The psychiatrist said, “You can’t parent ADHD out of a child,” and I wept.
Why? Because this one fact re-wrote my entire history as a parent: It’s brain chemistry. No behavior management skill can undo ADHD.
He released me from all the condemnation, both from myself and others.
It wasn’t my fault.
As I now journey backwards through various moments in parenting, I can see myself and my boys with new eyes. Come with me.
* * *
My natural tendency is to blame myself first. It doesn’t take much to make me confirm my self-blame at the heart level. A comment by somebody who I respect. A dirty look from a stranger. Even without knowing it, I’m looking for somebody to say, “Yes, you’re to blame,” and that sticks for a long time.
* * *
I knew I was going to be an amazing parent. So much so, that I was a strong self-advocate in the adoption process. Give me any questionnaire, any interview question, and I would give you all the evidence to back up the fact that I would be God’s gift to parenting.
I was a sought-after babysitter as a teen. For years, I babysat 6 nights per week, all the while maintaining good grades in school. I had clientele. Some of these parents even asked my advice on parenting.
I was a talented teacher. Granted, I taught middle school, high school, and community college. But I always maintained discipline and respect in the classroom. I was strict, but treated students with respect. Principals told me in every evaluation that it was apparent how much I cared for my students. This was going to translate to good parenting, right?
My own parents were great parents. There is so much they modeled to me that they did right. For me, their main talent in parenting me was instilling strong self-esteem. Though I was picked on a lot in school, I never once thought there was anything wrong with me. The mean words hurt deeply, but I always thought something was wrong with the bully. I valued myself..
But then came the reality of parenting.
By the time my two boys were mobile, I felt like a fish out of water. My attempts at guidance and discipline simply didn’t work. I had no idea how to do the behavior management with the boys that others were so clearly natural at doing. I couldn’t remember how I had been so effective all those decades earlier when I was a babysitter. And, clearly, whatever I did in the classroom with teenagers didn’t apply to my toddlers.
I’ll never forget the bossy mom who came to me at the indoor playground and said, “Here, let me teach you how to do a time-out.” I must have looked as clueless as I felt. With my permission, she took my kid and made it look both consistent and easy. From then on, I managed the same… some of the time.
* * *
When my boys were one and two years old, I signed them up for a music appreciation class. It was held in a ballet studio. The perimeter of the classroom was all mirrors and barre. The teacher tied vividly colorful chiffon scarves along the barre.
Rule #1: Kids were not allowed to touch the barre or hang on it.
My boys entered the classroom and immediately went to the perimeter. They put handprints all over the mirrors, making silly faces at themselves or enjoying the grubby smudges they made. They touched the pretty scarves, hung on the barre, and ran from one corner to the other. The other kids huddled in the center with their moms.
Rule #2: No touching the stereo.
As they explored the room, my boys found the stereo system with its knobs and lights, and were all about touching it. Of course, I tried to intervene. I tried to convince them that this was a NO.
Rule #3: Don’t touch the teacher’s guitar.
The elegant older lady who taught the class would bring a bar stool to the middle of the room, near the mommies and kids, and play songs on her guitar. My boys wanted to touch it. They were impulsive about this. I tried to hold them back, but sometimes the urge was too strong for them. They wriggled out of my grasp. The teacher hated this. It was as if she’d never had a kid try to touch her precious guitar.
Rule #4: Sit and listen quietly when the teacher talks, sings, or teaches.
Yeah, my boys never accomplished this. Sitting still? Nope. My oldest was the king of blurting. Man, did that teacher get annoyed.
After the first class, I thought our boys must be smarter and more self-assured than the other kids. All the other kids stuck close to their moms. My boys explored. I’m a dog lover, and I know that curious equals smart when choosing a pup. So I thought, if a curious puppy is the smartest puppy, then my boys must be smarter than all the other kids. And as the other kids stuck with their moms, I thought my boys must feel so secure in themselves, so confident, that they could run all over a strange classroom without worrying where I was. Steve and I must be doing something right to have such confident little guys, right?
