‘Here’s Why I’m Happy My Son Has Been “Labelled” With ADHD’

Not all labels are damaging - they can bring knowledge and encourage empathy, so we can support others and celebrate their strengths, writes Claire Quigley Ward.

Mother and son

by Grazia |

Labels are something most people powerfully reject. We instinctively see them as negative, as something that distinguishes “us” from them. That underneath, despite how much we all outwardly celebrate our differences, underneath being different makes us insecure and never is that more powerful than when it comes to our children.

The nature of having a baby in the first instance is often a romantic ideal. For some it stays that way. For others that can be much more complicated.

But what prevails is the hope and belief that our perfect baby will be healthy and develop typically. So, it can come as a real shock, when you’re a few years down the line, beyond the toddler and preschool years when suddenly - development isn’t quite what you expected.

Even then we start to look to, and blame, ourselves. I know I certainly did when I went to the GP for help with my son aged 6.

I thought it was me - my parenting, something I was doing wrong. I was never looking for a diagnosis. So, after referral, the whole thing came as quite a shock and as you can probably guess, my first reaction was “I don’t want to label my child”.

That was the first time it was put to me that perhaps by not labelling him, I would do more damage in the long term. The consultant’s words really resonated with me. So, when my son was diagnosed with ADHD aged 6 years and 7 months, I have been on an open and honest journey.

ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, a complex neurodevelopmental disorder that impairs the brain's executive function, that is the self-regulation skills and mental processes we use every day such as self-control, sustained attention, forward thinking, planning ahead, working memory and control of emotions. In children, ADHD brains are not just different from the norm at a functional level, they are delayed in the maturation process usually by about 3 to 5 years.

ADHD is made up of a set of behaviours, the most common being inattention, impulsivity and hyperactivity, which can present and vary at different times. However, these symptoms, that you see poking above the surface, make up just a small part of what ADHD really is. They're important, but not the whole picture. Most symptoms lay beneath the surface, out of sight but ever present, which is why ADHD is often described as an iceberg, because it is mostly hidden. These hidden symptoms, such as emotional dysregulation, matter just as much, if not more, which is why it is so important to look below the surface.

We like the idea of acceptance, but in practice I have found a very different experience over the last 4 years. My journey has been a lonely and isolating one, but has reinforced just how important labelling is. Because if we don’t label positively, we can’t educate people to what ADHD really means – and how it affects every minute of every day.

If we don’t label correctly, we will be left with the ignorance and misunderstanding; awful labels like those typically associated with ADHD such as “naughty boys”. There is nothing more likely to get my back up that the word “naughty”.

I saw an Instagram post last week by @neurodivergentrebel (shared via @spikey) that said: “To those who have NeuroDivergent children and say they don’t want to limit [their children] by putting labels on them”: Before I knew I was NeuroDivergent my labels were “lazy, religious, difficult, stupid, flake, dumb”. Now those have been replaced with Autistic and ADHD. The first labels I had destroyed my self-esteem. The new labels removed the old labels and set me free.”

That’s it right there. In a nutshell. The real need to educate, in my view, because we can’t educate children, if we don’t begin by educating ourselves as grown-ups.

We all cope in different ways. My way has been to never stop reading, learning and leaning into ADHD. Through this, the single most important learning has been it is not his fault, and it is not mine.

When he was first diagnosed, I didn’t know a single soul who was going through the same thing as me. I can’t even begin to tell you how lonely that was, when something is as all-consuming as ADHD.

I made a promise to myself and to my son, that I would never ever stop fighting for him. That I would do anything in my power to level the playing field

There were no support groups locally, so, I was very much alone. It was through Instagram that I found that first support in the form of my now virtual friend @imkatepeers. So desperate was I for some understanding, some compassion, I sent a message to a complete stranger. We’ve still never met but are there for each other when we need it, and I am forever empowered by her bravery.

