From the minute we entered the restaurant with my 6-year-old son, I knew we were in for a tough time. The room was packed and noisy. It wasn’t kid-friendly, and my son has ADHD.
We sat down at a table, and within minutes, he was fidgeting in his seat. He grabbed the salt and pepper shakers and started playing with them, pretending they were race cars. I kept taking them away, explaining quietly but firmly that they weren’t toys and he needed to leave them alone.
But the second I turned away to look at the menu, I heard a sharp voice from another table. It was another mom, scolding my son for “driving” the pepper shaker into her daughter’s arm.
I instantly felt ashamed and under attack. I tensed up, turned back to my son, and barked, “What are you doing? I told you to put those away!” I yelled at him and said nothing to her for shaming us both in public.
Not that she didn’t have the right to say something, but how about a little grace. Or respect. Or kindness. Maybe a little less righteousness and judginess?
As the other mother and a few other patrons glared at me, my shame was joined by a familiar feeling of guilt and fear. I’d had this experience before, and I would go on to have it many times again. And every time it happened, it hurt.
Eventually, I tried to find a little grace myself. I realized something that made it a little easier to handle: Most people who judge do it because they just don’t know.
So if I could go back and take that mother aside (and all the other people who lack understanding), here’s what I would say:
1. It’s not his fault he behaves this way.
My son’s brain works differently — it’s a neurological issue. He’s not doing these things on purpose. Believe me, if he could have more self-control and focus, he would. It’s no fun for him to struggle with these things.
2. It’s not my fault he behaves this way.
I may not always do the right thing as a parent, but my parenting isn’t the cause of his challenges. Yes, I discipline him. And when he acts up, I give him consequences. But what works with other kids often doesn’t work with him. Or it doesn’t work every time. Sometimes I blame myself, even though I’m not sure what I’m blaming myself for.
3. ADHD is complicated.
It’s not just about being “hyper” or not listening. What you see isn’t even the half of it. He struggles in all sorts of ways you may not even notice — with things you may take for granted in your own kids. Turning in homework. Keeping track of time. Organizing his things and his thoughts. Applying what he knows one day to what he needs to do the next.
4. He’s not being rude or defiant.
Well, he can be those things from time to time, just like any kid. But the behavior you may see as disrespectful (to me, or to other people) isn’t really that. Once my son realizes he’s been hurtful or made others unhappy, he feels terrible. He doesn’t mean it.
5. We’re both trying as hard as we can.
We make schedules and checklists to try to keep things on track. We role-play ways he could have handled things differently. He works hard every day to keep it together at school, even if it means losing it when he comes home. I work hard not to lose it when he does. It’s exhausting, and I don't always succeed.
6. Putting my young child on ADHD medication wasn’t easy.
He gagged the first time he tried to swallow a pill. He cried the first time he couldn’t finish his pancakes because he had less of an appetite in the morning. I wanted to cry, too. But the medication truly changed his life. It’s not everyone’s choice, but it was our family’s choice. I just don’t want people to think I did it lightly.
7. Feeling judged makes everything worse.
It isolates us, when what we need most is support.
8. He’s so much more than his ADHD.
If people could look beyond the challenges, they’d see the person I see. He’s funny and smart. He’s loyal, almost to a fault. He picks himself up when he falls, and he tries again. Most important, he has tremendous empathy. And unlike many people, he shows it all the time.
See how ADHD impacts kids in surprising ways. Explore a day in the life of a child with ADHD.
About the author
About the author
Gail Belsky is executive editor at Understood. She has written and edited for major media outlets, specializing in parenting, health, and career content.