What All Parents Should Know About Raising A Kid With ADHD

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girl-asleep-on-bookMy head hurts every time I hear someone throwing around “alarming” statistics about how many more children are being diagnosed with ADHD these days, followed quickly by some kind of judgment about how parents and teachers must be taking the easy way out and how everyone must have ADHD symptoms. Because honestly, I often wish I had been a kid in this era of hyperawareness of the disorder. Instead, I wasn’t diagnosed with it until I was 23.

I don’t really want to blame anyone for this. I have the ADD without the H — it’s more common for girls and women to be hypo- rather than hyperactive, and it’s harder to spot the girl who’s in her own world over the boy who’s running around and yelling in the middle of class. My parents were kind of old-school immigrants when it came to mental health practices, but they were quick to label me as “gifted,” and had me tested to enter kindergarten before I turned 5. So, when I was the last kid to finish lunch, the last to finish her work, the one staring out the window during lessons, teachers first pointed out the age thing, and suggested I be held back a year. That was a quick way to get my mom’s hackles up. “She’s not immature; you’re just boring her.” That clearly remember her telling my second grade teacher this says something about how deeply it’s affected me ever since. It came back to haunt me when I finally did find out decades later why, despite being “smart,” I always felt like I was working twice as hard as everyone else.

ADHD is often hereditary, so of course, I’ll be watching my son like a hawk for any signs of it. Already, I’m paranoid that the second a sippy cup of undiluted juice touches his lips, he’ll be beyond my help. That’s not the best attitude, either, I realize. In the interest of changing the future, let me look back at what I wish my parents had known about my brain, and what they happened to do right, too.

I wish they had known that yes, it was a sort of boredom that caused me to stop paying attention, but that maybe insulting my teachers was not the best way to make them adapt to my different way of learning. This recent New York Times article explains things quite well: “People with A.D.H.D are walking around with reward circuits that are less sensitive at baseline than those of the rest of us. Having a sluggish reward circuit makes normally interesting activities seem dull and would explain, in part, why people with A.D.H.D. find repetitive and routine tasks unrewarding and even painfully boring.” Perhaps if the adults in my life recognized this as a biological issue — one that has nothing to do with maturity or intelligence — they would have figured out new ways to present lessons to me. Or at the very least, they would have fought amongst each other less.

I wish they had known that the frustration, tears, and full-on tantrums I had over homework, losing things, and being late all the time were part of a common cycle of self-blame in ADHD children and adults. I would realize I’d done something wrong, lost track of time, failed to note where I’d placed things, and remember all the other times this happened, falling into despair over never ever being able to do things right. If they hadn’t acted like I was overreacting each time, they could have helped me heal faster.

I wish they had known that everything I was able to achieve wasn’t proof that I didn’t need help. Many people with ADHD are high achievers. But I was stressed the f**k out for most of my childhood, and I slept through half of my college classes. Then, once the structure of school was done, I found myself adrift in early adulthood. Without immediate goals, I was less focused than ever. Thankfully, that’s when I finally sought out help. The idea that sluggish, neurotic me could have attention deficit disorder seemed ridiculous at first, and then I read the symptoms, and I swear I heard angels singing from the heavens. My whole life was explained in those letters.

Here’s what my parents did right, though: They encouraged me to be creative, every step of the way. As that NYT article puts it, my brain’s wiring was once an evolutionary advantage: novelty seeking made for better nomads, and later, for better inventors. I see connections where others don’t; and all those times I was staring out the window during class, I was inventing new worlds. Because I don’t live in the Sahara and I’m not independently wealthy, I use medication to help me get those ideas out into the real world in an organized manner.

At the risk of contradicting everything else I’ve said here, I will say that they may have also done me a favor by not getting me diagnosed early. I developed a lot of coping strategies on my own. I used my ADHD hyperfocus (I know, it’s a weird side-benefit that we can laser in on things we love even more than regular people) to learn grammar and composition skills that have made me a sharp editor. I may have to read some things three times to your one, but in the end, I may get more out of it.

Will I have my son in and out of psychiatrists’ offices and pharmacies at an early age? I hope not. But I also hope I can do my best to understand how his brain works and help him adapt to the world around him, without preventing him from inventing worlds of his own.

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