Thirty years ago, when Duane Gordon’s 6-year-old was diagnosed with ADHD, he had an epiphany. “As my wife and I read up on this ADHD thing my daughter was dealing with, we just looked at each other,” he says. “This was describing me.” This stop-in-his-tracks moment set Gordon on a path to seeking his own ADHD diagnosis and treatment, which completely transformed his life for the better. His mind quieted down and he could focus more. Untreated, he had a difficult time holding down jobs. Once he found a treatment plan, he found success in his career and eventually became president of the Attention Deficit Disorder Association, an organization dedicated to helping adults with ADHD.
Gordon’s experience isn’t unusual; this type of neurodivergence tends to run in families. “ADHD is a highly familial disorder,” says Lenard Adler, M.D., a psychiatrist and director of the Adult ADHD program at NYU Langone Health. Adler adds that there’s about a 50% chance that it runs in first degree relatives, which are a person’s biological parents, full siblings, and biological children. So, there’s a good chance that if your child has ADHD, they inherited it from you or their other biological parent.
So, if your child has ADHD and you’re seeing parallels between their ADHD traits and characteristics that you had in childhood — or even those you continue to have as an adult — you may have some big questions. Perhaps the biggest: Should you get diagnosed?
While self-identifying as having ADHD may be an important part of the process, Adler and Gordon caution against stopping there. Without a formal diagnosis, you won’t be able to receive proper treatment for symptoms that could be creating challenges in your life. Some of those challenges can even branch out into areas that you might not expect or recognize.
Life As An Untreated Parent
I made life very tough for my family when my ADHD was untreated,” Gordon says. “They did not deserve that at all.”
For instance, when he first started working with an ADHD coach, Gordon says he was “on the verge of losing yet another job,” had “impulsively moved” his family a few times, and his family’s electricity had sometimes been shut off due to his lack of payment. Within three months of working with a coach, however, he went from being on work probation to earning a promotion. In fact, the ADHD coaching process helped Gordon (and, by extension, his family), so much that his wife switched careers and became an ADHD coach herself.
“Burying your head in the sand and saying, ‘You have got to love me the way I am or not at all,’ that’s a copout,” Gordon says. He points out that just because you get evaluated doesn’t mean you have to pursue treatment if you don’t want to, but it’s worth knowing what you’re dealing with.
Adler agrees. “If individuals are worried that they have ADHD, they certainly should come in for an evaluation,” he says. “The consequences of having ADHD and not getting it diagnosed and treated are significant.”
For instance, those with undiagnosed and untreated ADHD have, per Adler, “higher rates of divorce and separation [and] lower educational attainment. They don’t achieve as high an income level. They’re more likely to use substances if it’s not diagnosed and treated, more likely to smoke cigarettes, and are less likely to quit smoking.”
Furthermore, getting evaluated is the only way to verify that what you’re experiencing is due to ADHD rather than another condition with overlapping traits.
“If you have symptoms and it’s not ADHD, it could be something worse,” Gordon says. “You might want to know about that, too.” Forgetfulness, for example, could signal a different medical or mental health problem, such as depression or a thyroid problem.
The Diagnosis Process, For Mom & Dad
The ADHD diagnosis process for you will probably be different than what your child went through. For instance, children may undergo psychological testing aimed at measuring things like their attention and impulsivity. But similar tests aren’t used as commonly in adults because they may have found workarounds that could hide their ADHD traits on the testing.
“The adult is often more able to overcome and pay attention to the task in a one-on-one setting than they might be able to in everyday scenarios,” Adler says, adding that this makes the testing less accurate for adults.
For children, part of the evaluation may include talking with their teachers, parents, or child care providers about their ADHD traits, while adults will likely be asked to rate their own symptoms. If possible, the evaluator may also ask your spouse or significant other about your ADHD symptoms.
Gordon notes that the Attention Deficit Disorder Association recommends against exclusively computerized testing. “We don’t like the idea of diagnosis with no [in-person] meetings with a health professional, because you also have to eliminate hearing problems and sight problems and all those kinds of things and those can’t be tested over the internet,” he says.
If you’re not motivated to get diagnosed with ADHD solely for your own benefit — maybe you’re fairly successful in your work and personal lives, or worried about the lifestyle changes it would require — consider that it can make you a better parent too.
Scientific studies demonstrate that when parents are diagnosed and treated for their ADHD, it can help them manage their children’s ADHD, Adler notes. They show that mothers “are more able to effectively parent for the children with ADHD, and the outcomes for their kids with ADHD improve in that they’re more able to follow through on the things that are necessary to help keep their kids on task,” Adler says. And although research has focused on mothers, he says the same is likely true for fathers.
Getting treatment for ADHD can also affect how you parents your kids, for the better. “My kids would say ‘Dad, did you take your pills?’ because they could tell when I was with and without my medication,” Gordon says. “It was very obvious in terms of patience.” And patience is incredibly helpful for parents — especially when your child who has ADHD gets on your last nerve with their own impulsivity.