5 Things Not To Say To Somebody With ADHD

Things Not To Say To Somebody With ADHD

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Adulting With ADHD Staff

Living or working with someone who has Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder can be frustrating. In the heat of the moment, you can say things that are hurtful or demeaning, but that can only make things worse. You’d be better off taking a deep breath and thinking before you speak.

Examples of things you must never say to someone with ADHD are suggesting the problem isn’t their condition, but it’s them. Another example is telling them to get on with a task or to try harder. You should also avoid suggesting that ADHD is just an excuse to be lazy or get out of work.

In this article, we’ll give you examples of the type of things you should avoid saying to someone with ADHD. We’ll also explain why you shouldn’t say these things, and what you should be doing instead. If you want to avoid causing unnecessary distress and anxiety, be sure to continue reading.

Related: How To Stop Losing Focus When Talking

What Is ADHD?

ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It’s caused by impairment in the development of the nervous system, including the brain.

Doctors classify the disorder into three types:

  1. Mainly inattentive
  2. Mainly hyperactive/impulsive
  3. combined

The combined type is the most common adult form of the disorder.


An estimated 9.8% of children in the US aged 2-17 years old had ADHD in 2018. Based on Census Bureau demographics for 2018, that’s around 7 million children in the under-18 age group.

A 2013 study concluded that nearly a third of childhood ADHD cases persisted into adulthood.

All three types of the disorder can lead to underachievement at school. At work, they can result in missed opportunities and even job loss. They can cause conflict in relationships with friends and family.

The symptoms can be controlled or improved with medication and therapy. Despite this, many people with the condition find it a constant battle to manage their symptoms.

Sure, if you’re living or dealing with someone who has ADHD, it can be frustrating. Sometimes, they’ll stretch your patience to its limits, because you’re only human.

But when that happens, the things you say can have a long-lasting damaging effect on the person with ADHD. Your words can also damage relationships. Often, in the end, no-one feels any better after the words are spoken.

That’s why you should consider the impact of the type of things you might want to say before you say them.

So, let’s look at the things you should never say to someone with ADHD, why, and what you should be doing instead.

Just Do It

That’s right. It turns out that Nike’s famous advertising slogan isn’t very ADHD-friendly.

Just do it means to just get on with it and stop wasting time or delaying.

But, one of the afflictions of a person living with ADHD is procrastination. So, it’s not that easy to do.

Now, we all procrastinate on occasion. You’ve probably done it yourself. You just can’t seem to get going with what you need to do.

But for a person with ADHD, procrastination is pretty much a way of life. It’s almost like having a constant mental block when it comes to starting a task.

It’s the way that an ADHD person’s brain has developed. So, they know what they have to do, but the controls in their brain don’t function well enough to get them to start doing it. Instead, with all the other distractions they face, they end up doing something else. Frequently.


It means that they often tend to leave things to the last minute. When it absolutely needs to be done. That’s when the ADHD brain switches to panic mode. It then seizes back control and diverts all the person’s energy into the task.

But, leaving things to the last minute means someone with ADHD can be prone to miss deadlines. Or they cut things so fine that people around them get stressed out.

Why You Shouldn’t Say This

One of the common side effects of the symptoms of ADHD is anxiety.

That’s right. The symptoms of ADHD cause stress for the person suffering from it. That’s because they feel they’re always letting people down.

But, at the same time, the ADHD person is struggling internally. They know the job needs to be done. They just can’t seem to find a way to start it.

Now, this may be because the person with ADHD doesn’t know what they’re meant to be doing. Or, because they have a zillion ideas for what to do, but can’t seem to find the one that will kick things off. Or it may be because the task is too big for them to see what they need to do first.

But, just urging an ADHD person to get on with it, isn’t going to help. It sounds like you think they’re lazy or can’t be bothered to get things done. But that’s not the case.

So, of course, it’s frustrating and annoying for you. But you can guarantee that the person with ADHD feels equally frustrated. If not more.

That’s because not only does the ADHD person have to deal with their own internal struggle. They also have to deal with your disappointment at them. That’s stressful.

Telling them to just get on with it creates greater feelings of inadequacy and anxiety, which makes the procrastination worse.

