Is Labeling a Child With ADHD Helpful or Hurtful?

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Identifying the source or underlying causes of a child's struggles and impairment is important and provides powerful information. Without it, a child and family are left with little control over the situation. nullplus/Getty Images

Question: Is Labeling a Child With ADHD Helpful or Hurtful?


Many parents have mixed feelings about the aspect of labeling a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. They may worry about whether having that label will hinder their child in some way. Will it affect the way he or she is viewed by teachers, coaches, peers, and other parents? Will people begin to define the child only by that label?

On the other hand, identifying the source or underlying causes of a child's struggles and impairment is important and provides powerful information. Accurately diagnosing ADHD gives us evidence-based direction for strategies and interventions that will guide teaching and parenting approaches. Without this, we are often left to rely on trial and error.

Misinformation About ADHD

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out there in the general public about the nature, course, and treatment of ADHD. These misunderstandings often create difficulties for parents who may worry about stigmatizing their child. They may feel shame, embarrassment, or that they are to blame for their child's challenging behaviors. Sometimes these fears prevent parents from seeking appropriate help for their child.

If a child is struggling, he or she is very aware of this. Symptoms of ADHD can certainly create situations in which a child is labeled by others in negative ways.

For example, the child may be labeled as a "behavior problem;" as a "trouble maker;" as "lazy," "dumb," "ditzy," or "unlikeable." These are the labels that are most harmful, especially if the child begins to perceive himself or herself in this negative light. One of the things kids with ADHD often struggle with secondary to the ADHD symptoms is a feeling of low self-esteem.

"What is wrong with me?" "Why can't I do this right?"

Demystifying the Struggles

If you talk with an adult who grew up struggling with ADHD without ever being diagnosed as a child or understanding what was causing the impairments, and then they are finally accurately diagnosed as an adult, they will often tell you that part of the healing process is being able to look back on their life with better clarity. "Oh wait a minute, so I wasn't lazy... I wasn't stupid." In other words, they are able to reframe things and view themselves in a more positive, more accurate light. They are also then able to move forward in a solution-focused way, using effective evidence-based interventions to manage the ADHD symptoms.

An reader who was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult wrote in recently to share her thoughts:

"For me, after my diagnosis there was a sense of great relief that I wasn't just a screw-up, or lazy, or irresponsible. The more I began to understand why certain things were such a struggle for me, the more I felt relief and began to be able to accommodate my ADHD. This is still a challenge for me sometimes, but it has gotten much better. I have finally been able to change my attitude from 'I can't seem to do anything right' to 'Wow, I'm really learning how to get things done much better because I understand my ADHD.'"

Understanding ADHD -- what it is and what it is not -- is an important part of helping a child and family who is affected by ADHD. When there is accurate information, it clarifies and demystifies the struggles. Without knowledge about what has been causing the problems, the child and family are left with little control over the situation. When ADHD is accurately labeled and diagnosed, however, this opens up a wealth of scientific information that the family is able to access in order to better understand their child and how to best manage the symptoms of ADHD successfully. It also ensures that the child receives appropriate access to educational rights and legal protections.

Treating the Whole Child

Yet regardless of the ADHD label, each child -- whether that child has ADHD or not -- is uniquely different. Each child has special qualities and unique strengths and weaknesses. Though the primary symptoms that define ADHD include impulsivity, hyperactivity and inattention, not all children with ADHD will present these symptoms in the same way or to the same degree. As a child ages and moves through different developmental stages and life changes, the ADHD may also manifest differently. A child who has ADHD may also have co-occurring learning disabilities, speech and language impairments, behavior or conduct problems, emotional issues, tics, etc. The point is it is vital to recognize and understand the needs of each individual child. Work to minimize a child's areas of weakness, while at the same time identifying and nurturing strengths.


Sydney S. Zentall. ADHD and Education: Foundations, Characteristics, Methods, and Collaboration. Pearson Education, 2006.

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