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Can Teens with ADHD Survive Mainstream High School?

My teenage daughter, who has ADHD, is struggling in high school, trying to keep up with schoolwork and make friends. My own frustrations dealing with embarrassing ADHD symptoms at work are different, but sharing my experiences reminds us both that we’re not alone.

At the end of my last post, it was late September of last year. My 15-year-old daughter, Coco, who, like me, has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), for weeks seemed fine with our decision to pursue an individualized education plan (IEP) to start mainstreaming her in her new high school. Then, while setting the table, she suddenly breaks down and lets it out. She hates the school, her teachers, the kids, this town, this state, and her whole stupid, impossible existence. With that, Coco stomps up to her room. I follow as my wife, Margaret, finishes setting the table and getting dinner ready because Margaret’s mother, who now lives with us, has to eat by 5 p.m. or she gets cranky.

Upstairs, I supply Kleenex and hugs while I listen sympathetically to Coco vent her misery for a while longer. Her new teachers don’t help her, and she feels trapped in this huge new school that feels so different from her one back in Hawaii. When I hear her cycling back and repeating her complaints, making herself even more miserable, I interrupt to ask her if she’s told her teachers when she needs help.

“If I ask for help, everybody knows how stupid I am,” Coco, cries. “And nobody will ever be my friend — I know what those other girls are thinking. They know I’m really special ed, and I’m sick of being looked at that way. I’m sick of being judged. And don’t say I should just ignore them, because I can’t, okay? But never mind — you just don’t get it.”

“I do get it,” I say.

“Why? Because you have ADHD too? It’s not the same for you. I’m a high school girl! You’re … you’re, like … an old man.”

Well, she’s got a point there. But still, my pronounced multi-decade immaturity has to count for something.

“Maybe it’s not the same, Coco, but you’ve told me yourself that I act like a kid.”

She smiles. “Yeah, but Dad, I didn’t mean, like, in a good way,” she says.

I smile back at my daughter, glad to feel her sense of despair lighten some. And then, without intending to, I begin telling her about a humiliating experience I had on a job about three years ago.

I was directing a local reality TV show in Hawaii. A lot had to be done all in a matter of hours. It was a tense day, and because either a location wasn’t ready or somebody was late, I went outside to switch assignments for one of the cameras. As I tried to explain what I wanted in front of the camera crew, my ADHD brain got ahead of itself trying to plan the rest of the day. It took me all the way into the next day, when I’d be at home reading or writing, which would certainly be much more fun than being here talking with these people. Then, shaking my head, I tried to backtrack to the present and got stuck in the reasons why I get so anxious over a simple job that I give myself a headache. I then realized I’d been standing in front of these guys mute for, I don’t know, maybe a couple of minutes, so I tried to parachute back into the here and now, which triggered my stammer, and suddenly, I was in full, wide-eyed stupid-mouth in front of these guys.

“Yu … yu … yu … yu …” I said as a couple of them traded smirks. I took a breath and tried again, “Ju … ju … ju …” I said.

“Yu … yu … ju … ju … what? Spit it out, for Christ’s sake,” one of the cameramen said. And the crew burst out laughing. And, as Coco would say, not in a good way.

“Omigod. Did you want to kill them?” Coco asks.

“Yeah,” I say. “Or run away and hide.”

“Not very good options, I guess,” she says. We trade smiles and I shake my head.

“No, not on that job,” I say. “Or in high school either.”

“You don’t have to be obvious, Dad. I get the point,” she says. “So, what did you do?”

I tell Coco that even though I was embarrassed and angry, I stayed standing where I was and took a minute to do some breathing, get calm, and think. Then I looked up and told the crew what to do. Later, the cameraman apologized; he’d just been trying to break the tension in a weird situation. I said no worries, and we all got on with the job.

I also tell her that even though I’d told myself I was a grown man and I knew it shouldn’t, the embarrassment stayed with me the rest of the day. But, as I replayed the incident over in my head the following week, I discovered I hadn’t really been embarrassed in front of the crew. I’d been embarrassed in front of myself. I was angry because I didn’t live up to my idea of myself as the boss on the job. By far the harshest judges of those of us with ADD/ADHD and similar conditions are inside ourselves. Left unrecognized and unchecked, those unforgiving interior judges can do more harm than our original condition ever could.

Coco nods. “I guess that’s right,” she says with a sigh.

“Anyway,” I say, standing up, “let’s have some dinner and then bring your mom in on this discussion.”

“Okay, but see Dad, I don’t want to be like those kids who don’t care at all,” Coco says. “And it seems like that’s who I get stuck with, even though I put extra time in to really study. Math, biology — you remember how much time I spent on the biome project. I work so hard to get it right and learn things, but the next day, I can’t remember, and it makes me think it’s hopeless. Like, maybe I should just give up.”

“We’ll see what Mom has to say about all of this, but I don’t see you giving up, Coco,” I say. “With you, I’m more worried about spontaneous combustion.”

“You should talk,” she says.

In the next post, Margaret joins in, perspectives change, and plans are put in motion.

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