What You Should Do Instead

That’s not what you want. Instead, you want to find ways to help get things underway. Give things a bit of a kick start.

So, here are some constructive ways you can deal with the issue of procrastination.

Solution How it Helps
Clarify what needs to be done
  • If the ADHD person is struggling to start a job because they’re unclear what they need to be doing, this will help.
  • Check-in with them to make sure that they understand your instructions.
  • It may be that you need to confirm instructions in writing, so they have a reference point.
Break down large jobs into smaller tasks
  • Dissect a job into its components parts.
  • Either you can do this or ask the ADHD person to do so, depending on their role and responsibilities.
  • Breaking down a task not only ensures that everyone is clear what needs to be done. It also gives direction on where to begin.
  • That’s especially important with more substantial tasks. You’re effectively defining a pathway from the beginning to the end of the job.
Set clear deadlines
  • People with ADHD tend to work best under tight deadlines. That’s why they start things at the last minute. That’s when panic mode sets in. So, creating deadlines can be an effective way to manage this procrastination.
  • You should set deadlines for both the start and end times for each part of the task.
  • The trick is to set end-times well in advance of any actual deadline. That way, the work gets done well before you need it. So, you avoid the last-minute rush that can cause issues for others.

You Just Need to Concentrate and Try Harder

Oh, yes, it looks like you’ve encountered some of the most common symptoms of inattentive ADHD:

  • An inability to focus on tasks because they become distracted by the slightest thing
  • Jumping from one task to another, without finishing the first one
  • Carelessness and lack of attention to detail, due to a lack of focus

For an ADHD person, concentrating on a task is that much harder than for a non-ADHD person.


But it’s not that an ADHD person is deficient in attention. The problem is more a lack of attention control.

There’s also an element of impulsivity here. It means that when an ADHD person has a thought, they act on it straight away. They don’t stop to think that it may be better to take action later.

So, every-day situations create chaos within an ADHD mind. Take the sound of a phone ringing or a door slamming, or even of people’s chatter. These are sounds that a typical person’s brain can block out and ignore.

But those types of sounds put an ADHD brain into overdrive. In its constant search for something more stimulating, the ADHD mind latches on to those sounds. It’ll bounce from one to another. And, it’ll get distracted by any number of other sounds, movements, or thoughts that pop up along the way.

These things drag an ADHD person’s focus away from what they’re meant to be doing. And they end up doing something completely different. So, the original task gets delayed. Or it never gets done.

It’s no wonder then that with all the distractions, they’re prone to making careless mistakes.

Why You Shouldn’t Say This

You need to appreciate what your comment means to someone with ADHD.

You’re telling them that they’re lazy, or stupid, or that they could do it if only they wanted to. You’re implying that the person with ADHD can’t be bothered or they’re not trying.

Of course, it’s easy to understand why, to an average person, it may look like laziness. But, it’s incredibly stinging to a person with ADHD for you to suggest they’re not trying.

Why? Because someone with ADHD usually has to try much harder than a person who doesn’t have it. They’d probably describe it as having to run twice as fast just to keep up.

So, you can see why suggesting that they haven’t been trying is hurtful.

These feelings can be counter-productive in any aspect of life, whether at home, work, or school.

For someone with ADHD, it compounds feelings of inadequacy that many already harbor. It also leads to increased anxiety, making it even harder to focus.

What You Should Do Instead

So, reign in those thoughts because there’s no glory in highlighting problems if you don’t also come up with solutions.

The problem with distractions is there can be so many, from multiple sources. But, there are several ways to deal with this issue that will help concentration, as you’ll find out next.

These can help an ADHD person to retain focus, stay on task, and avoid mistakes.

Help With Time Management

Try the Pomodoro Technique. No, you’re not about to get dietary advice. The Pomodoro Technique is a tool used to increase productivity. It works well for people with ADHD.

Solution How it Helps
Work in 25-minute blocks, using a timer
  • Splitting work time into 25-minutes blocks makes focusing easier. It simulates the pressure of working to a tight deadline. It’s also a manageable period.
  • Each component part of a task can take any number of these 25-minute periods to complete. It’ll depend on the start and finish times allocated at the outset, as previously discussed.
  • Working in short spurts helps the ADHD mind direct their attention to the task. They’re sprinters, not marathon runners.
Ensure short breaks are taken.
  • Have a 5-minute break at the end of each 25-minutes. Take a more extended break of around 30 minutes after four 25-minute blocks. These are the rewards for working for the set period.
  • Regular breaks provide a chance to refresh the mind, re-charge, and of course, re-focus.


