Words Matter: Why I’ve Stopped Saying my ADHD Son has “Behavior Issues”

I really love that many social media platforms have a “Memories” or “On this Day” feature that shows you what you posted on this day in years past. Often, seeing those old posts serves as a nostalgic walk down memory lane: seeing my children when they were smaller, recounting things I was working on in therapy, seeing what mattered to me when I was a few years younger and less experienced.

But occasionally, my old posts make me cringe.

Upon opening TikTok yesterday, I was presented with my “On This Day” post from three years ago. It was about my son. He’s seven now, so he would have been four at the time. He was in preschool and having what I referred to as “behavioral issues” at school. The premise of the video was that I will always love, support, and be there for my son, regardless of what he goes through in life. It was, in my humble opinion, a beautiful video. Even watching it again all these years later, I was brought to tears.

That said, I couldn’t help fixating on my use of behavioral issues.

It felt wrong. Almost dirty.

Now that my son is older, has received his official ADHD diagnosis, and has worked with psychologists and behavioral therapists to help him navigate his cognitive and emotional world, I understand him so much better than I did back then. He understands himself better, too, and can express himself to me in a way he couldn’t when he was four.

My son does not have behavioral issues.

He has a collection of common ADHD traits that color his world. And those traits bring out different behaviors in him.

His ADHD makes him enormously gifted. (No, this is not necessarily relevant to the topic of this post, but if I’m going to discuss some of the difficult parts of his ADHD, you’ll have to hear me gush about some of the good ones). He is so intelligent—capable of understanding complex things far above his age. I attribute this to his tendency to hyper-fixate on things that interest him (a common ADHD trait). He has big, big emotions. This means that when he is happy, he is exuberantly happy, and that brings me so much joy. He is empathetic, and warm, and deeply attentive to other people. He fills me with pride.

But, many of the positive traits of is ADHD also appear in the reverse.

For example, because he is so intelligent, he is often bored in the classroom. I know every parent thinks their child is the smartest kid on the planet, but I promise that’s not what I’m trying to say here. I mean that my kid has a level of intellect that sometimes makes the work of first grade feel mundane. He is already learning how to write computer code with his dad. I think anyone who is doing that level of complex work at home would feel a little disengaged with practicing rhyming words at school. Because he is sometimes bored, he gets fidgety.

Furthermore, his ability to hyper-fixate on things that interest him can become a disability when he is asked at school to focus on something that doesn’t interest him. His fixation on, for example, thinking through how he might beat the next level on his latest Roblox game, is classified as inattentiveness in the classroom.

And his big emotions, which I love and cherish so deeply, can also become an obstacle for him at school. He has something called Rejection Sensitivity Dysphoria(RSD) —another common trait in people with ADHD. RSD is the tendency for some people with ADHD to respond with extreme emotional pain when they feel rejected or criticized. My son’s strong emotions tied to RSD cause him to perceive emotionally neutral things in a deeply emotional way. For instance, this year, one of his teachers often did what he described as “glaring” at him when he wasn’t doing what he was supposed to be doing. He told us she was glaring and giving him dirty looks, and that he felt humiliated. When we spoke to the teacher, she explained that she gives him “deliberate, wordless eye contact” as a way to silently communicate to him that he’s not doing the right thing and needs to re-direct. She said this was her way of correcting him without drawing the other children’s attention. I believe her. But it was clear that it wasn’t the right action to take with my son. When she “glared” at him (as my son perceived it), he felt ashamed and rejected, and would begin to act out. He would cry, or sometimes shout. He would occasionally become defiant and disruptive. And all of this was because he was having a profound emotional experience that the neurotypical students (and teacher) couldn’t relate to. So, because the use of eye-contact in that way triggered my son’s rejection sensitivity, we worked with her to come up with other ways to signal to him that he needs to redirect.

It’s easy to classify these things as “behavioral issues.” The most uncharitable interpretation of his behavior in the classroom would be: distracted, disruptive, inattentive, and explosive. And sadly, that’s how many people responsible for his well-being, myself included, perceived it.

But my son does not have behavioral issues.

He has inattentiveness. Hyper-fixation. Time-blindness (another common trait of people with ADHD). He has Rejection Sensitivity. Difficulties with Emotion Regulation. And Anxiety about how all of those things will impact him in the classroom.

Some may argue that it is a semantic difference, and maybe it is. If his inner experiences are manifesting functionally as inappropriate behavior in the classroom, it’s understandable to label it a “behavioral issue.”

But our words matter. The way we think and talk about things is powerful. It can foster hope and positivity, or hopelessness and despair. To minimize my son’s experiences down to a behavioral issue is to strip him of all the underlying experiences that manifest the behavior. It is to strip him of his essential humanity.

I will never again say my son has behavioral issues.

He is a person with complex inner experiences that translate into the outer world.

Rather than focusing on the visible, behavioral result of those experiences, I am going to focus my attention, my energy, and even my words, on those rich internal experiences. And I’ve come to believe that in addressing the inner invisible experiences, the visible behaviors will resolve themselves on their own.

Amber Wardell is a doctor of psychology and author who speaks on women’s issues related to marriage, motherhood, and mental health. Subscribe to the free newsletter to get exclusive content delivered to your inbox and to never miss an upload.

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