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It's OK If My 5-Year-Old Has ADHD

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"I have some concerns," one of my son's pre-K teachers told me this afternoon. I can probably count on one hand the number of times I heard those four words, in that order, before I had a son. Now I've just heard them from the third teacher in six months. And I'm starting to realize that I may be hearing them for the next 15 years.

I'm sure I'm not the only parent who has come to dread this phrase. "Concerns" is a deliberately vague description; it could mean something alarming ("your child needs to stop setting things on fire"), or something mundane ("your child needs to stop doodling on his homework").

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In my case, it means that my son can't keep his body under control. Sometimes he gets himself into a whirlwind, where he can't be reached by the adults around him. Sometimes he's incapable of following instructions like "get your shoes on" or "stand still." He'll dance, jump, kick and do anything but what he's been asked. He distracts himself. He trips over his own feet. Sometimes, without meaning to, he hurts other kids. It is a concern. "Concern" is an accurate word. So why does it feel so scary?

I'm not sure when my child began to run like a wind-up toy outfitted with booster rockets. He did kick incessantly in the womb, even during delivery. When he was a toddler, he tried to incite a naptime revolution at day care, shouting, "All kids, jump on cots!" He's definitely turned up to 11 at all times.

And then there's that acronym, ADHD, which I don't know when or how or whether to use.

Like most parents, we tried to handle it as best we could, and we let his age take responsibility for the rest. It was a case of the terrible twos; the troublesome threes; the frustrating fours. There's always time for kids to grow out of it. Until there's not.

The idea of my 5-year-old having a learning disability is hard to wrap my head around, because he loves learning. Doing math problems in his Scholastic reader, sounding out a word—these are his ideas of a good time. Turns out that has very little to do with anything. It's not unusual for kids with disorders like ADHD to be super-smart, nor is it unusual for them to focus like lasers on things they enjoy. My son will spend 20 minutes drawing a remarkably detailed monster, but as soon as he gets out of his chair, he can't stand still for 30 seconds.

And then there's that acronym, ADHD, which I don't know when or how or whether to use. My son is currently attending two schools part-time. The teacher at one school is concerned that he won't get the help he needs if he's not diagnosed. The teacher at the other school doesn't want him to be labeled and placed in a box.

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Given the millions of kids who suffer from attention disorders, you'd think there would be a clear path for their parents. There's not. We're all hacking through a jungle of red tape and pharmaceuticals, trying to create space for our children to be themselves without making everybody else crazy.

So this is what I'm in for. My son is amazing, creative, funny and affectionate, and he comes with some concerns. In the grand scheme of things, it could be a hell of a lot worse. But it's never easy to look into your child's future and change what you see. At least I can be sure that one thing will never change: me, right beside him, doing the best I can to help.

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