Provide a More Conducive and Collaborative Working Environment

Solution How it Helps
If you can, give them an office
  • Give an ADHD person an office so they can close the door to shut out distractions from office chatter and activity.
  • An empty boardroom or meeting room will work if there’s no spare office.
In an open-plan office, try white noise to mask distracting sounds
  • White noise helps mask the distracting cacophony of sounds that an ADHD mind struggles to filter out. Whether its people’s chattering, ringing phones, whirring printers, or doors slamming.
  • White noise is a constant sound, like the hum of a fan, in contrast to the sudden noises occurring in day-to-day situations.
  • You can play the white noise throughout the office, or you could allow the person with ADHD to use headphones to listen to it.
Have regular catch-ups to track progress
  • Catch-ups don’t need to be formal. They can occur when passing in the corridor or chatting over a coffee.
  • They don’t need to be big-brother-like or intrusive because that can have a negative impact.
  • Catch-ups can be scheduled or unscheduled, daily or weekly, or whatever is appropriate for the circumstances.

You Never Listen

So, you’ve given instructions to an ADHD person, but they haven’t carried them out. You feel like they’ve ignored or disobeyed you.

This happens with some people who have ADHD. They may be looking at you when you’re speaking to them. So, it appears they’re listening.

Or sometimes, you’ll notice an almost blank stare when you’re talking to someone with ADHD. So, it’s like they’re not listening to you. You’ve probably thought to yourself, well, the wheel’s turning, but the hamster’s dead.

But in both cases, chances are their mind has wandered.

An ADHD person’s tendency to zone in and out of conversations is another aspect of their inability to focus. They get distracted by other things. But don’t be offended.

Why You Shouldn’t Say This

It’s not that the person with ADHD isn’t listening or paying attention to what you’re saying. They are, It’s just that they’re also listening or paying attention to a myriad of other things going on around them at the same time.

It might be another conversation that their ADHD attention has zoned in on. Or it may be some random thought that’s popped into their head. Or it may just be that they can’t decide where to focus their gaze when you’re talking. So, while trying to work that out, they miss what you’ve said.

The problem is an ADHD person’s brain has a door that’s stuck open. Unlike the brain of a non-ADHD person where the door can be shut to block out distractions.

So, an ADHD person’s brain is processing a whole lot more than it can cope with at once. The result is that they’ll miss things, even though they’re trying their hardest to listen to you.

So, suggesting that they don’t listen makes someone with ADHD feel inferior and useless.

What You Should Do Instead

Well, don’t give up. There are some strategies you can try out to deal with this issue.

Solution How it Helps
Give or confirm instructions in writing
  • If you do this, it overcomes any issue with the ADHD person not being able to take in the instructions you gave.
  • If you’re proactive about this, it saves them the embarrassment of coming to you later to clarify.
  • Think about it. Have you ever been introduced to someone new, then five minutes into the conversation you realize you can’t remember their name? Embarrassing, isn’t it? And you can’t ask them to remind you because it’ll look like you weren’t listening to them the first time around.
  • That’s how it is for an ADHD person. But it happens all the time.
Follow up one-to-one to make sure instructions have been understood
  • Even if you’ve confirmed instructions in writing, it’s always a good idea to follow-up. But, it’s especially important where you’ve only given verbal instructions.
  • It’s a necessity if you’re dealing with complicated instructions.
Use a calendar app
  • Most calendar apps have a reminder function. This can be a useful way to jog the memory of an ADHD person to prompt them to do something.
Send a message or text reminder
  • For example, if you ask your ADHD child to feed the cat when they get back from school, send them a reminder at the time they home arrive. Simple.

Can’t You Ever Be On Time?

Like most people, you hate tardiness. You think people who are always late are unreliable or irresponsible. Worse, you consider them to be disrespectful.

Unfortunately, people with ADHD have trouble organizing, remembering, and prioritizing.

