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“The Curse of Good Behavior and Stellar Grades”

Our son was too respectful of adults, too smart, too socially adept for those behaviors to be ADHD symptoms. That is what the first two doctors told us, but we saw his hidden struggles all too clearly and refused to ignore our eyes — and our hearts.

“I just don’t think he has ADHD,” his pediatrician told us.

Laurie and I walked out of the doctor’s office frustrated. It seemed every other eight-year-old boy in the country had a diagnosis, yet our son was struggling and we felt powerless. On the way to the meeting, Laurie and Isaac went to Target, where she turned her back on him for a second and he promptly annihilated an endcap of shoes.

I mean, seriously. Anyone who’s spent five minutes with our family can see the boy has ants in his pants. He has textbook ADHD with emphasis on hyperactivity. Everywhere we go, he’s the Tasmanian devil. “Quit bumping into everything and everyone!” we tell him. He smiles at us and says, “Ok.” Then runs into a lady in a motorized wheelchair.

And let me tell you, this is not a case of laissez faire parenting. Laurie and I are hardcore. No nonsense. We put up with nothing. The way we see it: ADHD or not, these behaviors aren’t acceptable. Running in the grocery store? Nope. Manically laughing during the pastor’s sermon? Nope. Singing “All the Single Ladies” in the library? Nope. We let go of very little.

The result, to put it humbly, is that he’s a good boy. He has good relations with adults and peers. He never intentionally defies his mother or me. He completes all his school work and makes good grades. We report all of this to his pediatrician and are told he doesn’t see the symptoms.

“He’s very well-behaved and well-adjusted,” he says.

“What about the other ADHD symptoms? The inattentiveness, restlessness, disorganization, chronic forgetfulness, inability to finish tasks, difficulty regulating behavior and complete lack of impulse control? The boy is physically incapable of getting dressed without putting something on backwards.”

“I’d be concerned if he were failing classes,” the doc responds. “Let me know if his grades start to suffer. Otherwise, I’ll see him again next year.”

“Why does it have to come to that?” Laurie and I say to each other in the parking lot on the way out.

So we get a second opinion.

“He’s a character,” we’re told, “and so smart. I don’t think you have anything to worry about.”

We leave the office and hop in the elevator, where Isaac hits all the buttons.

At every parent/teacher conference, we discuss these things with his teachers and guidance counselors. “He’s doing well,” they tell us. “Sure he’s rambunctious, but he’s not a behavior problem.”

Though relieved he does well in school and is well-liked, we have come to realize that these specific teachers either met his needs with a perfect blend of toughness and fairness — or were too distracted by other kids with bigger behavior problems.

Then Isaac started fourth-grade. Ms. London was neither tough nor fair, and was not amused by Isaac’s eccentricities. He consistently came home with red marks on his behavior charts. I began to expect daily calls at 3:20pm from Laurie.

“What happened today?” I ask.

“Same thing as yesterday,” she says. “Same crap he’s been doing since he was two. He has more red days than green this month.”

“Good,” I say. “This is necessary if we’re going to get the diagnosis.”

Unfortunately, I was right. It all came to a head in the spring, during that soul-crushing time between spring break and the end of May when there is no rest. No day off to look forward to. Just twelve weeks of uninterrupted school. It was then that Isaac received three days of in-school suspension.

“He argued with his teacher about a grade,” the guidance counselor told us. The timing couldn’t have been worse because the ISS was during the end-of-the-year field trip. We appealed to the teacher and guidance counselor that we accepted the ISS but missing the field trip was too harsh. We got nowhere, and finally escalated to the principal who told us, “I would have given him more than three days.”

“I feel so bad for him,” Laurie told me.

“Call the pediatrician immediately,” I said. “This might be exactly what we need to get some help.”

Unfortunately, again, I was right. The pediatrician gave us a referral for a neurologist who listened patiently to our story. He kindly dismissed Isaac’s accomplishments and good character traits, saying, “I can see he’s struggling. So let’s see what we can do to set him up for success.”

