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ADHD and Masking

Ever been at a family gathering or a party where people have commented on how amazing your child is and are you sure they have ADHD?  Ever gone into your child’s school and practically begged for help and they’ve looked at you like you are crazy.  Your child is an angel and maybe it’s you that needs to seek help?  You are not alone.  Your child is a masker.  I used to think I was going mad too.  I nearly convinced myself that it was all in my head and that I was just a ‘bad’ parent who couldn’t control her child.  Then I heard about ADHD and masking.

My son is not a masker.  He is your stereotypical, hyperactive little boy who cannot sit still and literally is full of energy from the second he wakes up till the second he goes to sleep, with the aid of melatonin.  If you ever needed a poster child for what people think ADHD is, then that would be my son!  Easy spot, easy to diagnose. 

However, ADHD is not always what people think it is.  Unless you present like my son many people will think that your child is fine. 

So, what is Masking?

ADHD masking is a way of hiding your ADHD symptoms by learning what society deems appropriate.  Around one-third of all people with ADHD mask.  I mean imagine all your life you have heard, ‘Just sit still’, ‘Pay attention’, ‘Stop interrupting’, ‘Don’t fidget’.  These are all very natural and normal behaviours for our children with ADHD. 

However, if you’ve constantly been yelled at to stop doing them, then gradually you are going to become aware that this is not apparently the ‘norm’.  And this is when masking comes in.  Learning behaviour that is acceptable.  Learning how to hide your own behaviours that come so naturally to you, behind a mask.  No one constantly wants to be yelled at or chastised, so they learn how to hide it.  A coping mechanism so as not to stand out and face any ridicule.  Masking can be considered a trauma response.

Examples of Masking in Adults

  • Obsessively checking their belongings because they are constantly being told off for losing things.
  • Arriving ridiculously early because they have no time management and are scared that they will forget or not get there on time
  • Staying very quiet in discussion situations because they are aware they interrupt people
  • Writing everything down because of memory issues
  • Holding in emotions that they are feeling because they sense they are ‘inappropriate’, bottling them up
  • Appearing to be in control when really, they are struggling
  • Being a perfectionist so that they don’t ever do anything ‘wrong

Signs of Masking in Children

Hoorah I might hear you cry, there is a cure, just learn this learned behaviour and act normal.  But it’s soooo not that simple.  Imagine being asked to behave a certain way all the time that is not your norm.  Now apply this to say our children in the classroom scenario.  A child may become aware from constantly being reprimanded that they must not shout out, impulsively.  They will learn it is just easier to stay quiet.  How crushing?!  

Imagine needing to move and being told you must, ‘Sit still!’.  They must focus on sitting still and not fidgeting.  This would take up all their executive functioning powers just not to move.  How are they then expected to learn what they should be learning in class?  No wonder they get so frustrated!  But no, you can’t have outbursts of emotions because that is unacceptable in a school setting and they will get told off, taken out or excluded.  The humiliation!  So, they hold in all these pent-up emotions till they are nearly at a bursting point.

Imagine as an adult being shy and being told to be the life and soul of a party as a dare or challenge.  You might feel fear and dread, but you go in there put on your best performance, leave, and breathe, so happy that it is all over.  You did it!  This is what ADHD and masking feels like.  Although instead of a one-off, our children are doing it nearly every day in a variety of situations until they come home to their safe place, exhausted. 

And this is when they unleash on you.  Their safe place.  As the saying goes, you always take it out on the ones you love.  This is so true

I mean imagine.  They know the consequences are greater at school.  Many teachers still don’t understand ADHD and will simply see your child with ADHD as ‘naughty’ and discipline them as they would someone who has been ‘naughty’.  Your child knows they do not want this, so they hold in how they want to be and act a certain way.  But you can only do this for so long. 

Many people think that if your child can be good then there is a level of control and that they should just do this more often.  Yes, there is a level of control.  A very high level.  But not because they are being manipulative, but because they can only hold it together for so long!

Impact of Masking

The first obvious impact of masking ADHD is not getting the help your child needs and often a delayed diagnosis.  This in turn can lead to your child becoming anxious or even depressed as they don’t understand all these mixed feelings.  No one sees that they are struggling.  This can be so exhausting for your child.  Then when they so unleash their pent-up emotions on you at the end of their tiring day, they will feel awful at some point for doing it.  But they are incapable of not.  They have been a simmering kettle all day waiting to explode.  Then later they will feel guilty for having taken it out on you, the one they love.  This is followed by a drop in their already low self-esteem.  I can’t imagine how tiring this cycle of behaviour must be.

