Parenting a child with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) can feel like you’re walking in the dark: You tiptoe around, unsure of what you will come up against. Sometimes you may say or do something to set off a small emotional explosion. It’s something you try to avoid since those can blow hot and strong. On the other side, however, is a kind, generous, and loving kid. It’s a condition of opposites and extremes.
Once we all assumed that if a kid had ADHD he was going to be the troublemaker in class, the kid who acted out, couldn’t sit still and had virtually no self-control. He’d be spewing words when the teacher was speaking, or be running around randomly with no attention to the rules when he was on the playground.
For many, when they think about ADHD, they think about inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity. But not everyone with ADHD has those symptoms, and not all three at once. Even within those categories, the symptoms are varied, which is why ADD symptoms in children often go undiagnosed.
Let’s take inattention. For some kids that shows up in everyday life by losing things or forgetting them. It could also mean making mistakes, difficulty following directions, or choosing not to engage in activities that take too much time. It could mean that they don’t seem to be listening or it could show up in the “shiny object” way—where they get distracted easily and move on to something else without finishing what they’re doing. On the other hand, it could be that they are hyperfocused and won’t stop doing something until they are finished.
Many of those “symptoms” are common in most kids. It’s called childhood—the frontal lobe is not fully developed, kids get bored easily, and some don’t listen too well or do their homework. It doesn’t mean they have ADHD.
Hyperactivity is a little easier to spot: running around; leaving their seat when they’re not supposed to; talking excessively; fidgeting and squirming, and basically finding it hard to do anything at a leisurely pace. They are the ones who seem like they are always on the go—as if driven by a motor. But it can also just be the bouncing of a leg or the twirling of a ring.
Someone with impulsivity can be moody, reckless, and impatient. He may find it difficult to wait his turn, intruding on or interrupting others’ activities or blurting out answers to a question before it’s completed. Or he can be accident-prone.
So it’s not easy to know if your child has ADHD. As a parent, it may be less about the symptoms shouting ADHD, and more about feeling like something’s not right. Your kid is struggling, but you don’t know why. It can take years to identify the real issue.
It may start with tantrums when they are really young, but most parents expect tantrums. We don’t think it’s a health issue, more just an exhausting child issue. We get tired and irritable, which of course starts a cycle of stress, time-outs, blow-ups, and more tears. It may be painful and ugly, but it doesn’t scream ADHD—at least it didn’t to me. I didn’t know about the emotional piece of the disorder, and our daughter didn’t have the hyperactivity traits that are easier to identify.
In Kylie’s case, she wanted to read in kindergarten and was frustrated that she couldn’t. Then, when she knew how to read, she had a hard time spelling. None of this was particularly unusual, but I felt something wasn’t right. Then in third grade memorizing things was difficult for Kylie. I asked her teacher, who had been a special-ed teacher, to be on the lookout. She didn’t notice anything, and I figured she’d know better than I.
But by fourth grade, when Kylie was calling the same friend every single morning and still didn’t know her phone number, I was sure there was an issue. She struggled with multiplication tables. It wasn’t math in general, it was memorizing—state capitals, spelling, and historical dates. Give her a song, though—about math, history, or grammar—and she nailed it. “She’s just a hands-on learner,” explained the teachers.
In fifth grade we moved her to a private school because she said it was hard to learn where she was. There were too many kids and the teacher didn’t have control of them. She felt trapped, as if she were in jail. None of that instilled a love of learning, and her teachers continued to reassure me nothing was wrong. So we enrolled her in a new school and I assumed a private school would assess her and recognize signs of ADHD. I specifically asked her math teacher. Nothing.
She did well academically, but she worked at it so damn hard. It wasn’t fair. She had hours and hours of homework, and she was 10 years old. The smallest assignment took hours. That frustrated her, which in turn led to a meltdown. I should have insisted on testing earlier. Finally, Kylie brought it up to me herself and I kicked into gear. But by then Kylie was having anxiety attacks and losing her self-confidence because of her struggles. So I was later to the party than I should have been.
We found an excellent neuropsychologist who could do the long, specific tests to determine what the issue was. It turns out it was ADHD, and the combination of having a hard time paying attention and having a memory issue was a terrible combination for rote memorization. Kylie was so relieved to find out there was a missed diagnosis, that she wasn’t crazy or stupid. She had a learning differential. She was off-the-charts high on many things, but low on memory processing.
Once we realized this, we were able to decide how to approach it and to set her up for success. We also wanted her to know that it’s not a bad thing or anything to be ashamed of. Over the years the stigma has lessened a bit, but for many years, a diagnosis of ADHD emphasized only what was wrong with a person, often creating feelings of shame, fear, and self-doubt. Fear can hold a person back more than almost anything else.
With ADHD, you worry unnecessarily about certain things, about so many things—and not enough about things that warrant true worrying. Your fast-moving mind is easily distracted, alternating with an amazingly super-focused mind at other times,depending on your emotional state at the moment. You don’t suffer from a deficit of attention as much as a wandering of attention.
The physiological difference in the brain often means everything is intense and magnified. Kylie’s sensitive to what’s going on around her. Being in a noisy restaurant can feel like she’s in the front row of a Metallica concert. Bad news can set off anxiety or sadness. Her mind is constantly in gear, creating, designing, thinking, and never resting. Imagine what it would feel like to have a merry-go-round in your mind that never stops spinning. And while she’s very intelligent, it takes her more time to process some information, which makes homework difficult and slow. The impulsivity means emotions are hard to control and can run wild: She can be stubborn, impulsive and moody. But those very same traits have advantages: She is driven, passionate, funny and fiercely loyal.
Kylie is very creative—I actually have an Instagram hashtag for her: #Kyliecreations. She has an out-of-the-box way of thinking and she is amazingly intuitive. She is sensitive, which means she can get hurt easily, but it also means she is compassionate and generous. She can get to the heart of the matter quickly, piercing through when others are still trying to grasp the issue. She sees connections that others miss, and she’s persistent when others might give up.
As parents we want to give our kids confidence and make them feel good about who they are. So, for us, it was important that Kylie not define herself by her ADHD. It’s part of her, but it’s not who she is. As a mom, you need to focus much more of your time and attention on your child’s strengths, talents, and interests than on her ADHD and weaknesses. You help her use her strengths to work around the struggles. You try to be that beacon of calm during your child’s emotional storms—of which there are many. And you reorient toward the positive when the compass begins to move toward the negative.
Kylie works hard and continues to learn study and coping skills to manage and channel her ADHD. She’s engaging and willing to take some risks, pushing past setbacks with determination and resilience. She takes medication only when she needs to work and concentrate. Instead, she embraces every bit of her creativity, energy, curiosity, and spontaneity. Whatever she does, she does it with her whole heart and soul.
What could be more beautiful than that?
Dana Baker is a parent and teen coach, a writer and a not-so-perfect mom of two great kids. She offers a non judgmental ear and real life observations and advice that help you navigate the up, the downs and the downright uglies of parenting. Her insightful ness comes with a good dose of humor and the simple recognition that no matter how hard we may try, none of us is a perfect parent.