After the second class, I thought it was a shame that all these other mommies and kids were just like Stepford families. The other kids sat so still, were too timid to answer questions, and didn’t get up unless invited. My oldest blurted answers while everyone else was still thinking things through.
[Am I showing my age at this reference? Have you seen the 1975 thriller, the Stepford Wives? If not, here. There was also the more recent Nicole Kidman remake. These two trailers give you the gist: one & two.]
After the third class and beyond, I realized that I had no control over my kids. When I had one firmly in my lap, the other one got up and ran around. It didn’t matter to my kids that everyone else was sitting and listening. My kids couldn’t transition from movement to quiet stillness, while the other kids complied in moments.
I wondered what these moms were doing that I hadn’t figured out. Did I miss something while I was off gallivanting around other countries while my girlfriends were home in the States having babies? Was there a skill I had forgotten or never learned that all these mommies knew? I simply couldn’t figure out what they were doing differently.
About four or five weeks in, my oldest got kicked out of music class. He was devastated and hurt. We tried coming back the next week. You know, getting back on the horse and all that. But the rejection was too much for him. Returning was traumatic. Honestly, the teacher felt more enemy than ally to me as well. She let us quit and even gave us a partial refund. I think she was just relieved we weren’t coming back.
I chatted with other moms at playgrounds and events. We all had similar research into nutrition, developmental stages, and other mommy-ish things. So why were my kids so unruly when their kids could rein it in?
I asked about the possibility of ADHD at well-baby doctor visits, but I was told not to worry about it because it was all age-appropriate behavior that I was describing. It wasn’t supposed to be an issue until they started school.
* * *
At some point, I started to think my job as a mom was harder than that of other moms.
I blamed being an older mommy. I was 42 when we adopted our first, and 43 for our second son’s birth. I was tired. It must be because I was old, right?
* * *
Our oldest could re-program our phones at 10 months. Two months later, we were told he had the attention span of a four year old, and that we didn’t need any more Early Childhood Intervention. We’d signed up for ECI in case something cropped up. There are lots of variables with adopted kids, and one of our boys had a traumatic birth, so we wanted professional eyes on our little ones in case there was something they needed that we were clueless about.
Our first son knew his letters, colors, and shapes before his second birthday. He could count to 20 by two-and-a-half, though he didn’t grasp quantities until later.
I didn’t initially intend to put a three year old in school, but my husband and I decided that it would be a crime not to give him all the benefits such a brilliant mind needed. His birth mom had read at a college level in sixth grade. My husband and I knew our baby was smarter than the two of us put together, despite the multiple Master’s degrees between us. So I started looking for a Montessori school because our kid was a self-taught self-starter. Makes sense, right?
Spoiler: Montessori and ADHD don’t go well together.
I chose a good school that had both Montessori and traditional Pre-K classes, and we enrolled our son in Montessori. His main teacher was loving, huggy, and nurturing. Her assistant often came out to give me feedback on how our son was doing.
At the end of his first week of school, the teaching assistant said, “You still have your boys in high chairs, don’t you?” Her judgy tone said I seriously had no clue what was developmentally appropriate, so I was ashamed when I answered, “Yes.”
“Your son can’t stay in his seat, especially at lunch. You’re going to need to stop using the high chair so that we can get him used to staying in his seat on his own.”
Steve and I instantly implemented this. After all, we wanted our discipline at home to back up our son’s needs at school. And the needs of the teacher and the class. Having been a classroom teacher, I know how one kid can throw off the focus of an entire classroom. I didn’t want my son to be that kid.
Looking back, I realize that we had done a good thing keeping our kids in their high chairs. I wish I had kept those chairs around for crafts and projects. Our oldest loved Play-Doh and could sit in his high chair for 45 minutes, happily playing and making things. The moment he asked to get down, we would clean up and he’d get down. He also loved coloring, gluing, etc. in his high chair.
