“I Have Always Felt Different”: a new study examining the inner experience of childhood ADHD

Terry Matlen, ACSW Health Guide
  • An interesting report in the February 2008 issue of the Journal of Pediatric Nursing (Volume 23, Issue 1), provides fascinating insights of the child's perspective of living with ADHD. Assistant professors Robin Bartlett and Mona M. Shattell, from the School of Nursing at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, interviewed 16 college students diagnosed with ADHD as children about their early experiences with school, home and friendships.


    These students reported both conflict and support from their parents and teachers and cited numerous experiences from each end of the spectrum, from numerous family fights to recalling parents and teachers working hard to help them succeed in school

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    All the students reported feeling frustrated and sad in all three arenas studied. In fact, the overall theme of their childhood memories of living with ADHD was loneliness and isolation. However, they also did share positive experiences as well.


    Said one student:


    "My dad just loves me. I can remember every Sunday morning getting ready for church. I would walk in his room, this was when I was little, and he would whistle at me... so, like, maybe helping me with the school stuff wasn't his thing, but he made me feel like the most beautiful girl in the world, and for someone with ADHD, that's huge because your self concept is a lot of times deflated due to your academic success and not understanding some other things. That was huge."


    Still, numerous stories of feeling different, not getting along with parents, struggling with friendships, etc. were discussed by all the interviewees. Interestingly, getting along with parents was a memory most commonly cited as their main area of difficulty.


    Not surprisingly, children with ADHD felt different from their peers in school. Sitting still, paying attention and understanding abstract concepts were difficult. Some spoke of their experiences after being diagnosed and treated, sharing feelings of being stigmatized once they became cognizant of their differences. Stories were told of being singled out, embarrassment and chronic teasing by school peers. Yet, with their diagnosis also came new strategies that helped them to learn and utilize such resources as accommodations which helped them become more successful academically.


    Students reported how their feelings of isolation and being different decreased when caring teachers spent extra time with them. This often led to improved school performance.

    Yet as much as these children had obvious conflicts with parents and teachers, it was clear that they also craved understanding and support from them. Many shared warm stories of parents and teachers who really cared and tried hard to help.


    In terms of friendships, many spoke of the painful experiences of not being understood and having few friends. Some described themselves as loners, a tactic used as a way to avoid painful social exchanges. Says one: "Sometimes I didn't want to interact with people 'cause talking about the books they read or something like that, things that they did that I didn't participate in; I didn't want to deal with the frustration. I kind of felt a little left out at times."


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    One of the interesting conclusions reported by the authors was that, though earlier studies suggest that youngsters with ADHD have social difficulties because they miss social cues, these students were acutely aware of the social rules; they just had difficulty following them.


    The authors admit that the study was possibly not a solid representation that one can draw specific conclusions from, due to a number of protocol limitations; the number of participants was small and too targeted: college-enrolled young white women who thus had enjoyed some academic success. Thus, these students might not be considered as the "typical" young person with ADHD.


    Still, much can be said about the inner world of the ADHD child; their struggles, sadness, feeling different and clearly, this is an area worthy of further exploration.


    As parents, educators, clinicians and others who care for or work with children who are challenged by ADHD, this study can help us to understand the need for early interventions, open communications, proactive support with schools and most importantly, empathy in understanding the feelings experienced by children touched by ADHD.

Published On: February 04, 2008