That fall, Isaac began the fifth grade with medications for ADHD and anxiety. He never had a single behavior incident with any of his teachers, and he made honor roll. Laurie and I continue to treat his behavior with a blend of steady parenting and closely-monitored medication. And we reflect on the years of struggling often as our younger kids begin their own journeys through hyperactivity.

6 comments

  1. All of the problems you list are just common traits of an intelligent bored child. Kids misbehave, especially ones who are creative, unserstimulated in our sad excuse of a public school system.

    As a young person who had similar “problems” to your child, I really hope you don’t force this diagnosis, and especially force stimulants down your kids throat. If you do you should be ashamed.

    1. Clearly you have never had to make the decision to medicate a child. It is not easy and it is certainly not something that a parent as involved as these parents sound would take lightly. I am a mother to two ADHD kids and also a teacher. I hear from one side that my own kids are just lively, but I see the struggle. I see the struggle at junior high with my students who are not diagnosed that turns to fear and stress because they are bright. They have been able to function even with symptoms because they are so bright and capable. I see ignorant people who make comments like yours try to tell their parents that ADHD is over diagnosed and that their child doesn’t need medication. And the worst thing I see is the self confidence of these students plummet because they can’t do it anymore. Even with supportive parents and teachers, truly ADHD children (AND adults? You might want to look into this because your anti-medication opinion is ironically visiting a site about ADHD and medication) need medication. Also, medicating101 by any doctor tells you that if a child doesn’t need medication, the medicine doesn’t work. Most ADHD meds are stimulants, which would cause a non-ADHD brain to be very scattered and all over the place. In a person with ADHD this stimulant is what their body needs to slow down the messages that the brain is receiving. It helps them! Therefore, if the child needs the medicine you can tell! If they don’t need the medicine, you can also tell! And if you want to know someone who sees both sides regularly, ask a teacher! Cause I can tell in many students everyday!

      On the subject of needed medicine, medication would never be denied to a diabetic student, it would be life threatening! But look at cases of untreated ADHD children as adults, often under employed, anxious, self medicating or participating in self distructive behaviors. Girls who are undiagonsed/properly medicated are more likely to be cutters, suffer eating disorders, be sexually promiscuous, or worse. Boys are more likely to self medicate, self harm, or contemplate suicide. I’d say that these are pretty life threatening consequences as well. So please, before you attack parents who are doing their best to help their child with a diagnoses (that no one wants for their child) educate yourself. You are coming across as rude and uninformed.

      1. Wonderful response! Thank you. As a teacher, I see the effects of students who truly need some type of medicine intervention and are not receiving it. By the time they reach high school, self esteem issues, depression, and anxiety are just a few of the harsh realities these kids face. I commend these parents for doing everything in their power to find help for their child.

      2. What an intelligent and informed response!! I find it troubling that medicating neurological disorders is met with such hateful judgement, yet as you wisely pointed out…medicating a physical illness wouldn’t be in question. We are never phased by the “you should be ashamed” crowd of people, though!! We know our kids and we will do whatever it takes to intervene on their behalf. Thankfully Billy and I are secure enough as wonderfully involved and attentive parents to see through that level of ignorance.

        1. Great article, and some excellent responses here.

          I am an adult with ADD (I do not have hyperactivity). As a child in the early 1990s (and prior to diagnosis), I consistently received high grades, respected authority, was always terribly polite, and got on better with adults than other children. In fact, it was other peers with whom I most frequently had problems.

          Teachers wouldn’t listen to my parents, who firmly believed there was something different about me. They told my parents to leave things to the professionals, and that their son was simply “a behaviour problem.” The typical actions by teachers included frequent detentions, calling me out/shaming me for inappropriate activity, or being sent to the principal’s office, rather than any proactive solutions.

