When ADHD Is All in the Family

“In our family, ADHD is not who you are; it’s a disorder you have.”

ADHD Parents: Building Strong, Supportive ADHD Families
ADHD Parents: Building Strong, Supportive ADHD Families

I wrote my first column for this magazine for the inaugural issue. With one exception – an article about my granddaughter (“The Pause Button” in May 2005) – my columns have focused on general topics, giving information for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This is my second article about my family.

You see, I have ADHD, as does one of my three daughters, and three of my seven grandchildren. I also have learning disabilities, as do that daughter and two of those three grandchildren.

Three generations – yes, there is a genetic theme. When all 15 of us get together – my wife and I, our three adult daughters and their husbands, and our seven grandchildren – as we do on many weekends during the year and for a week each summer, we enjoy one another’s company. To be sure, the behaviors caused by ADHD are hard for others to deal with – and, at times, the person with ADHD can be a pain. But we are family. We love each other unconditionally – and we accept the special qualities each of us has.

Family is where children learn to understand and to accept themselves – and to develop skills that don’t come naturally to them. This sense of self helps children move out into the world. My wish is that each of my children and grandchildren will find ways to emphasize their strengths as they learn to compensate for their weaknesses.

Building Family Ties

Last summer, we all spent a week together in a large house on the ocean. My grandchildren are the stars. Joan (pseudonym), 18, started college last September. Aaron, 14, started high school last year, and Nathan, 12, is in middle school. Joan takes medication during the school year, but prefers to be off it during the summer. Aaron tried medication, but didn’t like the way it made him feel. He manages his ADHD without it. Nathan was on stimulants briefly, but also did not like taking them. He was off medication during vacation.

[Take the ADHD Symptom Test for Children]

If you were a fly on the wall at our summer house, you’d be amused – and warmed – by the conversation. Here’s a sample:

Aaron to me: “Grandpa, either take your medicine or sit down. All of your up-and-down and walking around is tiring me out.”

Robbie, my 15-year-old grandson, to his sister, Joan: “Stop talking so fast. I can’t understand you. Did you take your meds?”

Joan to Robbie: “But I like being hyper. I don’t want to take medication on vacation.”

Nathan: “Me, too. And I also like being hungry.”

Joan, interrupting Nathan: “Why did the chicken cross the road? Because she has ADHD.”

[Take the ADHD Symptom Test for Adults]

The previous summer our family went on vacation to Italy. Joan and Aaron, who have learning disabilities, came along. They have gotten help for their disability, are working hard, and are succeeding. We had a great time. Coming home on that long flight, Joan and Aaron sat in the row behind my wife and me. They talked all night, each speaking so fast that it was hard to follow the conversation. They spoke about science and the universe. They discussed black holes and wormholes. Each was fascinated by the topic and had read extensively about it.

People sitting near them must have wondered about their rapid-fire words. I grinned with satisfaction. I didn’t hear nonstop chat. I heard their excitement about life and about learning. Each took joy in being able to share the same interest with someone else.

ADHD Doesn’t Define You

In our family, ADHD is not who you are; it’s a disorder you have. Each member of the family knows about ADHD, and it is a frequent topic of discussion. With us, medication is not a “secret” that others shouldn’t know about. It is a way to minimize the behaviors of ADHD. Each grandchild with ADHD has the option to take medication or not. Each also understands that, if his or her behaviors interfere with school, friends, or activities – and they cannot change their behaviors on their own – medication must be considered.

No one punishes them for their ADHD behaviors. I remember my seven grandchildren sitting around a table playing Texas Hold-’em. It was Aaron’s turn, and he was in outer space, looking out the window. My oldest grandson said, “Earth to Aaron. Earth to Aaron. Come in, Aaron.” Joan, who was sitting next to Aaron, poked him. He looked startled, then quietly said, “I raise you five.” His mind had drifted, but he knew exactly what was going on in the game.

We enjoy being together. Each member of the family has his or her areas of strength and difficulty. That’s just fine in our clan. But even though love is unconditional, accepting someone’s hyperactivity or impulsivity can be hard. It is necessary for someone with ADHD to know whether his behavior has a negative impact on others and to be responsible for improving it.

Mixed Blessings – And Mixed Feelings

Is it all happiness for me? No. I wish I hadn’t passed the ADHD gene on to my family. Yes, they will do well in life; that is my daily prayer. But the real world is not like our vacations. Each of us with ADHD has had teachers who snapped, “Stop tapping your pencil” or “Raise your hand before you speak.” Each has had problems making and keeping friends. Part of me is pleased that my grandkids’ parents accept and love their child with ADHD. Part of me feels guilty.

Still, no matter how well you understand and accept your child or grandchild, the real world often will not. I try to minimize their pain, but I cannot protect them from it. I look into the future and see great things for them, but I also see potential problems. We are doing everything we can to teach our grandchildren to succeed, but we can’t eliminate the bumps in the road on the way to their destination.

Sometimes I watch them and remember my own childhood. When someone tells me to sit down or take my pill, memories of fourth grade spring up. One day my teacher brought in some rope and tied me to my seat because I wouldn’t stay in it. The class laughed. I held back my tears. Any parent can understand why I don’t want my grandchildren to go through what I did as a child.

Yet every time I try to slip in a helpful suggestion about managing ADHD, I get the same answer: “I love you, Grandpa. But I don’t want you to be my psychiatrist.”

While my grandkids’ parents love and accept them unconditionally, they are also committed to helping them manage symptoms and problems that arise from the condition. If medication is needed, they make sure the kids take it. If a child needs a 504 Plan, they fight to get one for her. If a teacher reacts inappropriately, they talk with the teacher on their child’s behalf.

We speak openly about how wonderful our grandkids with ADHD are. ADHD is not their personality; it is a set of behaviors. Through the years, their cousins without ADHD have embraced those positive messages from parents and grandparents. They are as supportive and accepting as the grownups. I am reminded every day that only family can help children understand and accept themselves.

I wish you success with your family.

Names have been changed.

ADHD Families Growing Stronger: Next Steps