When I began sixth grade, my mom decided I was old enough to do my homework alone in my room.
I proudly marched upstairs, spread the contents of my backpack out on my bed, sat down at my desk, and began to work.
Two hours later, my mom came to check on me. I’d completed one math problem and was in my closet looking at my clothes.
From that day on through high school, I did my homework at the kitchen table, my mom redirecting me often.
I was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a child. My mom chose not to medicate me, figuring that as a teacher she could help me manage my condition.
I was never brought to a psychologist to learn coping strategies. And, until recently, I didn’t really understand what ADHD meant.
The only thing I knew was that I was — and still am — easily distracted.
It wasn’t until my daughter was diagnosed two years ago that I began to understand how my ADHD has truly affected almost every aspect of my life.
As my daughter began to struggle, I Googled, searching for answers.
Diagnosis in hand, I hoped to get a better understanding of what her ADHD looked like.
As words like “executive functioning” began to enter my vocabulary, I recognized those descriptions fit me as well.
Parents discover they have ADHD after child’s diagnosis
The more I spoke about this, the more I realized I wasn’t alone.
Whether previously diagnosed or not, parents were having similar “aha moments” once they began educating themselves about their child’s condition.
Jennifer Colin’s moment occurred during a vacation in Mexico.
Her son, who was six at the time, had recently gotten an ADHD diagnosis. Colin purchased some books on the subject and read them on her trip.
“I turned to my husband and said ‘oh my god, I have ADHD,’” she remembered.
“When we got home, I went to my son’s psychiatrist and explained what I had discovered, and he agreed. He put me on a mild dose of Ritalin that I take during the week,” she recalled.
“It’s completely changed my professional experience. Now, I can look at the things I want to accomplish and just do the thing I want to do,” she said.
“It’s very common for adults with ADHD to learn about it through their kids,” Russell Barkley, PhD, author of “Taking Charge of Adult ADHD,” told Healthline.
“[Diagnosis of ADHD] is markedly increasing, and it should. About 10 years ago, we conducted a survey with a big sample of the U.S. population looking at the rate of disorders and if they are being recognized and treated. The survey found less than 10 percent of adults had been diagnosed and treated for ADHD, and 25 percent of adults had been diagnosed and treated with another disorder, usually for anxiety and depression.”
Barkley explained that this was mainly a result of a lack of understanding about ADHD when Gen Xers and Boomers were kids.
For adults with ADHD who grew up prior to 1991, you were often thought to have a behavioral problem.
But in 1991 everything changed: ADHD was included under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and schools were required to provide disability services for children with ADHD.
As a result, more children began to receive diagnoses and treatment, and their parents recognized the symptoms in themselves.
So, while anyone age 40 or older might have missed receiving a diagnosis in childhood, our children are helping us out. Still, your symptoms often look different from your child’s.
“ADHD is a lifelong condition that doesn’t go away, but there are changes in how people experience ADHD over time” explained Theodore Beauchaine, PhD, a professor of psychology at The Ohio State University.
“It’s highly heritable. About 80 percent of people with ADHD inherit it from a parent,” he told Healthline.
Our kids can be our teachers
For Meghan Ryan, her younger daughter’s ADHD has not only helped her understand her own, but also made her more aware of her symptoms.
Ryan wasn’t diagnosed until the age of 21, when she first learned about ADHD while studying to become a speech pathologist.
She had a vague idea of what it meant, was put on medication, and moved forward with her life. But when her daughter had difficulty focusing, she immediately knew the cause.
“She’s taught me a lot about myself, my level of patience, and my ability to focus,” Ryan shared.
“For example, she will move my face in her direction if I’m not paying attention. She’ll look at me and say ‘pay attention!’ Or, she’ll wave her hand in front of my face.”
It can also be helpful for parents and kids to have open conversations about symptoms and ways to deal with the condition.
Both of my children have now been diagnosed with ADHD, and we often talk about what it means. We discuss our challenges and successes. For example, all three of us struggle to focus.
One of my children’s coping mechanisms is to secretly hold a small squishable toy in their hands during class (their teachers know, but not their classmates).
They regularly manipulate the toy to remain focused, and this strategy works wonders for them.
It makes sense — some children with ADHD can focus better when their hands are busy.
