When and How to Reveal Your ADHD (and when not to)

Terry Matlen, ACSW Health Guide
  • Over the years, I've had many people ask me how to go about explaining to their boss, partner, friends and family their ADHD diagnosis. Often times, these are folks who have recently been evaluated for ADHD and are eager to explain their lifetime difficulties to people they know, with the hope that they'll be better understood.


    I'm all for openness, honesty and disclosure, but you may be surprised to hear that I don't always recommend that people share their ADHD diagnosis; at least not to everyone.


    Sadly, there are many people in this world who still do not believe ADHD exists. We can spin our wheels forever, talking till we're blue in the face trying to prove that it does, indeed exist. We can point out the new research coming out that shows chemical and structural differences in the ADHD brain. In many cases, the effort is worthwhile, but in others, it can backfire. For example, if your boss is concerned that you are consistently late for work, you may want to explain that your ADHD prevents you from getting out of the house in time. If your boss is one of those people that firmly believe ADHD doesn't exist, or that it's over-diagnosed, then revealing your ADHD can put you in a pretty tough situation. A red flag might go up and your job could be in jeopardy. It doesn't matter if you have the top ADHD expert in the world telling your boss you have ADHD. If your boss doesn't care or doesn't get it, it may just backfire for you. Even though there are federal laws in place to protect employees with disabilities, it is very very hard and expensive to win such cases.

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    When and Who to Tell


    Once an ADHD diagnosis is given, it IS important to share this information with your loved ones. Whether it's you carrying the diagnosis, or your spouse or your child; the rest of the family needs to know so that they can begin to understand the challenges the family member has experienced all his life and set up ways to help and support them. This is part of the healing process- sharing the information and receiving the support that's needed.


    Many adults still carry the stigma from (not that many) years ago that ADHD means they are "stupid, lazy or crazy" and fear that family and close friends will judge them negatively. Unfortunately, there are still people who DO believe this, therefore, it's important to weigh the pros and cons of disclosure. If you're certain that sharing the diagnosis will only make matters worse, re-consider the urge to do it. If you think it MIGHT help but you're not sure the person in question believes ADHD exists, find other ways to explain your symptoms without using the term, "ADHD."


    For example, if your symptoms at work are creating problems for you, you could tell your boss that sitting near the door is very distracting for you and prevents you from doing your best work. Before discussing the problem, though, have a plan in place. Follow up by saying, for example, that you know you'd be more productive if you could move your desk further away from all the activities in the office. This way, you are stating a problem and offering a solution. Compare this with the following scenario:


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    You: "I just figured out why I get distracted at work. It's too noisy in this office. I was just diagnosed with ADHD. Could I swap offices with Sally?"


    Boss: "Everyone has ADHD these days. It's just an excuse for lousy performance. Just try harder and you can get your work done."


    See the difference?


    When NOT to Tell

    Because ADHD has been in the news quite a bit, many people do believe that it is the diagnosis "du jour." As in the example above, consider who you wish to tell, why and what the possible outcome could be. Telling your boss can backfire. However, if you have a solid working relationship with him/her and feel your job is stable, then it could benefit you by being up front and open. But if you're already on thin ice, think twice about disclosing it blatantly. Again, in general, use a description of your symptoms rather than full disclosure of your diagnosis, and offer suggestions on how to make things work for you.


    You probably have a relative or two that thinks ADHD is a made up disorder. The obvious reaction, when you get a formal diagnosis, is to explain to them that you actually do have a neurobiological problem and it's not a matter of being lazy or incapable. Again, think about what you want to achieve here. Typically, it's to be better understood. But if Aunt Ethyl is too set in her ways to consider that you have a valid medical condition, then what will you get out of disclosing your ADHD?


    How to Tell


    First, arm yourself with information and have books, pamphlets and websites ready to share with friends and family. You want to first educate yourself as much as possible, so that you're ready to answer any questions people might have. Start with a bit of history. If you've had a long difficult time as a student and continue to struggle in college, explain that you now understand the reason for your academic struggles.


    Explain that this is a lifetime, often genetic condition that can't be cured but can be managed. If your ADHD has impacted those you love in a negative way, discuss how this new bit of information- your diagnosis- can help turn things around for all of you, but that you need their understanding and support. Explain that you will be pro-active by getting appropriate treatment for your ADHD.


    Since ADHD is a lifelong, chronic condition, it's important for you and your loved ones to understand that even with proper treatment, you will still face roadblocks along the way. Your ADHD won't go away, but chances are, you'll be able to tame it.


    Remember, too, that ADHD is not an excuse for your difficulties; it's an explanation for them.

Published On: January 20, 2009