          It took a while for anyone to believe my parents too, but when a particular pediatrician finally recognized my symptoms for what they were, this changed everything. Yes, I was medicated: I was put on Ritalin, which was the common drug for ADD/ADHD at the time. And it made a big difference – I was able to concentrate and focus for longer periods, I was able to rationalize my situation because I was able to stop and think, without being overwhelming by everything around me. But the diagnosis, *and* the drugs, did something else for me that was far, far more important. You see, *I knew* there was something ‘off’ about me, too. It was a terrible feeling, to act out but have NO WAY of understanding why. I felt completely overwhelmed almost constantly, but had no way to rationalize my feelings. Now I know I also suffered from anxiety, but that’s another matter. Having a diagnosis gave me an explanation I so desperately craved. It helped me understand that my brain acted differently than others, but that it still functioned well. A diagnosis also helped me identify what my problems were, so that I could take the appropriate actions to manage them. And drugs were a part of that. The drugs helped center me, they took off some of the load of managing my day to day symptoms, so that the entire weight of handling my difficulties didn’t rest solely on ME. A diagnosis – AND the Ritalin – gave me something I needed to start making meaningful changes in my life: *It gave me control, it gave me agency I previously lacked*.

          Now, with that control also came responsibility – both mine and my parents’. Now that we knew what was causing my problems, we each had a responsibility to act on it. My parents did not allow me to use my ADD as an excuse or a crutch. “But mom, I can’t help it when I don’t do my homework, because I can’t look away from the TV” – nope. You have a choice. “But mom, I can’t help but get angry adn lash out when people pick on me” – Nope. You choose how you react to that. The point is, drugs and a diagnosis are not the problem – mental health and learning differences *are* far more prevalent than most people would like to think. The problem comes in when parents, children, or adults with ADD believe or behave as if a diagnosis and/or medicine alone are sufficient solutions: that once you have a diagnosis and drugs, that your job is complete. Nope: your job has actually only begun, and if that’s the “ADDitude” from which you operate, then you and your child are going to be juuuuust fine. Trust me – I made it 🙂

  2. I have read a few of Billy’s articles tonight and I am literally sickened anyone would be so very critical when they don’t know you, Laurie or Isaac. I’m a ADHDer with a story similar to the previous response. I wasn’t diagnosed until age 23 because I too was a very compliant child. I flew under the radar, so to speak despite having significant anxiety as a child. That alone wasn’t a flag in the 80s-90s, especially in a girl, well rounded enough, albeit anxious about it all. Fast forward to the psychiatrist that recognized my symptoms after ending up in his office going through a divorce because I never “could get it together”. I just knew I was anxious. I couldn’t believe that ADHD could be the cause of ALL the issues I felt I had and on top of that I wasn’t exactly sure how I found myself in the middle of a divorce, and I am being told you have ADHD Combo. I didn’t buy it for a year. I literally couldn’t wrap my head around it, and some days I still question. I now have a son. He is very well behaved, kind, good grades, well liked…in school. Each summer prior to his 4th grade school year he inevitably would be the child who came in crying with intense emotional response to kids he played ball in the neighborhood with. I saw him put a sign on his forehead that to this day breaks my heart, which said “Im stupied”. That’s not a typo, he mispelled it but it was his way of telling me what his inner voice said. Finally, after the combination of the summer, starting 4th grade and being totally upended plus my history, knowledge and experience we forged ahead. I got the same negative response from some family members which is nothing but ignorance and while forcing the diagnosis isn’t what I describe it, I have to advocate for my son. Stimulants have taken the anxiety from him, just as they do for me. We have made progress even though the summer is a challenging time, I hop on to read and find reassurance, encouragement and ideas from educated articles such as yours. So thank you. As parents, I believe we owe it to our children to investigate, advocate, stand up and address the symptoms your child presents. Whether it’s ADHD or something else all together, dismissing a child’s “shouts for help” is irresponsible at the very least. So kudos to you for hanging in there, getting the diagnosis you obviously are educated and well versed in for your child. He will have a future because you are advocates for him. You decreased his risk of self medicating and gave him a new lease with a level playing field!! Many a child should be so lucky!

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