People with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) have symptoms that many of us find relatable — such as difficulty sitting still or being easily distracted. At one point or another, you may have even said something like “I’m so ADHD!” to describe your own experiences.
As a result, it’s easy to forget that ADHD is a clinical diagnosis that needs professional treatment.
“While everyone feels inattentive, distracted, or impulsive sometimes, the experience is not the same,” says Jaclyn Halpern, PsyD, a licensed psychologist and director of the SOAR Program for Psychotherapy and Testing at Washington Behavioral Medicine Associates in Chevy Chase, Maryland. “The attention and executive functioning challenges many individuals with ADHD encounter can impact nearly every aspect of their well-being.”
In other words, the symptoms of ADHD are often much more intense, to the point that they cause distress and interfere with a person’s ability to go about their daily lives. Because not everyone understands ADHD and the difficulties that come with it, people without the condition may say things that they think are helpful but actually aren’t. And in the process, they may inadvertently reinforce rampant myths about ADHD , such as the notion that people with ADHD are lazy or simply need to work harder.
Here are four phrases to avoid saying to (or about) someone with ADHD — and what to say instead to show how much you care.
1. ‘Isn’t Everyone a Little ADHD?’
This phrase can be hurtful for several reasons. Describing everyone’s life experiences as “a little ADHD” implies that you don’t understand the serious difficulties that someone with ADHD faces every day, says Teresa Thompson, a licensed clinical social worker based in Brooklyn, New York.
ADHD is a clinical diagnosis listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), the authoritative guide used by mental health professionals. For someone to be officially diagnosed with ADHD, their symptoms need to meet the criteria listed in the DSM.
The subtypes of ADHD and their symptoms, per the DSM, include:
- Predominantly Hyperactive/Impulsive This involves fidgeting, being constantly “on the go,” or being unable to sit still, often to a degree that people around them find tiring, as well as interrupting others, having difficulty waiting one’s turn, and acting without considering the potential consequences first.
- Predominantly Inattentive This can include behaviors like making careless mistakes at school or work, poor attention to detail, and difficulty completing daily tasks.
- Combined This involves a mix of both hyperactive/impulsive and inattentive symptoms.
Although you might mean well, saying something like “everyone is a little ADHD” minimizes the very real struggles that people with ADHD encounter in their day-to-day lives, Dr. Halpern explains. It can make someone with ADHD feel unseen and make them feel as if they should be able to handle everyday tasks that are generally easier for neurotypical individuals (aka people without ADHD or other neurodevelopmental conditions, such as autism spectrum disorder), Halpern adds.
“Sometimes I find my mind wandering, and it can be really hard to focus, especially with virtual distractions and the stresses of the pandemic. What has it been like for you? Has your ADHD been more difficult to manage?”
2. ‘That’s Just Boys Being Boys’
There are two subtypes of ADHD — one marked by hyperactivity, and one marked by inattention. And it’s true that boys are more likely to have the hyperactivity subtype of ADHD, which is marked by more outwardly noticeable symptoms like fidgeting, interrupting others, and frequently getting out of their seat at home or school, according to Children and Adults With Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder.
That said, there are still plenty of girls who experience hyperactive ADHD symptoms. And if any child’s ADHD symptoms are simply written off as them being a “bad kid” in class, it can be very damaging to their self-esteem, Halpern says.
“Minimizing their struggles to ‘boys will be boys’ overlooks this very real damage,” she notes. “It also overlooks the struggles girls and nonbinary children and teens with ADHD have, which may look different than those of boys. This kind of minimization can also prevent kids and teens with ADHD from getting the help they need.”
- “In my earlier years, people did not have the same level of understanding about ADHD as we have today. Sadly, that meant that many people weren’t properly diagnosed and treated. I’m so glad it’s different today.”
- “I know that exuberant energy is a wonderful gift sometimes, but it seems like it has been causing you some difficulty in school. Is there anything I can do to help?”
3. ‘You Only Focus on What You Want To’
A hallmark symptom of ADHD is difficulty focusing on a task, according to the Mayo Clinic. However, some people with ADHD also experience what’s called “hyperfocus,” or paying such deep attention to an activity that they may not realize how much time has passed, or that their phone is ringing or someone has been calling their name, per a small study published in January 2022 in Frontiers for Young Minds.
This typically happens with activities the person finds interesting or exciting. “In ADHD, the brain is more easily distracted, and it struggles to regulate attention, particularly for nonpreferred tasks,” Halpern explains. “Individuals with ADHD need more of a ‘lift’ to feel motivated and focused, and this lift often comes when they engage in topics or activities of interest.”
People with ADHD may find less exciting tasks more difficult to pay attention to because they require more executive functioning skills like working memory, which can be challenging for them.
Telling someone that they only focus on what they want to implies that they’re simply choosing not to focus on certain tasks, which is untrue, Halpern adds. What’s more, people with ADHD don’t necessarily want to hyperfocus, says Thompson. “It can derail your day and hurt your productivity and relationships in the process,” she explains.
“It’s really cool that you can focus for so long and get to know so much about the things that interest you.”
4. ‘Nobody Needs to Know You Have ADHD’
While it’s certainly true that people don’t need to disclose their ADHD diagnosis to anyone, it’s their decision to make, not yours, Thompson says.
“This statement is particularly damaging, as it suggests that the person should be ashamed of their ADHD, and that they should hide and be embarrassed by this very integral part of who they are,” Halpern adds.
“If you feel comfortable, could you tell me about your ADHD? What are some of the challenges — and the strengths — that you experience?”
Halpern also recommends listening to the language the person uses when they speak about themselves and their experience with ADHD, and then using that same language when talking to or about them.