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“When ADHD, Anxiety, and SPD Triple-Team My Daughter”

Tough love is never the answer when a child battles these invisible demons.

I was in a coffee shop seated across from Lynn, a friend I’d known since the year we taught high school together.

She said, “How’s Lee’s senior year going?”

“Anxiety is making it hard for her to get to school.”

“You know what bugs me?” she said. “The way some parents coddle their kids who have anxiety. I think they should be tougher on them and make them go to school.”

[Self-Test: Does Your Child Have Generalized Anxiety Disorder?]

I tried to ignore my heart pounding in my throat. Don’t get mad, I thought. “Some people” doesn’t necessarily mean me.  

“That doesn’t work for us. When Lee has an anxiety attack before school, I find her in bed, shaking uncontrollably. When she tries to get dressed, the feel of fabric sends shock waves through her body, and she crawls into the bathroom, trying to keep from throwing up.”

“Well, that’s just Lee. Lots of other kids don’t have it that bad.”

I thought, “True, but how would you know? Do you have a magic divining rod that sees into their deepest feelings, their pain and struggles?” If nothing else, I knew that no amount of tough love could ease my daughter’s anxiety.

[More from this Blogger: “My Teen Becomes a Young Adult Right Before My Eyes”]

Nor did it have any effect on her ADHD, an invisible companion that had robbed her many times of friends and fun in elementary school. Standing in line one day, ready to go into her first-grade class, she looked like all the other kids, adorable in a pink hooded sweatshirt and rainbow sneakers. No one noticed the look in her eyes, the demanding impulse she would soon give into as she pulled her hood down over her face.

“No, Lee…” I yelled. Too late.

She pushed the kid in front of her, who landed on the kid in front of him, who landed on the kid in front of her, and so it went to the front of the line.

The nasty looks I absorbed that day fell into a deep pool of black mommy guilt that lived inside me until the day she was diagnosed, and I saw the light. Unless you understood the effect of ADHD on a child’s brain, you would think this was a badly behaved child who needed tougher parenting. Her lack of impulse control was unnoticeable until it came roaring out and caught everyone’s attention.

[Talk Therapy: Getting Through to Your Teen with ADHD]

Along with anxiety and ADHD, Lee had struggled with sensory processing disorder (SPD) her entire life. Standing on the grandstands at a middle-school concert, she felt the stomping of hundreds of feet cause ripples of deafening beats throughout her body until she hyperventilated. No one looking at her heard her silent screams for help. But plenty of people wondered why I grabbed her off the grandstand and left that day, ditching the concert.

I thought of all the children walking around with silent demons—unheard, invisible, ready to gobble them whole. Reaching across the table, I put my hand on Lynn’s. “Promise me, the next time you find out a child has anxiety, you’ll listen first before you go tough?”

“If you think it will make a difference.”

All the difference in the world.



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  1. This sounds so much like both my son and I. I never know the exact balance of when to push him and when I need to back off because it’s more than mere discomfort that he can not get through. I like to think I’m doing better than my parents did with me though. Sometimes I wonder if they even knew me at all as a child. They’ll say things like, “Well you always loved new situations!” and I can’t help but just give them a blank stare back because nothing could be further from the truth.

    They were definitely pushers. And, well, I guess I did learn to adapt. I had to somehow. Sometimes it ended up with wild ridiculous tantrums, but since that seldom did any good, I learned a different coping skill. I learned to disengage my consciousness, to fracture my mind into some kind of auto-pilot in order to protect myself from the emotions and sensations I simply couldn’t handle. Essentially, I learned to disassociate, but in a way that few outside of me can notice. I’m a bit more wooden when I’m “fractured”, a bit slower of whit, etc, but for the most part function in a way that no one else much notices – at least I guess so, since no one ever really commented on it. But I’m not really “there” when I do that, and my memories when I come out of it are either missing or very fuzzy. The problem is that as I’ve gotten older, this got worse. It worsened and worsened until the fractures caused such disassociation that it WAS noticeable as I became virtually catatonic and confused. I’m in my 30’s and this has happened twice in the last 3 years, with me needing weeks of intensive therapy each time in order to re-stabalize.

    I still fight with Anxiety daily, despite my psychiatrists desperate attempts to get my chemicals balanced and all the work I do with my therapist. I also was formally diagnosed with ADHD, which apparently my parents suspected since childhood, but did nothing about. And don’t even get me started on my sensory issues! Noise is the worst, but I also have severe food anxiety because of strong tastes or textures, different fabrics can irritate me to the point of crying, I have terrible balance, the whole nine-yards. Yet, it is getting better now that I’m getting appropriate help. It’s just a long slow road.

    So I hope, for my son, that I’m doing it better. I know I have to push him sometimes, or he’ll let even minor twinges of anxiety rule him and keep him cooped up and so guarded against the world that he doesn’t experience it. But I try to be cautious too. I try not to push too hard too often. I try to be careful of his needs, especially his own sensory issues! (We are a family that buys ear-plugs in bulk, and carry them virtually everywhere!) It’s such a balancing act though. I never want to put him in pain, but I know he needs to grow. So, it’s like trying to shape a tree. You have to put pressures on in certain places, if you put too little, the branch may never reach it’s ideal spot, but if you put too much, you might break it entirely. I hope I’m putting out just enough pressure at the right times to help my son be successful in life and learn to manage his issues, but not so much that I’m torturing him into something worse.

    1. I always try to address fears and concerns for my son up front, so he can be as comfortable as possible in situations he’s resistant to. For instance, noise-cancelling headphones for 4th of July fireworks. It is hard to know where the line is between encouragement and challenge, and pushing too hard.

      Penny
      ADDitude Community Moderator, Author & Mentor on Parenting ADHD, Mom to teen w/ ADHD, LDs, and autism

  2. My son and I have this combo. It gets easier as they get older and can self-advocate. Our society is big on bossing others around and dismissing them, so I have had to unlearn in order to pay attention to what my son says, and not push him too much. And I’ve had to learn to take care of my needs in a less-emotional way. I don’t owe anyone an explanation of why I don’t like to eat bananas-I just politely pass on them. It is a really hard balancing act!

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