One of the problems is that an ADHD brain struggles with the perception of time. So, someone with the condition tends to underestimate how long things take to do. This affects both organizational and prioritizing skills.

Consequently, an ADHD person tends to overschedule. So, they end up not being able to do everything they took on, even the important stuff.

Or, they think they can leave something for the following week when really, they needed to start it straight away to have any hope of getting it done.

Often, an ADHD person will think they can fit in another task before a meeting. When it takes longer than expected, they end up being late for the meeting.

A lack of organizational skills can also lead to a chaotic environment. That means things needed to get a job done or for a meeting are easily lost.

Forgetting details such as dates of deadlines and social events is another bane of an ADHD person’s life. And, of course, of the lives of those with whom they meet and socialize.

Misplacing things like car keys or phones means they have to spend time searching for them. This delays them getting to where they need to be or doing what they need to do.

Why You Shouldn’t Say This

Someone with ADHD is acutely aware of their lack of organization and time management.

Often, it seems to them like no matter how hard they try, they just can’t seem to get it right. That’s a source of frustration and anxiety.

So, critical comments about their time-keeping or lack of organization compound those feelings.

Add feelings of inadequacy into the mix, and instead of solving the problem, you’ve made it worse. Which, of course, doesn’t help anyone.

What You Should Do Instead

So, critical or sarcastic remarks aren’t going to help. The better option is to take positive steps to assist in the management of the issues. So, let’s consider some possibilities.

Organize and Schedule Tasks and Appointments

Solution How it Helps
Use the strategies mentioned above to breakdown tasks into manageable components with deadlines
  • Breaking down tasks provides a road map for the ADHD brain to follow. It brings order to the job.
  • Deadlines for starting and finishing tasks give an ADHD person external verification of the time needed to complete something.
Make use of visual tools like planners
  • Use a wall planner to enter tasks with countdown reminders leading up to the due date. Use color-coding to denote urgency levels.
  • If you use project or task management software, the timeline for tasks can be set up within the software, with reminders being sent automatically.
Use scheduling apps and set reminders of appointments
  • Online scheduling tools mean you can share calendars. So, when a meeting is set up, it’s automatically entered into the online schedule. You can set reminders for whatever period before the appointment you choose.

Organize the Workplace

Use the 5s method to improve workplace organization and productivity.

Solution How it Helps
A place for everything and everything in its place
  • If an ADHD person has to go looking for a tool to complete a task, you can guarantee they’re going to get distracted by a host of other things on the way. And, they’ll end up forgetting what they were looking for in the first place.
  • If repeated tasks need specific tools or equipment, set aside space for that task to be done. Make sure everything required for that task is kept in that space.
  • Using shadow boards is a simple way to organize tools and equipment. They not only provide labeled storage but its easy to see when something hasn’t been put back in its place. It can then be tracked down before it gets lost forever.
Provide adequate storage and use color coding for filing systems
  • Provide adequate storage so that things can be put away when not in use. This reduces clutter. A cluttered desk to an ADHD person means distractions.
  • Color coding filing systems with clear labeling helps identify where things should go and where to find them later.

Not the ADHD Excuse Again

Oh, oh. You’ve hit the big one.

This is a comment that will make someone with ADHD really mad. If you’re OK with that, then go ahead. Sign your own death warrant.

Why You Shouldn’t Say This

OK, maybe you won’t get killed for saying it, but you’re likely to do a lot of damage. More particularly, emotional damage. The type that’s not easy to fix.

So, if you find these words on the tip of your tongue, bite it. Seriously, you’ll be better off in the long run.

You’re suggesting that ADHD isn’t real and is made up.

By saying something like this, you’re telling the person with ADHD that you don’t believe there’s anything wrong with them. Therefore, the problems you’re experiencing are down to things that they can and should control.

That can have a crushing impact on the person to whom you direct these remarks. It can create even more stress and anxiety than their struggles with the condition already cause.

But, just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

What You Should Do Instead

Well, this doesn’t need a table. The answer is straightforward. Get educated about the condition and its impact on the life of the person who has it.


So, now you know some of the things you must never say to someone with ADHD and why.

Hopefully, you’ll find the strategies provided to deal with the issues ADHD causes are a more positive way forward. This can only be of benefit to everyone involved.

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