These days I slowly know others in the same boat. I have friends whose children have been diagnosed with ADHD or are presenting symptoms and have been recommended a referral. I understand, and I am here for them. To support and to share what I’ve learned so far.

I made a promise to myself and to my son, that I would never ever stop fighting for him. That I would do anything in my power to level the playing field, to help support his development and to ultimately give him the tools required to navigate life. I promised to empower him to understand and own his neurodivergence.

In order to really make true on this promise, I have to actively promote education, awareness and facilitation at school.

Phrases like “ADHD is my superpower” might seem clichéd, but ADHD really is a superpower. That energy, athleticism, creativity, and drive will set the world on fire as an adult, if we can build self-esteem and empowerment in childhood.

I truly believe that neurodiversity in adulthood is the thing that will set you apart in a powerful way. Many entrepreneurs have ADHD because they’re wired with the energy and hyperfocus it takes.

But until then the challenge is getting through the school years. Fitting inside the classroom box both figuratively and literally.

I research and read. I do courses and I connect the dots. What began as my way of coping has led, over the years, to a growing understanding of what it really means to have ADHD and how it affects every minute of every day. I am by no means an expert. I’m simply his mum and I’ve got his back. For me, it’s a continuous learning journey. But also, as an exhausted human, who makes mistakes every single day, but is willing to own them and try to do better - again and again and again.

I’ve always told my son that I’m immensely proud of him. And that I will never ask for more from him than to always do his best. I can’t sit with him in a classroom, or supervise his playground games, but I can share what I learn, to help teachers and parents understand what it means to have ADHD, and what they can do to proactively and positively facilitate learning. Not just for my son, but for every single child with ADHD that comes through my son’s school, or that is taught by the same teacher during their career. To do my bit in making life a little bit easier for them to navigate.

My son might only be in Year 5, but he is at an all-through school. Not only can this stuff help little ones coming through behind him, it can also help those much older than him too. Studies have shown raising awareness and promoting acceptance and inclusivity is crucial to improving experiences of school for children with ADHD.

I’m immensely fortunate to say my son’s school have a very inclusive approach to SENDs and pupil welfare. They believe in the importance of parental partnership especially in the case of children who have needs significantly different from, or additional to most other pupils. The school actively uses targeted intervention, enabling children to reach their full potential not just with the curriculum, but with school life.

Something really clicked for my son this year. As I sat in a transition meeting with his current teacher, and the new teacher with whom he will finish his primary school journey, I realised just how far he has come. Something that is without doubt a team effort. Working in true dynamic partnership with his teacher, he has matured emotionally, developed confidence and progressed phenomenally. No mean feat during Covid, let alone with ADHD. He wants to learn, and he wants to do well.

I couldn’t have been prouder when his teacher reported that he consistently challenges himself with great effort and motivation; he is happy, and he is popular. That is only possible with an inclusive, positive and supportive learning environment. And I literally couldn’t ask for anything more. Long may he keep trying his hardest on the journey ahead.

This is why I’m a huge advocate for explaining ADHD, to help teachers, to help parents and ultimately to help children. Because I believe that labels bring knowledge, and that is vital in helping to change the language and change the perception of the child. We need to talk about differences and understand how these can contribute great things.

We just need to get them through their school years with their self-esteem intact. That’s the key to a long-term positive outcome for children with ADHD. There are amazing things teachers can do to help; they can help manage their behaviour and foster a positive sense of self and, at a very minimum, they can help our children understand that ADHD is not their fault.

They are not stereotypically bad kids and they do not have behavioural problems. ADHD is a neurodevelopment disorder. Their difficulties are simply as a result of the way their brain is wired.

Together we can raise awareness, increase understanding and encourage empathy - to help children regard themselves better and develop self-esteem. We can help them to be proud of their ADHD. Because if we can help them manage it, it really is a gift.

Claire Quigley Ward is co-founder of children’s bedding brand Pea.

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