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“Crime, Punishment, and Redemption for My Son with ADHD”

The sad fact is that a fair number of teens and young adults wind up in jail. Thankfully, my son found a get-out-of-jail card before it was too late.

My most vivid memories of my son’s elementary school years center on principal or teacher requests to meet with them. During those years I was told that my son was very smart, gregarious, and likable, but that he knows better than to throw objects, leave his seat, talk out of turn, skip classwork, hit the other students, arrive unprepared, and steal from others.

At home, his behavior was also bent on breaking rules. As a teacher, I should have had some idea that ADHD was the culprit, but I relied on the diagnosis of counselors who determined that he was bipolar. Prone to violence, he often hit me or threw objects that were close at hand when frustration set in.

Banned from Boy Scouts for hitting children, my son knew his actions were inappropriate, but consistently said he didn’t know why he acted the way he did. As he grew older, his high school years mirrored the same pattern of conduct, but on a grander scale. Suspensions from classes became the norm. New counselors decided he wasn’t bipolar, but that he had oppositional defiance disorder. He began stealing from convenience stores and from me.

At the age of 14, he had committed numerous thefts and burglaries. Relieved that the juvenile court assigned him a mentor, I thought he would improve with one-on-one guidance, but he didn’t. Routine checks of his room indicated that he was drinking and using drugs. When he drank, he often punched holes in walls and broke windows. I lived in fear of him, but had a desperate need to help him.

A psychiatrist who tested my son’s IQ told me he was a “genius” but that he would most likely end up in prison because of his choice to be defiant. Time and time again, year after year, court appearance after court appearance, he told everyone he didn’t know why he stole or became violent. The juvenile court finally had enough and sentenced him to 30 days in detention.

Living in the detention center, a structured environment that made choices for him, brought out his potential. While attending school there, he earned exemplary grades. He was a role model for other detainees. Upon his release, he obtained a part-time job and was promptly fired for theft. Without structure, he reverted to uncontrolled behaviors. Until the age of 18, the juvenile court had control over him through probation and community service. His juvenile record had more than six convictions and 10 arrests.

Stealing cases of beer led to his first felony charge and a probation violation. Arrests for under-age possession of alcohol and drugs came next. I battled with myself whether to bail him out of adult jail. But bail him out I did. Each time he vowed to turn himself around, saying he didn’t know why he broke the law. Each time he failed.

The experts’ predictions rang true when he faced five years in prison for grand larceny at the age of 21. I had resigned myself to this, and was, embarrassingly, relieved. These years had taken their toll. Ashamed that I was unable to help my son, I looked around at the holes in the walls, the broken furniture, and my own decline. For seven long years I never knew if my son was going to return home each day or if he would be arrested or killed.

Phone calls in the middle of the night became routine. Waiting for calls from police asking me to retrieve my son at 3. A.M.—or from my son needing a way home or in jail—kept me awake until he was home and asleep. Worse, when no call came, I called police to help me find him. Friends advised me to kick him out, but I couldn’t. I replaced broken doors, patched holes in the walls, and waited for the next explosion.

I thought about the many people who tried to intervene: probation officers, police officers, judges, counselors, mentors, psychiatrists, family, and friends. None had made a dent in his behaviors. My son was labeled a delinquent, and it seemed done.

The only person who wasn’t done was my now-adult son. He came to me one day holding papers in his hand and shouting, “Read this! Read it now!” It was an article on ADHD, and as I read it, I cried. I was reading about my child. It now seemed so evident. All these years, when he insisted that he didn’t know why he broke the law, he was telling the truth. His inability to think before he acted was fact, and I should have known much sooner. His words, “I don’t know why I did that,” still echo in my mind.

My son got in touch with a new general practitioner, who prescribed him proper ADHD medication. The result? No more drugs, alcohol, thefts, or arrests. The change was dramatic. He enrolled himself in college, found a job, and when his court date arrived, he testified about his diagnosis.

He told the truth about not being able to make informed decisions or to consider consequences before acting. He compared his thoughts to driving a car and approaching a busy intersection. He wasn’t able to consider a response until after the crash. His arresting officer testified that my son admitted to the crime. ADHD left him unable to think through the results of a confession. Confessing to crimes is a common response from ADHD offenders. Thankfully, the judge understood, and my son went home with me that day.

A court of law, pursuant to the Americans with Disabilities Act, must provide accommodations to offenders with disabilities. An ADHD offender should be given the option to testify away from the distractions of a courtroom. He can do it via video in the presence of a mentor. Most importantly, he must be undergoing treatment.

Numerous studies have shown that jails and detention centers are filled with young offenders with undiagnosed ADHD. They stand out from the prison population due to their compliance, remorse, and their inability to think before speaking to police. Schools, criminal justice institutions, and physicians must be educated about ADHD symptoms in youthful offenders.

Celebrating his 26th birthday a month ago and ready to graduate from college with honors, my son’s future is anything but grim. He started a successful business and is preparing to marry a wonderful young woman. Prison is the farthest thing from his mind or future.

Our relationship suffered during those years. Trust had disappeared and blame became the norm. Misplaced anger and resentment followed. We have gotten to know each other after all those years and, finally, we have come to blame the rightful source—ADHD.

Insisting that his story will help others, my son visits the juvenile justice center where he once spent 30 days and mentors teens about making good choices. His message is clear: If you are unable to make solid choices, ADHD could be the culprit.

4 comments

  1. Thank you for this essay. It made me feel very lucky that my son was diagnosed so young with ADHD. I’m so glad you have a happy ending here, and a new beginning.

  2. This sounds just like my (12y) son, and I echo all your sentiments. But the difference is my son has been diagnosed with and treated for ADHD since 1st grade, and it doesn’t seem to be helping. I’m glad getting treatment helped your son. We’ve tried so many medications and therapists…..

    Feeling like he very much needs that structured environment, we are pursuing a military school for him, as I worry these middle school years are too critical and that he may begin doing more serous things than he has so far (like drugs, alcohol or joining the wrong groups).

  3. Thank you so much for sharing your heart felt story. I know that your son’s willingness to share will definitely help others with the same concerns. My son has been diagnosed with ADHD, and high functioning autism. We struggle constantly with violent outbursts, and an inability to make good choices. I myself have ADHD and I understand how the ADHD brain functions regarding decisions. It is like the mind is going A million miles and you have to stop it long enough to think about a particular decision that is usually a difficult one. Your story gives me hope that with the right structure my son can find a way to curb his violent outbursts. He has also told me that he doesn’t know why he does the things he does. And he is very frustrated about it. Stories like your son’s story will be helpful to so many out there who have a fear that their child is on the prison path. Your outcome is one we can all work towards for all of these children.
    Thank you.

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