I Had No Safe Place. Can I Build One for My Son?
Like so many talkative, smart, socially awkward girls in the ‘80s and ‘90s, my ADHD was overlooked for too long. My childhood was filled with criticism and shame. I had no safe place — nowhere I could be myself and learn from my mistakes. I want a better childhood for my son, and so I fight against the learned behaviors and mirror neurons in little ways every day.
I was a difficult child. I had undiagnosed ADHD, and it showed. A lot.
Back in the good old ‘80s and ‘90s, attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) wasn’t diagnosed in girls — especially when those girls were daydreamy and spacey. Though I exhibited what we now know to be a moderate to severe case of ADHD, I was never evaluated for symptoms. I was functional enough — and smart enough, and scared enough of my father — to keep my head above water, and even maintain very good grades. But beyond that, everything fell apart.
Starting in second grade, at the time kids start noticing these types of things, I had no friends. I had no friends because I had no clue how to behave in social situations. Conversation etiquette eluded me; I blurted out whatever flitted across my mind.
I didn’t pay attention and drew pictures instead of listening to the teacher, but I somehow knew most of the answers anyway. This enraged kids who had to work hard. When they teased me, I dissolved into a puddle of tears. I had rejection sensitivity even then; my teachers zoned in on the “takes criticism and improves” part of my report card starting in first grade. Apparently I also did not “respect the rights and opinions of others,” which probably means I told people they were wrong when I thought they were wrong. I didn’t know you weren’t supposed to do this.
Add a backpack constantly disgorging crumpled papers, late permission slips, unicorns erasers I made talk to each other when I was bored — in the fifth grade — and you had a recipe for social suicide that slipped through the cracks.
I talked too much — most of the time, I didn’t shut up. In high school, I was un-ironically voted most talkative by a class that almost universally hated me. I cried whenever anyone teased or criticized me, which was often. I was always trying desperately to fit in and failing spectacularly, trying to be funny and looking monumentally stupid.
It didn’t help that I was smart and treated everyone else as if they’d get my Hamlet references, which made them feel pretty dumb, which made them retaliate further. I lost things: hats, umbrellas. My room was a disaster area my mother was always harping at me to clean. I once unlocked a door, set a key down, and lost it in a confined area for an hour (it had slipped behind the couch cushions; I should have immediately hung it on the peg next to the door, like always).
This stew basically enraged my parents — normal, middle-middle class people in a steel town in Pennsylvania in the 1980s who could not understand why their brilliant daughter was such a hot mess.
“You’re smart, but you have no common sense,” repeated every relative from my grandmother on down. I felt stupid and put down every time, as if I lacked something vital to survive in the world.
“You’re being so loud,” my mother would hiss. “Lower. Your. Voice. Do you want people to stare?” I would shut up, mortified and feeling stupid.
“I get it, I get it,” my mother would say, interrupting one of my long stories. I always knew it was a cue to shut up. It told me she didn’t care about what I had to say.
“Why do you make so many simple mistakes in math? You could have the top grades in the class and instead you get an A- because you can’t be bothered to double-check your work,” my mother and my teachers would accuse.
“Why is reading comprehension so hard for you? All you do is read. Why can’t you remember what happened in the book that’s sitting right in front of you?” a teacher would scold.
“Can’t you keep hold of your things?” my parents demanded as they had to dig out one more hat, find another umbrella. “What’s wrong with you?”
What’s wrong with you. The chorus of my childhood.
“Why can’t you remember simple things?”
“Why can’t you keep your room clean? Your sister does.”
And the very worst: “You didn’t have any friends at your last school,” my mother said once at the end of her rope, in total frustration, when I was breaking down in tears in the dining room at age eleven for probably the third time that week. “And you don’t have any friends at this one. Maybe it’s your fault you don’t have any friends.”
I believed her for years. It was my fault no one liked me. I was unlikeable.
I carried this burden for years. At first, I carried it in pain and a sense that no one would ever love me. Then, as I moved into college, I began to carry it with a side of rage. Who treats a child like this? Who says these things to a small kid? Who asks these horrible things, who constantly puts them down and makes them feel less than, who borders on verbal abuse and emotional abuse on a regular basis?
Then I had sons with ADHD. I was diagnosed by then. So was my husband. And I began to hear the same words coming out my own mouth — those same words directed at my oldest son.
My oldest is loud. He speaks loudly. I find myself saying, “Blaise, you need to speak more quietly,” and not always nicely.
I find myself cutting off his stories and quickly finishing the ones I’ve already heard, even though the kind thing, the patient thing, is to let him tell them to me again.
I find myself exasperated after he’s lost another coat, another jacket, another water bottle. “Blaise, why can’t you keep track of your things?!” I shout at him. He hangs his head, and I remember the answer. Oh yeah. He had ADHD.
I homeschool him and try to teach him math. We hit a brick wall. I am ready to throw his books across the room, I’m so exasperated. I have been patiently teaching for days, for hours. “Why can’t you do this?!” I demand. “You know all the steps. You know all the math facts. Why can’t you literally do one problem, without messing it up somehow? You’re smart. What gives?” Then I remember: he has ADHD. He can’t hold it all in his brain at once.
He blurts things into adult conversation, talks over his brothers. We scold him to wait, that his littlest brother has been trying to talk and what’s wrong with him, anyway? Can’t he hear that little voice trying and trying and trying again to be heard?
Oh, yeah. ADHD.
The parenting patterns die hard.
You see, I know what my parents did wrong. I know in my bones that they meant well, and I know in my heart that they screwed up anyway. We all do, in some way: this is what it means to be a parent, to sit back and wonder how you’re messing up in ways you can’t even begin to understand. But I understand. I am repeating the same patterns my parents repeated around my ADHD. I hear my mother’s words coming out my mouth (though, thank God, not all of them).
The first step, I know, is recognizing it. I am no longer flying blind. I know I am reacting to his ADHD in ways that trigger my own conditioned responses. I also know they are wearing him down in the same ways I was worn down, and I need to stop: I need to stop now.
So I do what my parents never did: I apologize. I say, “Blaise, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that. I know you have ADHD and it’s hard for you to do [whatever he’s been struggling with]. How do you think we could work on it together?” I try to make us a team. I try to show him I am on his side.
One day, I hope, he will have the same ADHD moments I have and give himself the same space and grace I give myself. Lose an umbrella? Damn it — but bound to happen, because ADHD. Better luck next time. Blurt something stupid out in public? Sorry guys. I have ADHD, and that happens sometimes. Please forgive the sudden outbursts, I don’t mean to be socially awkward. I have built myself a support network of other non-neurotypical adults with struggles similar to mine. I want him to be as confident as I have become so that he, too, can reach out and get that help one day. That he, too, one day, will proudly wear a shirt that reads “ADHD.”
But that was a long road for me with a lot of therapy and a lot of soul-searching. I want to spare him that grief. And the only way to spare him is to watch myself, every day. To police those microaggressions against neurodiversity. It’s hard not to fall into those old parenting patterns. It’s hard not to be annoyed when your kid loses something again, when she crumples up an important paper again, when his room is a disaster again, when he doesn’t listen to you again because he’s hyperfocused on a book. But we have to give these children space. We are their safe place. And if we are not a safe place, the world will not a safe place.
The world was not a safe place for me for a very long time.
I don’t want that for my child.
And it begins, slowly, with listening to that story to its conclusion. The conclusions I’ve heard three times. Without shaming. With never, ever telling him he can’t do what others can. And with always remembering: he is non-neurotypical. Some things will come easily. Some will not. It’s those tricky ones he needs the most help with. I am his safe place to land. And I must never forget it.