How to help

It is so hard for a child that masks to feel safe to unmask.  I mean who wants to be shouted at?  You’re asking your child to let down their guard so that they are putting themselves in a position where they may be punished and given a consequence for their normal behaviour.  If your child masks at school, then keep a diary of what they do the second they come in from school.

My daughter didn’t mask at school.  Oh no, she was the escapee, the hide under the table, then lobbed fruit about.  I never had the issue of school not believing me.  Mine was more in her earlier childhood, before her school years when it seemed that she literally only misbehaved for me.  It was heartbreaking.  I felt like a complete failure.  I’d always been good with children, why could it not work for my own.  Her twin was fine with me, it was just her. 

My friends saw that she was headstrong, but not the meltdown I got at home on my own.  I would be offered parenting and discipline advice, all well-meaning.  It just didn’t work.  She was generally fine at other people’s houses; it was literally to me. 

Now I realise of course that even at this young age, she was holding it together until she got to me.  Her safe place.

You’re probably not going to want to hear this, but my best bit of advice is to take it as a compliment.  As hard as it is to be that safe space daily, know how much you are loved by them and that they feel safe and comfortable exposing the real them to you.  Give them as much love as you possibly can. Make them feel so safe that that mask can fall off and they can be themselves.

Honestly, it can be so frustrating.  My children’s dad, whom I am divorced from, would tell me that she had been an angel for him.  Yes, for one night every so often she can be, but he never saw the meltdown that occurred the second she walked back in that door.  And contrary to his beliefs, it wasn’t because she hated being home with me.  It was because she needed to be herself and let out all the emotions she had held in whilst with him because as she told me, ‘He wouldn’t understand and would shout at me’.  Out of the mouth of babes and all that.

If your school doesn’t notice the masking and your child is not thriving at school have a meeting.  Explain what is happening at home.  Explain what ADHD and masking is. Ask for strategies to be put in place for your child as a diagnosed ADHD child would get.  Brain breaks, fidget breaks, fidget toys etc.  Ask the teacher to check on them once they have started their work to ensure they understood the instructions.  Some children concentrate so hard on sitting still that they have absolutely no clue what has been asked of them.  They were not daydreaming.  They were focussing on masking their ADHD. 

ADHD does not always look like my son who is Tigger! It is imperative that teachers and society are educated on this. It’s not always obvious at first sight. Everyone presents differently. I live with two who are totally different! Always go with your gut feeling. You know your child better than anyone else. And just know how much they love and appreciate you for being their safe, loved space.

I have started a private support group on Facebook for parents and carers who need support with their child with ADHD. It’s a friendly place to chat with others. Please do click this link ADHDinchildren to join. And for anyone on Instagram, I’m there too ADHD Mum.

Vicki x

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Sarah

    My son doesn’t appear to mask except he manages his aggression to keep calmer at school then explode an release it all once home.

    1. Victoria Page

      This is so common. Doesn’t make it easier on you though. Just know you are loved. Does the school notice anything? x

  2. Kerrie

    Hi, I have just found your transcript and read through it, with heightened emotions because this is my life with my daughter who is 4 in July and masks all day with being at pre-school and has constant meltdowns at home. This has been going on for the last 18 months. I have a background education in early years and so of course I should know what to do right…… well this is what I had been telling myself for so long and she’s behaving at pre-school (however they did see the negative behaviours for a while, when she first started) and so the shocked faces when I say what she is like at home. I compare her to the Jekyll and Hyde characteristic. The biggest obstacle I’m facing is child arrangement hearing tomorrow, where the court is going to decide how much time they spend with their dad but he can’t pick them up Friday after school ( which for our daughter would be a smoother transition) making it harder on her and me as if they grant 5.30/6pm pick up time, she would of already masked with childminder, pre-school and my sister before coming to me for about 30 minutes to be then whipped away to her dad, where of course she’s well behaved and then I’ll get the unleash on a Sunday, which will be even more extreme because of leaving her safe space so quickly.
    I have recently reached out for help as I don’t know all the answers, health visitor referral to a paediatrician and 15 week working with someone from the children’s centre. The biggest part of your transcript that sits deep with me is go with your gut feeling and that’s what I’m going to fight with. Sorry for the rant but feel so alone, stuck and lost. Even with the wealth of knowledge I already do have. Thank you for writing this piece.

    1. Victoria Page

      I’m so glad it helped. If you are on facebook please do come and join the support group x

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