An open letter to parents of children with ADHD
By Jennifer Seawell, MD, FAAP
Dear fellow parents,
Parenting is a full time job. Even when we are not physically with our children, pieces of our hearts travel with them. We worry about their physical health and safety. We dream about their futures. But sometimes things don’t go as we hope. If you have a child who struggles with ADHD, it can be a very frustrating and often isolating experience. If you have a child with ADHD, you are not alone.
“My child is fine. They do not have a problem. They’re just being boys. You know how girls are. They will grow out of it. It is just a stage. It’s temporary. I will wake up and things will be fine. School will go great tomorrow.”
These are the words we play through our heads over and over. We try to reassure ourselves and downplay the problems. We avoid opening up with members of our family whose kids are developing as expected. Sometimes, we make excuses for our kids. And through it all, we keep repeating our mantra to ourselves. “It’s just a stage. It will be fine.” But eventually, we have to admit what we’re doing isn’t working. It’s not working for us, and it is certainly not working for our kid.
Denial is the first stage of Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief. And it doesn’t just happen with death. Sometimes it is the loss of a dream. An acknowledgement that we’re going thru something with our kid that’s bigger than us and bigger than our ability to manage on our own.
“Why my kid? I didn’t have any of these issues. It’s not fair.” We are angry at our families. The genetics had to come from somewhere. We are angry at our partners and their family. We are angry at the doctors for not telling us everything is fine. And even at all the other parents who must be doing something right because their kid is fine.
Anger is the second stage of grief. But it is also a substitute emotion. Anger is easy to find and intense enough to cover up our more vulnerable emotions. It hides our fear and grief.
Have you ever caught yourself making deals with the universe hoping the situation would go away? “What if I’m a better parent? What if I’m more consistent? Maybe if I can pay more attention, I can fix it.” It’s easy to fall down the rabbit hole on this one. Checking emails and assignments. Obsessing over every last detail.
But bargaining doesn’t work. Your child’s issues aren’t yours. And they are not struggling because of any fault of your own. You did not give your child ADHD. Yes, it can be genetic. But you didn’t get to pick which genes were passed on.
Sometimes we can feel swallowed by the weight and responsibility of what our kids need from us. Doctor visits. Medications. Therapists. Academic coaches. Tutoring. Medication side effects. Constant monitoring of academics. Did they turn in the project? What about that homework that you know they did?
It can be overwhelming.
After you’ve made it through the rest, you accept and plod on ahead. Acceptance doesn’t mean you like it. You don’t have to be happy with it. By the time you get to this final stage, you’ve had to address your own biases and preformed ideas about your kid’s diagnosis. And sometimes you’ve had to accept some hard truths about your own short comings. But you’ve made your peace and now you are ready to do the work.
Pitfalls of a diagnosis you don’t want
One of the hardest parts of helping your child with ADHD is the response of others. It can be difficult to stomach when others question the validity of your child’s diagnosis. There are people who blame you as the parent for not being able to handle your kid. But as difficult as this is, it can be even more difficult when others make assumptions about your child’s character.
Have you ever had a teacher tell you that your child was having issues because they were lazy? No work ethic? Didn’t care? These are hard things to hear as a parent. It is difficult to know that the people you entrust your child’s well-being to during the day truly do not understand your child.
Here’s what I know
- Children want to do well. If they could snap their fingers and have perfect grades, no friend issues, and stay out of trouble with their parents, I promise they’d do it. Beware of the words “I don’t care.” Many times, “I don’t care” is just shade thrown to cover up “I just can’t get it right.”
- ADHD is not a character flaw. But it sure as hell can look like one.
- Sometimes the social delays that come with ADHD can be more challenging than the hyperactivity and lack of focus.
- It’s not your fault. But you can help advocate for your child.
There are things you can do to help your child. Ask for help. ADHD is a diagnosis that affects the whole child, not just school.
There are 2 books that I often recommend to my new ADHD parents. Smart but Scattered is a great one that focuses on how parents can help their children develop better executive function.
Another favorite of mine is The Impulsive Disorganized Child. This one is great at putting things into a developmental context and offers suggestions for parents and teachers.
If you prefer online reading, ADDitude is a great resource for parents looking to help their kids.
Although medication is never the only answer for ADHD, it can be a lifesaver for some families. Never hesitate to discuss your child’s diagnosis with their pediatrician.
I know that you’re struggling. It is HARD. But it will get better and there are things you can do to help. Reach out to other parents who are also struggling. Reach out to your school. Call your pediatrician. And more than anything else, find a way to connect with your child. Their disability does not define them. And although it may make their path (and yours) certainly more challenging, it is no less rewarding.