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ADHD Mom: “I Don’t Want My Son to Have the Same Childhood I Did”

We talk about how to help kids with ADHD, how to parent them, but we don’t hear stories about what living with the condition is like from them…until now.

We talk about children with ADHD — about how to teach them, help them, and repair their self-esteem. I write about my own son and our struggles with his ADHD; others do the same. We detail strategies to help them grow to be productive, normal adults. We yell at them on the playground. We argue over discipline strategies. We talk and we talk, and we talk around them.

We don’t hear from them.

It’s a special kind of childhood, being a kid with ADHD. It’s different for all of us, of course, since the disorder manifests itself in different ways. Some may be more hyper. Some may be more absent-minded. But while all of us have our own stories, they have one thing in common: They deserve to be heard. They deserve to be told, because we’re worth it, our struggle was worth it, and there’s a possibility that those stories, one day, may help a parent understand his own child.

My own story begins with forgetting. Every few weeks, my nursery school assigned children a show-and-tell. I never remembered until I’d gotten to my grandmother’s in the morning, far too late to bring anything that would wow my classmates. But I couldn’t bring nothing. I couldn’t fail completely. So I brought my mother’s battered old purple cat. I brought him so many times that a boy, whose face and name is lost but who sat to my left, groused, “You always bring that stupid cat.” My stomach dropped. They knew.

Kindergarten brought some of the same. I was obsessively anxious about missing the bus, probably because I realized it was a possibility, so I spent from 2:45 to 3 p.m. in a frantic state. One afternoon, I lost my Sesame Street tote bag. It was much like the reusable bags we have now, only sturdier and with a rainbow on it. I looked in my cubby. I looked in my desk. I looked in the reading corner, in the block corner, and everywhere else I could think of, and then I looked again. I became terrified I’d either lose my backpack or miss the bus. “What are you looking for?” my teacher asked. Almost tearfully, I told her. “It’s hanging over your shoulder,” she sniffed.

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

I wanted to curl up and disappear. The sense of stupidity was so vast and so deep.

School continued like that: forgotten homework, missed deadlines. My fourth-grade teacher nearly wrung my neck when I was one of only two kids, in a 30-plus person class, to forget the form for Junior Great Books. I didn’t forget it once or twice, but I forgot it for two weeks. She lectured us, Dawn and me, about responsibility. How could I tell her I wasn’t being an intentional jerk? I just kept on forgetting. Everyone else could remember to have his parents sign a stupid form. Why not me?

In fifth grade, my erasers were taken away-my special erasers, the ones shaped like unicorns and rainbows. My math teacher sent them to my homeroom teacher, who accused me of making them talk to each other when I was supposed to be doing some math I’ve long forgotten now. She picked up a unicorn. “Hello, Mr. Rainbow,” she said. I was mortified and indignant. They hadn’t been talking to each other. I had just been rearranging them because I was bored. Either I already knew the math or it was hard enough that I’d drifted off. She gave me back my erasers. I kept the sense of shame.

The shame didn’t follow me through middle school. I transferred to a Catholic school, which was as regimented as the convent schools of old. We used only blue pens; we underlined certain words or phrases in red pen, with a ruler. Homework was written in a homework book and checked. Everything had a formula; we even memorized catechism by rote. I thought the structure was stupid. I hated it, the same way anyone hated being told what type of pen to use, but something happened. I stopped forgetting things. Oh, I forgot the occasional textbook and had to go back to school for it, but I didn’t forget big things. Homework got done. Studying was accomplished. I knew exactly how my paper had to look: Name, subject underneath on the left; date, teacher on the right.

[Free Guide: 13 Parenting Strategies for Kids with ADHD]

High school was different. I didn’t have my homework book checked, so I sometimes forgot to write things down or blew them off. During one class, I often asked to be excused to the bathroom and spent 10 minutes walking up and down the halls instead, trying to stretch my legs and calm down enough to sit still for another few minutes. I didn’t study much, because if I could get an A- without it, why bother for the A? My grades dropped from middle school, but no one cared. I graduated with an A- average. I should have had an A.

I should have had an A. That’s the story of so many ADHD kids, especially those of us who are untreated. We spend our time at home being told we have no common sense, being asked what’s wrong with us, hearing why can’t you just do… . Expecting neurotypical behavior from a child with ADHD erodes our self-esteem. Why can’t we, indeed? What’s wrong with us? The answer seems to be a moral failing. Structure helped me. But I spent the rest of school labeled a space cadet and a dumb blonde.

I grew up, of course, and while I didn’t grow out of my behaviors, I got a diagnosis and learned how to work around them. But I’m still the kid bringing the purple cat into show-and-tell again. You carry those things with you, as all adults carry their childhoods. But to carry an ADHD childhood is different. Mine left scars, self-esteem problems, and a voice in my head that tells me I’m an idiot, and why can’t I do whatever the hell everyone else is managing just fine, thank you.

It’s hard to be a kid with ADHD. They need caring adults. They need help with the behaviors that hinder their progress. Most of all, they need understanding. They need someone to talk to them, to listen. Someone needs to hear from them instead of just talking about them. Maybe, with plenty of help, those children won’t carry around a purple cat for the rest of their lives.

[Why Praise Is So Important for Our Kids]