After we got rid of the high chairs, his attention span for things like Play-Doh was a good five minutes. Max. Projects were now a thing of the past.
Our second son ate less after we put away the high chairs. There was something about the seatbelts in the high chair that helped him focus on his food. To this day, he eats better in his car seat than he does at the dinner table.
Our kids now hated coloring. They despised board games and anything else that required instruction or sitting long.
* * *
Our oldest started getting the occasional time out or “lonely lunches” in school. The assistant teacher continued to come outside after school to share his disruptive behavior with me. I trusted her as an expert in early childhood education and discipline, and asked for feedback and advice. I opened my heart to her. I trusted her. I believed she had my son’s best interest at heart. And I think she did in the beginning, before she got tired of all the redirection and disruptions.
We started reading parenting books like Love and Logic. Each promised to revolutionize our kids’ behavior. Each had sparks of hope, and we gleaned quite a few valuable things, but our kids were never revolutionized.
Despite all the measures I took to prevent it, I lost our oldest at the Discovery Center, at the mall, and at an indoor playground. After the time I found him in the parking lot, we quit doing things that didn’t have enclosures and gates unless we had a 1:1 adult-to-child ratio. It was just too stressful to constantly fear for their safety.
When I got brave and went back to doing outings on my own, I started a mantra for the kids to repeat over and over: HAVE FUN, AND STICK TOGETHER. It was fairly successful, especially because the penalty for not sticking together was that we had to go home. But I did spend my entire time redirecting my boys. It was mentally and emotionally exhausting.
Personally, I got high strung about parenting. Especially in public. I was wound so tightly, I’m sure most people in our community witnessed me shrieking at some point or other. It became common to get dirty looks from other mommies. I guess it’s not really a wanted behavior to have a shrieking mommy around.
At some point, even little things set me over the edge. I knew I had to work on myself and my responses. It took a long time –months? A year?– to stop the shrieking. I was so worn out by the end of the day that I dreaded the work-intensive bedtime routine.
I figured out that I was physically ill from gluten intolerance, and that eating my kids’ leftovers (pancakes, waffles, PB&Js, grilled cheeses, toddler munchies) was making me sicker and sicker. While going gluten free revolutionized my energy, joint pain, brain fog, and other physical issues, my kids’ behavior didn’t improve under a stronger, kinder, more rational mom.
The huggy Montessori teacher moved to another school the following year, and the assistant teacher became the head teacher. My darling, brilliant son began to spend much of his school day in time out. If he wasn’t in time out, he was in the principal’s office. He was denied unit culminating activities like exploding the volcano, because he “didn’t deserve to be there.” I trusted the teacher, and agreed that misbehavior needed consequences, but by October I started to wonder why this teacher was continuing consequences that didn’t have any results. Didn’t she know more than I did about early childhood?
We all knew how incredibly intelligent my son is. We all agreed that he knew better. So we thought he was being defiant.
Spoiler alert: This is what ADHD plus Strong-Willed-Child looks like.
I started to feel ill every time my son’s teacher came outside to talk to me about the issues of the day. My son knew better. His behavior was due to inconsistent parenting. We needed to be consistent at home if he was going to succeed at school. This was her feedback for months and months. My self-esteem plummeted.
We tried more parenting books. We tried an online parenting class. We tried parent-teacher conferences and making behavior plans.
I prayed my brains out every day, and this, I believe, was key to the upturn in our lives.
A friend who was once a preschool teacher told me that my son’s teacher needed to record what sort of things set off his negative behavior. If there was an unwanted outcome, what was triggering it? She also said my son needed more MOVEMENT, not more time-outs. The big shocker? She told me that there are no time-outs in Montessori.
This teacher’s position as my favorite consultant slipped a little. Was she even qualified to teach Montessori? I was frankly afraid to ask.
