benefits, Grauso said. Kids with ADHD tend to be extremely bright, and hyperfocus can be incredibly useful, she explains. People with ADHD also tend to be very perceptive, and good at investigative work and solving puzzles (which provides them with the stimulation they crave).
For parents like me who are conditioned to tell our neurodiverse kids that they should sit still at the dinner table, knowing that stimming helps them focus can build empathy and help us avoid useless power struggles. Understanding kids with ADHD may be punished more often at school for being “disruptive” or “defiant” because they lack impulse control can alert parents to the need to advocate for their kids in advance. As Gavin said, “There's no such thing as a bad kid. There's just a kid having a really hard time.”
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