Should You Label Your Child "ADHD"?

Health Writer

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) often affects a child’s school performance. It can lead to lower grades, frequent classroom disruptions, rule-breaking, incomplete assignments, suspensions, expulsions, and a higher rate of dropping out of high school, according to the U.S. Department of Education. With all of these negative consequences, you would think that early identification and intervention would be the goal of parents and doctors. If you can identify ADHD, treat it, and put strategies in place that will help, wouldn’t that solve the problem? While there has been a significant increase in ADHD diagnoses over the past several decades, many parents are still hesitant to have their child labeled “ADHD.” They fear that this label causes more problems than it solves.

Diagnosis of ADHD can help

ADHD is a real disorder. A study  found definitive differences in brain structure of people with ADHD. It affects memory, organization, and the ability both to pay attention and control impulses. Children who have ADHD often have problems academically and socially. With or without a medical diagnosis, however, your child may be the target of harmful labels in school.

For example, Katrina recently spoke with me about her 7-year-old foster child, Kevin (name has been changed to protect identity). He has been with her for about six months, and during that time, he was diagnosed with ADHD and started medication. Katrina has been working diligently with Robert’s teachers but fears that they have already made up their minds that he is a “problem” child. She hears them use words like “disruptive,” “aggressive,” “lazy,” and “unmotivated” to describe him. She worries that these labels are more harmful than an ADHD label and that they will follow him during his time in school. During her conversations with his teachers, the focus seems to be more on everything Robert does wrong rather than on any improvements he has made. The teachers, Katrina believes, have judged him based on his past behaviors and are unwilling to change their minds. Rather than having an open mind, the teachers seem to look for evidence to back up the opinions they’ve already formed.

Katrina would be glad to remove the negative labels and replace it with the label of “ADHD.”  Indeed, when parents and teachers use a diagnosis of ADHD, it helps them to understand a child’s behaviors and to develop strategies to help the child succeed. It is a positive label. In particular, receiving a diagnosis of ADHD can help in the following ways:

  • It allows parents and teachers to focus on the behaviors rather than trying to solve imaginary problems behind the behaviors.
  • It takes away the guilt of “what did I do wrong” that many parents feel when their children misbehave or struggle in school.
  • It allows parents and schools to adopt evidence-based strategies that can help a child with ADHD succeed.
  • It promotes positive understanding rather than negative stereotyping.

Reasons why some parents prefer not to have their child labeled ADHD

According to psychologist Stephen Hinshaw, Ph.D., ADHD is a “symptom-based mental disorder” and is diagnosed based on the observation of symptoms and behaviors. There is no laboratory test that definitively points to a diagnosis. As a result, some experts feel that ADHD is overdiagnosed. Critics worry that children who are high-energy, disruptive in class, or immature are too hastily rushed off to the doctor to be given a diagnosis. They believe parents, teachers, and society in general should learn to accept differences rather than demanding children conform to unreasonable expectations.

Despite the extensive amount of information on ADHD, it is still a misunderstood condition. Some people continue to hold on to preconceived notions that children with ADHD are wild, unruly, or aggressive. These ideas often stem from observing children who are hyperactive or impulsive, or who do not understand social cues and personal boundaries. When parents of children with ADHD come across teachers or classmates’ parents who hold these views, they worry that their child will be judged based only an ADHD diagnosis. To prevent this, some parents prefer to keep their child’s diagnosis to themselves and not share the information with the school.

Another concern about labeling children “ADHD” at the first sign of trouble is that it gives parents, teachers, and doctors a reason to stop looking for other problems. There are a number of medical conditions, such as lead exposure, that can mimic symptoms of ADHD. There are also overlapping symptoms, such as inattention and lack of focus, in ADHD, anxiety disorders, and depression. Misdiagnosis can occur when a diagnosis is made without a thorough physical and emotional evaluation.

As parents, you must decide what is best for your child. You must weigh the advantages and disadvantages of disclosing your child’s ADHD to school personnel, coaches, or classmates’ parents. You might find that you are willing to share with some people in your child’s life but that for others it isn’t necessary. Or you might decline from telling anyone, choosing to work closely with your child at home instead.

See more helpful articles:

What to Do When Your Child is Diagnosed with ADHD

How ADHD Impacts the Daily Life of a Child

ADHD in Elementary School

How to Help Your Child Succeed in School

Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, 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.