Then, when I was so stressed out by my son’s misbehavior and my inability to parent it out of him, I was ready to snap. The teacher came out to the school lobby one day in January, and got me so wound up with her criticism of our parenting, that I started to cry. In public. I am not a crier. I was simply at the end of my rope. And then my sons both acted out, and my oldest got in my face, and I smacked him. In public. In a school. She told later that I was lucky they didn’t call CPS on me. Now I was afraid to criticize the teacher because I might get accused of being abusive.
And then my son’s teacher said something that I knew as 100% false. She said that my son was acting out –in January—because we told him that my husband’s military career was likely moving us that summer, and, therefore, my son believed his behavior didn’t count now because we were moving anyway. Seriously, that’s what this woman said. First, does a four year old think long-term like that? No. Second, if every military dependent misbehaved within months of a change of duty station, then we’d have an outbreak of suspended and expelled kids around every military base in the world. I was insulted on behalf of every military family out there.
This utter bull crap was a gift. Now my #1 child behavior consultant was no longer credible in my eyes. I started to weigh all her other feedback, and she fell short.
Conferences with her and her new assistant bore little fruit, so I asked for a conference with the principal. The principal did some observations and concluded that Montessori wasn’t a fit for our son. By mid-February, he was in a regular preschool class. He learned more from February to May than he had in all his time at Montessori.
[Note: I respected the principal for not throwing the teacher under the bus. When I’m a teacher, I like to know that my boss has my back. While I personally felt the teacher had done a lot of damage, the principal never blamed the teacher in my presence. Instead, she gave me the outcome that was in my son’s best interest, and that’s what counts. He was moved to a better situation and he learned a great deal in the new classroom.]
* * *
I haven’t said much about our second son’s traits, but his distractibility was intense. While I was told for a long time that it was age appropriate, our pediatrician heard me describe ADHD at the checkup right after his fifth birthday.
Here are some examples:
- I could put a toothbrush in his hand, with toothpaste on it, and he’d forget he was supposed to brush his teeth. Something would catch his eye at the bathroom counter or in the mirror.
- I would give him 1-3 simple tasks, like Potty-Hands-Teeth, he would chant the three with me, and I would come check on him twenty minutes later. He wouldn’t have done a single one.
- Sometimes, he would forget he had food in his mouth. It would stay there for ages, un-chewed, until somebody noticed and reminded him to chew and swallow.
- Heaven forbid I would send him to another room to get something. He would disappear for ages, distracted by things along the way.
It’s no wonder his preschool teacher had so much trouble trying to teach him how to write his name. Something would distract him, even there seemed to be no distractions present.
* * *
I will spare you the continued journey and jump to the final defining moment.
In the summer of 2017, when my boys were nearly 5 and 6, I observed my youngest having hyper focus and it was getting worse. I used to have to walk across the room, tap him, and make eye contact before he could hear me. By August, I had to do a deep-tissue squeeze to break his hyper focus before speaking to him. It was mostly with the television and during his hour of tablet time, but it would also happen when he was lost in another activity or toy. By September, he would wet himself while playing on his tablet, and he had no idea he had peed. Once, he even pooped himself and had no clue that it happened. That’s how intense his hyper focus was.
I have a Master’s Degree in Secondary Education. Though my one semester covering Special Education barely scratched the surface, and I never quite figured out how to help the students in my classroom with ADHD during my 3 or 4 years of teaching Middle School, I did remember that hyper focus is a trait of Attention Deficit Disorders.
I asked the pediatrician about the hyper focus during our annual September checkups. She referred me to her in-house psychiatrist. He gave us a questionnaire for us to fill out, and one for our younger son’s preschool teacher.
Upon reading it, I realized that our oldest son also had a lot of the characteristics, so we did forms for both kids.
One of the questions asked about whether going to the mall with my children instilled a fear that they’d run off and get lost. On a scale of one to five, I wanted to rate that a HECK YEAH.
Another question was about the inability to stay in their chairs during meals. Another HECK YEAH.
We filled out our questionnaires, got them back from the teachers, and the psychiatrist shared his observations with us.
