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Teens with ADHD: Homeschool or High School?

Under so much pressure to succeed socially and academically in a new school, can my teenage daughter, who has ADHD, survive her first semester of high school? Can I, her anxious, overwhelmed dad — who ALSO has ADHD — help her?

I’d planned this post to be about my 15-year-old daughter, Coco, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and how she overcame her struggles with feeling overwhelmed in a new school. I envisioned it would be a simple, straightforward success story for other parents of kids with learning disabilities. In parenting reality though, nothing is simple or straightforward.

This fall she started high school in Georgia, where we’d moved from Hawaii at the end of the previous school year. Coco had a hard time in special ed in Hawaii, some of which I wrote about at the time in the post “The ADHD Perfect Storm.” So at her request, we’d homeschooled her for that last semester of eighth grade. We knew Coco had a great, compassionate spirit, as well as talent and a sharp intelligence, but it seemed that few teachers and even fewer of her classmates recognized those qualities in her. Her frustration with her ADHD, dyslexia, memory issues, and resulting low self-esteem would build up until she’d lash out with explosive bursts of temper, which resulted in her feeling even more isolated.

Transitioning Out of Special Education

Then, just to add on a little more pressure, in her individualized education plan (IEP) meeting, it was decided that when she started high school this fall, Coco would also begin mainstreaming out of special ed — which she wanted but which also presented more chances to fail. But her non-ADHD mother, Margaret, and I, her very ADHD dad, were prepared and ready to be there for her in any way she needed. After all, we had experience and the use of the resources we have developed over the years of being parents of children with ADHD.

Sure, Coco’s 22-year-old brother, Harry, dropped out of college and at that time was still living at home, halfheartedly looking for a minimum-wage job, but so what? Every child is different, and besides, we’d learned from our mistakes. We’d keep communication open with the teachers and be supportive and understanding but firm with our daughter. So Coco, her mother, and I all felt confident about her prospects and told each other so as she stepped out of our car and walked to class on her first day of high school.

Now here’s the thing: When the three of us were telling each other how confident we all were of success — I was lying through my teeth. I was terrified. I had no confidence that Coco would do well in this school. How could I? She and I are wired in nearly the same way — easily overwhelmed, quick-tempered, and strapped to an emotional roller coaster that in an instant rockets feelings of shaky pride to profound self-loathing without the slightest warning. Imagine a brain with synapses that already misfire, putting you out of sync with normal folks in the best of times, now pressed nearly flat under suffocating adolescent anxiety that guarantees failure in front of hundreds of strangers who, I guarantee you, are desperately looking for a new geek to humiliate and dismember when their scopes focus in on her. When they do, you can bet all of her internal alarms begin screeching, “This is not a drill! This is not a drill!” Good God, if I were in Coco’s shoes, you couldn’t drag me into that school with chains and a three-quarter ton pickup.

This is my daughter, who I love and treasure beyond reason — how could I allow her to be subjected to the ignorance and judgment of strangers who don’t value her as I do? I went to high school; I know what happens in there to people like Coco and me. If it hadn’t been for my oblivious geek fog, I never would have survived. But Coco’s more social — fogless and vulnerable. I wanted to yell, “Turn back! Homeschool!” But I kept my feelings hidden, I think, pretty well.

Though Margaret gave me a sidelong glance and asked, “Are you OK, Frank?”

“Oh, yeah. Mmm-hmm,” I said, my eyes wide over a fake smile and nodding like a bobblehead. “Good. Great. She’ll do great.”

Margaret shrugged, not believing a word, and drove us back home. By the time we turned into the driveway, I calmed down a bit and half convinced myself that whatever happened, Margaret and I would be able to handle it. Now that we’d moved, we’d be able to focus more on Coco, so we’d be able to catch signs of any trouble and give her the help she needs.

This was last August. Now, if you’re a reader of this blog, you know that about this time my parents in Delaware had a crisis and I had to go there for a couple of weeks to help. In Georgia, Margaret was dealing with several issues on her own — her mother had moved in with us and our son, Harry, had spent $1,500 of the money we’d given him to buy a car on rap music and online porn and still needed rides back and forth to his part-time job at Taco Bell.

By the last week of September, I was back at home and we’d just finally found Harry a car. I asked Coco to help me set the table for dinner, to which she replied, “I hate it here! I hate it! I hate this school. I don’t have any friends. I want to go home to Hawaii!”

So much for being prepared to handle anything.

Coco’s eruption caught us completely by surprise. My first thought was that this was a false alarm: Coco really wanted more emotional attention from us and this was her way of getting it. But when I apologized for her mother and I being so preoccupied by the other drama going on in our family that we’d missed some distress signals from her, Coco said no, we hadn’t.

But still, tears were running down my daughter’s face. And with a “duh” smack to the side of my head I realized as an ADHDer wired very similarly to Coco, I should have guessed what was going on. Coco had given no sign that anything was wrong at school because she, as I do, wants at all costs to appear normal and competent. So we saw what she wanted: a well-organized student who did her homework after school and didn’t want help — because if she did want help or looked like she did, she would appear as stupid as she was already convinced she was and hated herself for being so much that she wouldn’t have been able to stand the embarrassment. And Margaret’s early status meetings with teachers seemed positive because Coco did as I have done at school and in jobs my entire life: She put up a good front.

So now, in her room, Coco’s front was down. Dinner could wait. And before Margaret or I gave any advice or offered any solutions, we were going to listen.

In a future post, I’ll share Coco’s story and the surprising solutions the three of us came up with together to make things better — and how it all turned out.