Am I a Bad Parent if I Didn't Know my Child Had ADHD?

Health Writer

When Sandie’s 13-year-old son was diagnosed with ADHD after another school year filled with missing assignments, calls from teachers about misbehaviors and failing grades, she was relieved that she now had a reason for his struggles. But she was also filled with guilt. As she learned about the symptoms of ADHD, she thought back to all the times she lost her patience with her son, all the times she disciplined him for acting up or losing his homework. How could she not have known there was something wrong? What did it say about her as a parent?

These reactions -- relief and guilt -- are hardly uncommon in parents of kids diagnosed with ADHD as adolescents. As parents, we know our child best. Often, with one look we can tell if our children are happy or sad, sick or well. How then could ADHD go undetected for years? Could things have turned out differently if we had known?

While there isn’t any way to know what might have happened, there are a number of reasons why parents might not have sought help for a child with ADHD:

ADHD was not always a mainstream diagnosis

Symptoms of ADHD usually appear early in life but because symptoms overlap with early childhood behaviors, it often isn’t diagnosed until after a child starts school. Today, doctors and parents are much more aware of the symptoms. But that wasn’t always the case. A diagnosis during the teen years or even well into adulthood wasn’t that uncommon.

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, only children with severe hyperactivity were diagnosed and treated. Sandie was in her early 40s when her son was diagnosed with ADHD. While she had heard about ADHD through television, the internet and other parents, it wasn’t a diagnosis she jumped to when having problems with her son, because it wasn't on her radar as a mainstream diagnosis.

ADHD is all around you but it is seen as normal behavior

When Sandie looked back at her childhood, her siblings, her parents and even her cousins, she saw signs of ADHD. Forgetfulness, chronic lateness, problems in school, hyperactivity were all a part of her daily life. Sandie didn’t see any of these as “illnesses” or “disabilities.” This is just how some families operate. Sandie, like many other people, didn’t seek out medical attention for her son because “that is just the way my family is.”

It is hard to distinguish between ADHD and normal childhood behaviors

After learning about ADHD, it can be easy to see early childhood behaviors as signs of ADHD. But when your child is young, you aren’t so sure. As Sandie explained, ADHD symptoms can look a lot like the terrible twos, except they keep going. As a parent, you learn to cope with these behaviors. You might even notice the difference between your own children, but friends and relatives tell you that "no two children are alike,” and you put concerns out of your mind.

Other conditions commanded your attention

ADHD rarely travels alone. If your child has been diagnosed with learning disabilities, anxiety, depression, hearing loss or vision problems, you might have seen symptoms of ADHD as extensions of those conditions. Rightfully, your focus was probably on what you, and your child’s doctor, saw as the most pressing concerns. This might mean that another condition, such as ADHD, got overlooked.

Your child learned coping mechanisms

Some children learn how to cope with ADHD symptoms early in life. Sandie’s son was always very organized as a way to cope with forgetfulness. Children with ADHD, inattentive type, might be quiet, always follow directions and never cause disruptions while their inattention goes unnoticed. As children enter into more demanding situations -- middle school, high school, college or the working world -- their coping skills might not work as well and ADHD symptoms become more apparent.

Parents incorporate structure into daily routines

Another mother, Joy, whose son was diagnosed at 14, wasn’t very organized, but her husband was. He created a daily structure that Joy and her son followed to stay on track. There was a time for meals, a time for homework, a time for fun. Because of this built-in structure, her son managed to keep on track during his elementary school days. But once he started high school and had extra demands on his time, his school work suffered. He didn’t know how to manage his time on his own.

When ADHD goes undetected, parents might feel like they have somehow failed their children but that isn’t usually true. The best thing to do is let go of the guilt and figure out the way forward.

See More Helpful Articles:

The Fine Art of Raising a Teen With ADHD

Teens With ADHD: Keeping Emotions in Check When Disciplining Teens

When Teens With ADHD Are Defiant

Teens With ADHD: The Difficult Years

Teens With ADHD: Tips for Improving Social Skills

For Teens With ADHD: Strategies to Help at School


Interview: Sandie: July 2, 2016

Interview: Joy July 9, 2016

Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of Idiot's Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot's Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love and Essential Guide to Asperger's Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.