By Vicki Little
If having ADHD is like constantly switching between 10 open tabs on a browser, raising an ADHD child is like being on deadline for the most important project of your life and having your computer constantly freeze up on you.
I spent the first couple of years after my son’s diagnosis being a mom I didn’t want to be. I got frustrated. I yelled, I cried, I misunderstood, I felt guilty, and the cycle repeated itself every day. I read books and talked to doctors about ADHD. I researched everything that would help my son and me. I cried over things that people said to me, like: “Have you tried changing his diet? My nephew was so out of control until they stopped giving him sugar.” Or that most-hated comment: “My kids KNOW better than that. Don’t worry, it just takes once and he will learn.” Once I had to sit next to two little kids in my son’s taekwondo class that called him a cry-baby because he got upset he couldn’t get his form right. Worse yet, the child’s mom agreed. I so badly wanted to look at her and ask her how she could judge a kid who felt like he couldn’t do anything right and had so many thoughts in his head he had to struggle to concentrate. Instead all I did was look at the three of them and say “that is my son you are bad-mouthing.”
I prayed for patience and guidance. Sometimes my husband would come home and I would simply walk out of the room and leave him to deal with the aftermath, speechless from the tornado of emotions and exhausted from trying to get my son to pay attention. Sometimes I was just tired from listening to him chatter all day. It wasn’t until I understood what my son was going through that I finally built up a backbone to ignore the dirty looks and unwanted advice. Once I stopped trying to “control” him, we were able to come up with solutions together on how to deal with the emotions and thoughts that flowed through both of us.
ADHD is just like any condition that needs to be managed. It is a family issue. It is almost impossible to decide which of the trademark characteristics of ADHD impacts our family the most. It could be the overwhelming emotions — everything from extreme happiness to devastating sadness and explosive anger. It could be the fact that we are always running late, no matter how early we start. It could be many things. The point is, that it isn’t my son’s fault. He isn’t misbehaving or being disrespectful. He isn’t a mean kid who has anger issues. In fact, he is one of the most sensitive and loving people I know. My son is a smart, caring, unique, fun, vivacious kid who happens to have ADHD. And I happen to have anxiety. My husband happens to have dyslexia. My son doesn’t have to be managed. The little glitch in his brain is something we need to learn to manage, just as I learned to how to breathe and think rationally through my anxiety and my husband learned how to study in different ways.
Once you break down all the aspects of ADHD, you discover that almost every “defining characteristic” (hyperactivity, inattention and impulsivity) links back to the fact that people with ADHD can’t process their thoughts before they act on them. Thoughts are constantly bombarding my son all day long. They don’t have a chance to think back to something that happened before and relate it to what is happening now. Every new thought in their mind seems just as large and important as the one before it. Since it changes so rapidly, he often forgets what the first thought was anyway. For people without ADHD, we can typically slow down long enough to think about what the consequences of the action will be. We can think about how someone’s actions may or not line up with what we are seeing or feeling. While I ended up feeling frustrated all the time, my poor son started feeling like he couldn’t do anything right, and that he was always the reason we were frustrated. Then he got pretty down on himself. He felt extremely misunderstood.
It got a bit easier once we realized the typical discipline methods weren’t going to work. We had to be willing to compromise and let small things go. What works best for us is to take the big chunks of challenges that ADHD presents and try to deal with them separately, and as consistently as we possibly can.
Schedules. More than one friend has commented that it would get boring doing the same thing at the same time every day. But this is what works for my son. Doing this helps him do things almost automatically. The problem is, the slightest thing can throw him off. For example, our routine in the morning is to eat breakfast, brush teeth, get dressed. Once, after breakfast, my husband told my son to go get dressed. My son got frustrated because his dad was telling him to do something different than he is used to doing. That threw a wrench in the rest of the morning. But as long as we stay on that schedule, he is good. We just have to try not to get angry when we tell our son to get his shoes on for the 18th (yes, literally 18th) time because he got distracted once again by an object in his room.
Reactions. As hard as it is, we know it is best not to give our son any reaction at all. So when we are in the middle of the grocery store and he gets frustrated because he thought we were going to buy him something, we ignore it. We acknowledge his question or demand once, and then we ignore everything after that. This has made us pretty embarrassed more than once. I have gotten many dirty looks because people feel that I should yell at him or not ignore him. What they don’t realize is that if we engage in the conflict, it won’t do any good. He will get more frustrated and cry harder and yell and stomp because by then his emotions and thoughts are in overdrive. Strangers also don’t know this sweet guy will come to me later and apologize.
Schoolwork. As scheduled as our lives need to be, homework is the one part of the day that has to be very flexible. Depending on his school day, my son may or may not be focused enough to do his homework. He just fought through a whole day of trying to focus on one thing at a time and he simply needs a break. Unfortunately, the longer the day goes on, the less focused he is, so waiting to do homework has its challenges as well. We just have to play it by ear. The best time would be to do it in the morning — if we weren’t telling him to get his shoes on, that is.
