About a year ago, my son was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, commonly known as ADHD. ADHD is a medical condition for people with differences in brain development and brain activity that affect attention, the ability to sit still and self-control.
Since my son values his privacy, and I am fiercely protective of him, I will only share my personal journey loving a child through ADHD without exposing his personal experiences.
My son was diagnosed with ADHD after several increasingly tumultuous years at school, which transferred to our home. Behavioral issues at school led my husband and I to visit a never-ending parade of pediatricians, child psychologists, clergy, school administrators, teachers and family members seeking help. We heard the same thing over and over again: “I’ve never met a child quite like your son.”
ADHD doesn’t always look like the stereotype. It’s easy to imagine an out of control child bouncing off walls and disrupting classrooms. But my son is bright and witty, with an extroverted personality and a wall of academic and sports achievements. He is tall and handsome, with an arresting smile and a swagger that only tweens can get away with in public.
The earliest signs of ADHD were hardly noticeable. I recall setting a personal goal of helping him obtain at least two hours of exercise per day as young as kindergarten. Since he is my first child, I didn’t find that unusual or taxing. I’d sit outside our townhouse with other moms while our children played, seek out new bike trails together or explore new parks in the area.
Over time, the signs became clear. Grades plummeted. Teachers complained. School suspensions occurred. Parent-teacher conferences became tense and emotional. School administrators called me so often that I memorized the office number. There was so much talking, lecturing and praying at home, hoping that the problems were merely a maturity issue or perhaps he was bored and needed more of a challenge.
I wondered if his problems came from being a smart black boy in a biased educational system. I talked to other moms in secret, lurking in Facebook Messenger inboxes and spending late nights Googling mommy blogs. I considered that traditional schooling might not be appropriate. I didn’t rule out any possibility.
The diagnosis came after an observant, patient behavioral therapist came into our lives. Despite receiving negative ADHD test results from psychologists, she recognized the signs that we couldn’t see. She gave us the resources we needed to begin walking this ADHD journey together as a family instead of divided by stress and angst. She helped us get inside his brain – a journey in and of itself.
Without her, I’m not sure my son would have made it through elementary school without expulsion. A good therapist can be a light in the darkness. I was stunned to learn how similar my son’s journey was to that of other children with ADHD.
Yes, we tried the ADHD medications. An endless array of medications, dosages and schedules.
We are fortunate enough to have good insurance and medical care at our fingertips, but even that is not enough. No pediatrician is going to hold your hand when the medication causes your son to be violent toward you in the wee hours of the night. No teacher is going to sit up all night with your son who is hopped up on narcotics. No family member is going to soothe your soul when you witness the side effects of these drugs and read the horror stories online, knowing that you’re administering the same chemicals into your child’s body.
Drug therapy is not an easy choice. But he needed help that we could not provide.
I’ve known parents who tried one ADHD medication and it worked instantly with no side effects. That was not our experience. We still must manage heavy side effects and eventually landed on our own medication solution of four days on, three days off. No one told us to do that, we just followed our instincts after a year of trial and error. It’s working, but if it stops, we’ll try something else.
My son attended behavioral therapy for more than a year. It was very helpful initially but after some time I realized that the therapy was helping me more than him. He’s an 11 year old kid who wants to play basketball and tell riddles – he doesn’t want to talk about his problems or review every poor decision he made in school every other Saturday.
Most of the changes did not occur in him, but in me (and his father). I learned the difference between anger fueled by side effects and real, genuine anger. I learned to help him pinpoint emotions deeper than just “angry” or “sad.” I learned that reward systems work so much better than punishment, which no one will tell you ever. By simply rewarding his effort, no matter how small, and sharing these learnings with his teachers, I got to see my son begin to enjoy learning again. I’ll never forget the day he came home and said, “Mom, my teacher is so fun. I couldn’t see it before!”
He couldn’t see it before. My baby was coming back. He could see. And experience. The haze was lifting.
The single biggest behavioral change in my son was brought by an unexpected factor. He enrolled in fifth grade with his first male teacher. Who happened to be black. Suddenly, he was respectful and attentive in class. He was perhaps a little intimidated, but in a good way. His grades stabilized and trips to the principal’s office all but disappeared.
Men, let this be confirmation that our children need you at every stage of development. It was important for our son to have a male role model outside of our family, for reasons I still don’t understand, but certainly appreciate. My son is raised to honor and respect women – every woman in our family is a force – but the balance of outside role models, like coaches and teachers, has been a critical experience for him.
Special Needs? Yep
ADHD has become such a ubiquitous diagnosis for children that society often doesn’t acknowledge the struggle that children experience trying to manage the condition inside of today’s educational system. After the initial denial stage (“nothing is wrong with my son!”), real change was made when I accepted that my son has special needs. His special need may not look like autism or a learning disability or any number of other conditions, but it does require its own set of special skills to help him cope.
One thing that will not work is old school thinking. I’m a big believer that grandma’s way is the best way, but it’s impossible to spank the ADHD out of a child. Or punish him into submission. In fact, punishment for the natural brain responses of ADHD kids is traumatic and cruel. If your child has been diagnosed, get educated. Learn. Get inside their brain. Do it early if you can. Accepting that ADHD is a special needs condition helped me frame my mindset to support and enable his journey instead of force change.
Hope for the future
We are just one year into this ADHD journey, but things are looking hopeful. We are now starting to see the positive side of managed ADHD, such as improved relationships and greater deductive reasoning. My son’s confidence is back. He can communicate more clearly. He’s not withdrawing from friends in embarrassment after emotional outbursts. He sets goals for his grades and meets them. I’ve always been proud of him, but now I get to see him be proud of himself. And that is so valuable to me.
I hope my journey helps other struggling mamas. I have so many moms to thank for teaching me new lessons and coaching me through tough times, and most of them I’ll never meet face-to-face. You’re not alone, I promise.