The ADD Label

Children and adults associate a wide variety of images and feelings with the diagnosis of attention deficit disorder. It might surprise you to know that some contradict others. I've had parents and children say they were relieved. Others have said they felt restricted. Still others have said that the ADD diagnosis gave them a sense of having safe boundaries established, although there were those who said they viewed ADD as an excuse.

Relief is a very common feeling associated with the ADD diagnosis. For many people it helps to have an explanation for the frustrating behavioral symptoms that have been disrupting their lives. Parents often say, "If there is a name for it, there must be a cure for it." And children with the ADD diagnosis often remark, "Well, now at least I know I'm not crazy." For families, the diagnosis can mean an end to blaming and the beginning of treatment.

For some, labels such as ADD are seen as providing a welcome clarity. Finally they can define their child's success or failure within the accepted ranges for the disorder. If the parents understand that ADD children have short attention spans, they can accept without frustration or guilt that their ADD child won't be able to focus as long as other children. The downside is that a parent or child may decide that the ADD diagnosis is a convenient excuse for accepting limits and then resist treatment efforts as useless.

I call this the "lost keys" syndrome. Once you find your car keys, you stop looking for them. If you are searching for the reason your child can't master basic math, you might be tempted to stop searching once he is diagnosed with ADD. If the child hears, "You are disabled and you will always have trouble in math," he may give up too. The child can legitimately ask why he should continue trying to learn math if his disability prevents him from ever mastering it. But the parent, teacher, or counselor can legitimately respond, "You can improve your skills well beyond what they are now"--by finding new ways to learn that take into account the impact of ADD on traditional learning processes.

Labels can also distort a child's view of the world. A child labeled as ADD might tend to see everyone else as smarter or more worthy. It's understandable, but it is also a distortion. ADD is a limitation, but so is poor eyesight or dyslexia. Both can be overcome and neither limits true intelligence. Even if a teacher tells a child that, he may refuse to believe it because other children seem to have an easier time with their studies. Some children may take on a victim's mentality or develop anger instead of accepting the challenge of treatment.

Sadly, the damage we do to ourselves with these imprecise labels can outweigh the cognitive problems caused by the affliction itself. Human beings are capable of overcoming extraordinary challenges. We scale mountains, we explore the bottom of the ocean, we've walked on the moon. The most serious limitations many have are those they place on themselves unnecessarily.

From The ADD Answer: How to Help Your Child Now by Frank Lawlis, M.D. Copyright © 2005. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

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