He explained that most kids walk into a strange room with a strange adult and cling to their parent. Our boys walked into the psychiatrist’s office, explored every corner of the room, touched things, picked up the psychiatrist’s belongings, sat upside down in the wingback chair, blurted questions, and the son I thought might be ADD and not ADHD (H = hyper), had climbed the built-in bookshelf nearly to the ceiling in order to retrieve a basketball. The psychiatrist said that he observed classic ADHD behaviors, and that the H applied to both kids.
He explained impulse control and distractibility.
He explained that our boys didn’t have an on/off button like other kids. ADHD means that our boys can’t get into line immediately after playing hard at recess. There’s no ability to switch to “settle down” from active mode. It has to happen gradually. And they can’t go from physically active or excited to bed without a long process of settling down.
He explained brain chemistry.
And that’s when he told me that behavior modification works for issues like a child being Oppositional, but that
YOU CAN’T PARENT ADHD OUT OF A CHILD.
And I wept.
I heard the months and years of self-condemnation in my head, and realized that it was the voice of the second Montessori teacher. I knew I needed to forgive myself for all my mistakes and realized I could never have fixed the ADHD with my parenting. I knew I needed to forgive that teacher for her bad advice, for all the time outs, for all the times she excluded my son, for all his hours in the principal’s office, for the “lonely lunches,” and all the other times he was treated as unworthy. I needed to forgive her, even though it was my mind that turned her into the voice of condemnation.
I longed to call the school and ask them to educate their teachers about ADHD, to help parents recognize the traits, to teach teachers how to better educate a kid with attention deficits. Once a person understands the disorder, then can stop blaming and judging the parents.
I look back at all this time and realize that, every time my husband and I tried a new parenting method, we executed the method as flawlessly as humans can. My husband and I were as consistent as parents can be. However, because I am always the first one to say I’m at fault, I FOUND inconsistent parenting in myself and my husband when I was told that my son’s behavior was due to inconsistent parenting. I made the facts match what I had come to believe. Does that make sense? I was told I sucked as a parent (not in those words) and so I believed it. I owned it. I was on a merry-go-round of self-condemnation.
And then we got the diagnosis: ADHD.
And we researched it.
And I had a new set of lenses through which to look at my children and at myself as a parent.
Guess what? I’m a pretty darn good parent. Not flawless, but good enough to say it’s my calling like I believed all along. God chose me for these boys. And he chose them for me. And we are a team. I adore them. Always have. But now I understand them better. I’m growing in my understanding of their needs. And I can nurture them and build them up and do my best for the damage previously done to their self-esteem.
Through all of this, I thank God for my even-keeled, intelligent, kind, consistent, affirming husband. The boys and I needed him.
I’ve discovered an amazing team member in my son’s Kindergarten teacher. She is a godsend. Add to her the psychiatrist, pediatrician, and the best reference tool on the planet, and we’re in a pretty good place. Here’s a link to the reference book that has the latest research. It answers most of my questions.
The book has given me insight into their needs. It has dispelled myths on parenting, medication, and other issues. It’s backed with decades of research and the experience of professionals with medical and psychology degrees. It has taught me to think more scientifically about what I read.
In our house, we now experience peace and fun most days. I have some parenting habits to undo, things that don’t work for ADHD kids, but overall I’m more affirming, more confident, and more encouraging than ever. I know this parenting gig is not all about me, while much of this post has been. But parenting is a journey, and we need to understand ourselves to better parent our kids.
We do projects again. My oldest son likes coloring in his free time. He’s rather artistic, in fact. And my youngest does Math for fun these days. Our little athletes are coachable now!
I feel like I know my sons better. If it’s possible, I’m more in love with my boys than ever.
* * *
Do you have a child who might have ADHD? The sooner you can get help, but more chance you have of it not trashing his or her self-esteem academically or socially. ADHD can get lonely for a kid.
I’m still learning, still forgiving, still need to read the rest of the ADHD reference book.
But the victories. THE VICTORIES!
I breathe easier these days.