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Not MY Child: My Slow, Stubborn ADHD Epiphany

“What I never realized until just now is this: By denying there was an issue — insisting that our son did not need any medications or accommodations for his difficulty with school — we had inadvertently made him feel responsible (even guilty) for his struggles.”

After nearly a year of sparring with my 16 year old over grades, homework, social responsibility, and time management, it’s the second semester and his grades have fallen nearly a point and a half from a 3.7 last year at this time to a 2.3. And even that 2.3 is by the skin of his teeth.

He’s also having some relationship issues with friends. He cut himself badly in culinary class this week, and he forgot to turn in his registration for his senior year classes. He constantly forgets to check in with either me or his dad after school, instead spending hours on his phone or sometimes just daydreaming. He is in therapy once a week and tutoring twice a week, and due to our joint custody agreement (which I’ve had no luck altering) twice a week he travels across town between his dad’s house and mine. Although generally quiet, he has recently been more emotional, more irritable, and more irrational.

And me? Well, I am having an epiphany.

I’m realizing that for all of this poor kid’s 16 years, both his dad and I have firmly refused to have him evaluated or tested for attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). I’m not sure, looking back, why that is, but I remember feeling mighty righteous when friends of mine put their kids on IEPs (Individual Education Plans) or ADHD medication. “Not my child,” I thought narcissistically. And his father, who had seen his own brother struggle with Ritalin, was equally opposed to any discussion of drugs. Even when he was colicky as hell and his pediatrician had prescribed Zantac, he didn’t tolerate it well and we stopped administering it after one night. Instead, I nursed him on my stomach to make sure he didn’t get too much milk, and somehow we muddled through another 9 months that way.

What I never realized until just now is this: By denying there was an issue — insisting that our son did not need any medications or accommodations for his difficulty with school — we had inadvertently made him feel responsible (even guilty) for his struggles. When the preschool, second grade, and 6th grade teachers had suggested that we “have him tested (for ADHD),” we refused. Instead, I devoured books on executive function, “late bloomers,” anything that would make me feel that everything was going to be fine. And instead of stopping and asking our bright young boy how he felt about it, we (okay, mostly I) lowered the boom when the bad grades came, offered bribes, revoked privileges, and sat for long hours at the kitchen table working algebra problems with him until he got them. And sure enough, his grades were decent, and even got higher as he progressed.

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have ADHD?]

These last few years for him must have been torture. Even though I was surprised when he recently told me he’d been depressed since 8th grade, it made perfect sense. It was about that time that I first casually mentioned something to Nick’s pediatrician about the homework struggles, and he immediately suggested we evaluate Nick and perhaps start him on an “extremely low dose” of an ADHD stimulant. Still thinking only of myself, I refused proudly and asked him for “natural remedy” solutions.  And so onward we plowed, Nick increasingly stressed, yet still valiantly trying to obey the rules that had been set for him, and me helicoptering while adding fish oil and gingko biloba to his daily vitamin regimen to counteract his “teenage brain.”

I can recognize now that it wasn’t that my child wasn’t trying. He was trying his hardest to will his brain into stillness, to focus on the 25 math problems he had to finish, or the 300-word book report he had to turn in. And God bless him, he nearly always got the work done after many hours of struggle, and then fell exhausted on the bed, fatigued but wired, unable to fall asleep until well past midnight.

And now, here we are. After receiving his mid-quarter report and talking briefly to him yet again about getting the grades back up, I spent most of the day reading Dr. Daniel Amen’s Healing ADD (#CommissionsEarned). I’ve looked through Dr. Amen’s work in the past, but never before could I admit that what I was reading sounded exactly like my child. Amen explains that many kids are not diagnosed as having ADHD until their teen years, when increased executive functionality becomes critical, the intellectual demands of school dramatically increase, and stress, anxiety, and depression begin to manifest as a result of years of strenuous adaptations — and an inability to continue camouflaging their disability.

When I got to Dr. Amen’s description of a teenager diagnosed with inattentive ADHD at the age of 16, and the dramatic effects of treatment, instead of the fear and denial I used to feel, I experienced joy. I no longer feared “putting a name on” my son’s condition. This was him. And like the teenager in the book, my son’s life could get better. Not only that, but treatment doesn’t require him to change into a different person.

[Free Download: Evaluate Your Teen’s Emotional Control]

As Amen explains, it’s appropriate to think of ADHD as not just a set of symptoms, but a set of symptoms that substantially interfere with school, home life, and social settings. I take that to mean that being a bit of a daydreamer, having imagination, and thinking non-linearly does not necessarily mean my son will “have” ADHD all his life – only when it is interfering with his ability to function. There is also a growing body of research on self-regulated use of ADHD medications; and although self-regulating such medications requires caution, prudent dispensation does and should include variations as circumstances change to ensure balance and efficacy. Additionally, evidence shows that ADHD medications can help make cognitive therapy more effective, and individuals become more able to process and apply therapeutic tools as their ADHD resolves.

I love to say, “Daylight is the best medicine.” And yet, I failed to shine a light on my own long-term denial that my son needed help — and that there was help out there. With acknowledgment came strength, and the ability to begin to finally address the difficulties that were making my child unhappy. Our journey is just beginning, with an appointment for an ADHD evaluation next week. But for the first time in nearly a year, I am hopeful. That’s a quality I hope to see in my kid again very soon.

[“Take a Sabbatical from Teaching and Judging”]

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