Gut Check: How to Follow Your Instincts When Parenting an ADHD Child

Why your parental instincts are usually right for your ADHD child - even when experts and family disagree. And how to tell when you're just plain wrong.


Filed Under: Diagnosing Children with ADHD
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Your gut is right most of the time. Listen to it — most of the time.

Moms know things about their children that no one else knows. This sixth sense, gut instinct, inner voice — whatever you want to call it — is highly developed in parents who have a special-needs kid, whether the child has attention deficit disorder (ADHD) or a learning disability like dyslexia.

We’ve all had those moments when we thought our child was being too quiet, and raced upstairs to find him in trouble.

You spend more time with your child than anyone else, and you care more about him than the best-intentioned teacher or psychiatrist. Getting the right help for him depends, in large part, on trusting your instincts.

The experts aren’t always right. I injured my back in a car accident many years ago, and I was told that I would be partially disabled for life and had to learn to live with pain and physical limitations. An inner voice told me I should keep searching for options. Over time, I found alternative treatments that allowed me to resume an active life — with a few accommodations. Thanks to my instinct, I’m living a happy life.

That same instinct has also been helpful in raising a child with ADHD. When Jarryd was in preschool, he was very active, unable to focus, and had difficulty making and keeping friends, but his teachers told me he didn’t have ADHD.

They said, “Don’t worry, we’d know if he did.”

My gut told me they were wrong, and they were. When Jarryd was in second grade, I was concerned about his social difficulties. His teacher suggested that I was a neurotic parent who worried needlessly. But Jarryd’s classmates never invited him to play dates.

I asked the teacher to confirm my suspicion by conducting a little test to identify students with social issues. Students were asked to select two people they wanted to be with and two people they didn’t want to be with. No one selected Jarryd, and most put him on their “do not want to be with” list.

When You Should Think Twice

My inner voice isn’t infallible. It hasn’t always served me — or Jarryd — well. Two doctors wanted him to take a stimulant for his hyperactivity and impulsivity when he was two years old. It didn’t make sense to me to give a hyperactive child a stimulant. I also felt it was wrong to slow down Jarryd with medication.

Looking back, I see that my gut was wrong. Our family endured three painful years of trying to manage his behavior. Jarryd didn’t get the help he needed, and my husband and I were exhausted.

As a professional, with a Ph.D., I have talked with other parents who also have mistakenly trusted their gut. Karen saw several mental-health professionals through the years, who suggested that family therapy would help her daughter’s ADHD symptoms. Karen disagreed. She fired eight psychiatrists and psychologists after they had recommended the same course of action.

Finally, one psychologist asked her, “How many of us will you fire before you reconsider? What makes you so sure you know more than the professionals?”

She didn’t know the answers, and fired the psychologist before finding out. It wasn’t until her daughter’s situation worsened dramatically that she finally agreed to participate in family therapy. This delay cost the family years of needless pain and heartache.

When Your Gut Is Wrong

While all parents have a Ph.D. in their child’s best interests, it is sometimes hard to tell if your gut is right. For instance, your impulse is to help your child, when it would be better if you backed off. This is especially true regarding homework and household responsibilities.

Parents of children with ADHD walk the line between helping out and overdoing it. This kind of action impedes a child’s growth. Your child must develop the life skills to leave home and succeed after high school.

Here are two suggestions for knowing when your gut is wrong:

  • If your actions aren’t helping — if you do not see progress in an area you’ve been working hard to change—reevaluate your decision.
  • If a chorus of competent professionals is giving you the same advicetry behavior therapy, change medication — and if they’ve given you a full and reasonable explanation for that advice, consider heeding them. You may be dubious about medication, or about sending your child to school without completed homework, but meds and school consequences may be best for him.

When to Stick to Your Guns

Then there are times when you absolutely know what is best for your child — and you must stick to your guns. Some parents have suggested that I shouldn’t hover over Jarryd during play dates. They don’t know the countless times I have averted disaster by being there to keep him on track.

My gut told me it wasn’t OK to leave him, and it wasn’t. My own family has suggested that all Jarryd needed was a swat to shape him up. I knew it took more than swats to correct his behavior.

If I had relied solely upon the experts and the advice of others, I would be partially disabled, Jarryd wouldn’t have been diagnosed with ADHD, and he would have had few, if any, friends. Your gut is right most of the time. Listen to it — most of the time.



This article comes from the Fall 2008 issue of ADDitude.

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