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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.

[Free Handout: Get a Grip on Tough Emotions]

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.

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