Grace Alexander, another mom who learned more about her own ADHD when her son was diagnosed, has implemented personal coping strategies to mimic interventions that her son’s school put in place.
In first grade, his teacher moved him to another table and gave him a small task to complete if he was distracted with his work.
This provided her son, now 10 years old, with a sense of completion. He could then return to the task at hand.
“If I’m easily distracted, I find another task I can complete,” Alexander explained.
“It really helps with self-confidence. I work from home, so I’ll do some things around the house and know that I got five other things done,” she said.
“I can then return to the task at hand, feeling like I’ve been productive. I may not have done what I needed to do, but I will feel like I had a productive day,” Alexander shared.
Understanding why I can’t ‘just get it together’
Last year, my daughter’s second grade teacher explained that she was having trouble with her executive functioning.
My daughter was disorganized, struggled to comprehend all of the classroom instructions, didn’t properly prioritize or plan, and made careless errors.
I hadn’t heard the term executive functioning, so when I read up on it, I nearly shouted out loud: “THIS IS ME!”
The more I read, the more I began to understand that ADHD impairs executive functioning in both children and adults.
These self-management skills are easy for many. A person with strong executive functioning can properly organize and plan, remain focused on a task, manage their frustration, and self-regulate. But for me, I’m frequently overwhelmed just knowing I have a big project to complete, whether it’s a large pile of dishes or a work assignment.
Often, I cannot properly plan unless I create a step-by-step list, either in my head or on paper, and then I hesitate to get started.
Once I finally begin, remaining focused is a challenge.
For years, I criticized myself for being disorganized and overwhelmed, knowing that most adults are able to manage these parts of life.
I had no idea this was a symptom of my ADHD, and I simply assumed it was somehow my fault.
Learning that I struggle with executive functioning because of ADHD has actually boosted my confidence.
It’s not an excuse — I don’t believe I can simply brush off adult responsibilities by saying I have ADHD, but I can be kinder to myself.
How to start coping
When I spoke with Beauchaine, he encouraged me not to develop my own coping mechanisms, as they often aren’t effective.
He explained that left untreated, people with ADHD don’t often function as well as those who receive support.
9 out of 10 kids aren’t prepared to learn their own coping mechanisms, and while they may create them, they aren’t necessarily good ones.
Barkley agreed, explaining that there are several things we must do in order to best function as adults with ADHD:
- Learn about ADHD. “Taking Charge of Adult ADHD” is a good place to start.
- Accept it. If you deny or minimize your symptoms, treatment won’t be successful.
- Consider medication. Barkley said that 80 percent of adults with ADHD need medication, and it’s usually life-changing.
- Strengthen functioning with therapy. Begin behavioral therapy, such as CBT, which helps strengthen executive functioning.
- Look into adult coaching. Adult coaching is a growing field with coaches specifically trained to work with adults with ADHD. Do plenty of research when choosing a coach, as this field isn’t yet regulated.
- Practice being mindful. Practicing mindfulness meditation is gaining recognition for helping adults with ADHD.
Colin’s decision to medicate changed her life. She now works fewer hours than before, getting as much — if not more — done during the day.
“When my kids were very young, I’d wake up at 5 a.m. to work before they woke up,” she recalled.
“Then I’d go to work and only get through half of what I needed to and wanted to get done. Now I work less — a lot less. It’s not just about getting it done, it’s also about the thought power and addressing things in an efficient and clear manner,” Colin said.
As I continue to learn more about both my own ADHD and my children’s, I am starting to recognize what type of intervention I may need.
My daughter completed a dialectical behavior therapy (DBT) program that taught her numerous skills and strategies.
Since I learned all of these alongside her so that I could help her, I’ve incorporated some of them into my life, too. My son’s ADHD has such a dramatic impact on his performance at school that I’m considering medication.
While researching this for him, as well as speaking to Barkley and other adults who are medicated, I’ve decided to try it for myself, too.
While my knowledge about my ADHD and my children’s understanding of ADHD continues to expand, there’s one thing I am convinced of: My children will fully understand how their brain works, their challenges, and coping strategies.
I believe this will alleviate a lot of the challenges I felt before my diagnosis and allow them to get a head start on coping.