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ADHD Discipline: Best Served Calm

My son’s recent accident — and subsequent lying — made me feel confused, angry, impulsive, and irrational. As an ADHD parent to an ADHD child, I’ve learned that I’m the one who has to stay calm.

“You tell me what’s going on, Harry,” I said to my 22-year-old son over the phone, at the end of my last post. Harry has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and central auditory processing disorder (CAPD), and at 2 a.m., he had called to tell me that he and his two friends had been run off the road by a truck. I was out the door in hyperfocus-rescue mode when he called again to tell me not to come, that the state troopers were there, and that the story about being run off the road was a big fat lie.

I switched on the parental must-be-obeyed voice. My grave, adult tone ringing with authority, but still holding an undercurrent of understanding, I said, “I want the truth, now.”

“Later,” Harry said, and switched off his cell.

The more I think about this the angrier I get. He’ll pay for lying to me, I tell myself, And for being so damn rude. What, does he think because I’ve got the disability too, I’ll let this slide when he plays the ADHD card? Why shouldn’t he? I’ve identified with him on that level before and let compassion weaken my resolve as a parent. Well, not this time, buddy boy. This time I’m going to bring the hammer down. Whether due to my ADHD hyperfocus again, or my years in the overheated world of television and movies, or just my sleep-deprived parental mania, during the next hour I rehearse and revise Harry’s punishment with an intensity that obliterates reason. I pace, hiss, spit, and wave my arms around as I play out scenes of retribution the likes of which my son will not soon forget.

Now at 3 in the morning, he walks in the door and sits next to me on the living room couch where, trembling with grim righteousness, I wait. The look on my face startles him. It should, for I am no longer his understanding dad. I am Samuel L. Jackson bringing death and destruction in Pulp Fiction. “You will know my name is The Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee!” The big gun spits hot lead. Ka-blooey.

“Dad, are you all right?”

Well, no. I’m not. In the middle of a rage fueled by a hopelessly confused mess of concern, hurt pride, love, betrayal, and exhaustion, I’ve lost some connection to reality. Looking at my son sitting, nervous and wide-eyed, next to me on the couch, I flash back to 1970 when I was in my early 20s. The Vietnam War was raging, and I was a conscientious objector assigned to serve as an orderly for two years in a Kansas City hospital. On most weekends during that time, I also drank and did drugs and dealt a little pot from the back of my motorcycle. Obviously, I didn’t share my dangerous and illegal weekend activities with my parents. From everything I told them, they believed I was a good conscientious kid seven days a week. I lied so they would have no idea I was a whacked-out Easy Rider on Saturday and Sunday, not because of any punishment they could dole out, but because I cared what my mom and dad thought of me. Because of that, and their influence by example, I eventually changed that behavior myself. It also took me having a minor nervous breakdown and my bike throwing a rod, but I did change.

So now in the living room, instead of letting my confused fury out at Harry, I ask him as calmly as I can to tell me what happened tonight. Turns out he lied to protect his friend who Harry was letting drive his car for practice before taking a driver’s test. The friend lost control somehow; the car went over a ditch and into an abandoned building. The car’s totaled but no one was hurt. He’d tried lying to the state troopers, telling them that he was driving, but they didn’t buy it for a second. Luckily no one was charged. It was dumb and wrong-headed, I mean, come on — driving lessons at 1 a.m. on a dark country road? But although I’m not going to bring down some huge punishment on him, we’re not helping him get another car either.

Over the next few weeks, I stay calm and all of us keep talking. His mother and I tell him that we’re looking out for a number of people in our family who really need it. He’s 22 and healthy and all we ask is for him to take care of one person — himself. He says he figures that’s fair and he’s decided that it’s time for him to move out on his own.

I’m still impatient with introspection and other self-moderating stuff. I’m not built to be rational and reasonable; I’m wired to be impulsive and emotional. But that’s not often what’s needed in a dad. It’s like the seemingly nonsensical flight attendants’ instructions to put on your oxygen mask first before helping others. In stressful child-raising situations, those of us who are ADHD parents of kids with ADHD need to remember and make sure to do a calm check on our own emotional state before dealing with what’s going on with our children.

For me, even though riding in on an emotional rage and bringing down the hammer feels true to myself and justified, taking the time to turn off my own noise and listen to my kids first has always turned out to be more truthful and in the end, much more gratifying.

Note to Self: Our Symptoms Do Not Define Us