Discipline. I can’t even begin to express how frustrating it is when we tried to put our son in a time-out only to have him actually enjoy being there. The upside of having ADHD is that whatever happened two minutes ago doesn’t matter as much in the next minute, so he can actually enjoy himself in time-out. He didn’t learn ANYTHING, unless he was told to go and calm down because he was already so upset that he needed to be away from any stimulation. What does work is helping him realize the impact his actions are having on other people. Pulling him aside and having a talk with him is more effective than yelling, time-outs, taking things away, or grounding him. There are certain repeated behaviors, though, that need to be stopped. So now we have a points system. If my son commits one of those offenses, he is expected to earn those points back, before he can do anything else. Each offense has a different point value so he can learn what the more serious offenses are. The offenses and punishments (such as cleaning up his room or emptying the dishwasher) are set, so there is no arguing over what his punishment should be or that we are being unfair on how many points he loses. It is set, consistent, and expected of each kid in our family.
Hyperactivity. The word itself makes me involuntarily sigh out loud. This child can put Dennis the Menace to shame with his constant activities and curious mind. Sitting down for a meal is the least relaxing thing ever as my son is constantly standing up or changing position, or forgetting he has food because he has yet another fun story to tell. If he is sitting down correctly, something is moving. His fingers are snapping, his toes are tapping — anything. When we aren’t in a situation where he needs to sit, his hyperactivity is less obvious, but you can still see it as he is so busy he doesn’t have the time to stop and listen. This is the area we struggle with the most. We feel horrible asking him to stop doing something — like laughing so loud at his cousin during dinner that everyone stops to look — because it feels like we are trying to tone HIM down. When we do ask him to stop doing something, he honestly tries. But our request is quickly forgotten as something exciting pops up and demands his immediate attention. So I just pray for patience. A LOT of it. Then I put on my coat of armor against the looks from others around us, those who can’t possibly understand how spunky and fantastic my kid is if they have the audacity to give us those dirty looks.
There are many people who don’t think ADHD is “real, ” that it is simply an excuse for parents who don’t want to discipline their children or that their kids are just naughty. There are those who don’t want to hear about it, who just roll their eyes or who think that I am making excuses. Even if they do believe, almost everyone has an opinion on how we should deal with it. There are very strong opinions on whether or not to medicate, how to discipline, and how to parent a child with ADHD. In my mind, and in my son’s mind, we often feel judged and misunderstood. But we are a team. Our family is a team. And as long as what we are doing works, we will keep doing it. When we need to adjust, we will work together. Because that is what a family does.
“ADHD Is The Diagnosis, But It Does Not Define My Son ” is the second in a three-part series on having a child who has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. You can read the first article in the series at “My Kid Has ADHD….Now What?“
Vicki Little is a work-at-home mom with two young kids. Her son was diagnosed with ADHD in 2012. A Colorado native, she is the Publisher and Editor of Macaroni Kid Aurora and Downtown Denver. When she isn’t writing or trying to keep up with her kids she can be found volunteering, reading, or enjoying a bottle of wine with friends.
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June 17, 2015 @ 5:51 am
Thank you so much for writing this down. I’m in the same situation and don’t know what to do, this one helped me alot. I get looks from people, bad comments and more but like yours mine is the sweetest little boy in the world. Thank you so much again for sharing.
June 18, 2015 @ 6:32 am
My 11-year old son has ADHD. I can relate to this article…especially the shoe issue and the dinner-table issue! He has taken melds, but is off them for summer in hopes that he will grow. I just started using an essential oil called Vetiver on him and it helps to calm him. Please research it and consider if it might help your son. I’m not selling it…I am merely suggesting another path for you to explore. I am much more in favor of natural healing methods (like oils) than meds, but the med definitely helps him…he could not get through a school day without it. Blessings to you.
October 17, 2015 @ 10:26 am
My son has ADHD so I can relate to all this especially the running late part. I live in Denver too and wanted to let you know about a fantastic program for kids/parents at Children’s Hospital in Aurora called the Good Citizen’s Group. It teaches parents positive discipline techniques and kids coping skills. It has helped our family so much!! One of the techniques I learned which helps with emotional outbursts is empathy statements. If my son was upset that he couldn’t have something at the store, I just say I know this must be frustrating for you, I know you’re disappointed, I would feel the same way, etc. I keep repeating it until he calms down. It works wonders and once he’s calm I can reason with him.
October 19, 2015 @ 1:37 pm
Just this weekend I was talking with someone about empathy statements, and especially doing this when they seem to get irrationally upset as most times they really aren’t being “dramatic” but they just can’t control those emotions. Thanks for the comment, I will definitely check on that group.