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“His Mom Is to Blame for Her Son’s Misbehaviors”

One mother with ADHD explains the shame she feels when her son with the condition misbehaves, and the frustration when other mistake symptoms for bad behavior.

I approach with trepidation. I know what the answer will be, what general form it will take. “How was he?” I ask the director of my five-year-old son’s theater camp.

“He’s a handful,” he says. “And he’s fast and good at disappearing. Turn your back and you’ll find him playing in the Aladdin props.” He laughs.

I laugh, because it’s the response people expect. They tell me my kid is hyperactive, and I laugh. I should laugh; I know it better than anyone. Don’t jump on the couch. Don’t climb the door frame like a spider monkey. Don’t climb the bookshelves. Don’t take your swing to the top bunk and try to swing across the room. Don’t hurl yourself off the top bunk onto a gigantic pile of stuffed animals. No one knows this more than me.

But still, it stings to have That Kid. He can be That Kid all he wants at home, without evoking anything more than annoyance. But go out in public, and that annoyance turns to shame. Especially for someone else with ADHD, there’s a sense that people are questioning your parenting skills. “He’s just like his mother,” I feel people are thinking. “It’s her disorganization. I bet she’s a disorganized parent, too.”

It’s little things. My BFF has a spigot in her side yard. She didn’t know it was there until my son turned it on, transforming a good part of the neighbor’s yard into a bog. We tell the boys not to turn it on again. For Falcon, it’s a siren song of mischief. Every time, we say, “Boys, don’t turn the hose on,” the boys say, in chorus, “We won’t.” Falcon can wait a little while. But eventually, he has to turn it on, get soaked, and strip down to his underwear. The host’s son will turn up at the back door: “Falcon turned on the hose!” he’ll say accusatorily — mostly because he doesn’t want to get blamed, partially for the fun of telling on Falcon.

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I apologize, and we haul the kids inside and give them a stern talking to, and they swear on their Legos that they’ll never touch the damn thing again. Everyone else’s kid can keep away from the spigot. It’s frustrating that Falcon can’t.

Or we’re in a restaurant. Other kids are sitting quietly and coloring. Falcon is constructing a double-bladed instrument of war out of his fork and knife. We take the knife. He uses a spoon. He blows bubbles in his drink; he tries to climb under the table. He’s five, well past the under-table excursion age. He’s the loudest kid, the most needy kid, the one you have to stop most often. We love him the way he is. But I feel eyes on us. In the collective judgment of the restaurant, he’s that kid and we’re those ineffectual parents.

Or we’re on the playground. Falcon is throwing pinecones, an activity most people frown on, but which I don’t mind. He finds the biggest stick and brandishes it at children. In the kindest way, of course, because Falcon wants to play, not maim. He does flip after flip after flip on the bars, then runs off and finds a dead squirrel. He pees on a tree. This is a normal park trip for us; for other parents, it’s a nightmare. And that’s what they think it is for me — a nightmare that is my own fault.

[Your Free Download: Is it ADHD? A Checklist of Common Symptoms]

We like Falcon the way he is. He can be difficult — handful,” as they tell us — but he’s ours, and we love him. Obviously, I don’t want to tattoo “ADHD” on his forehead. Half the people I encounter don’t believe in it, anyway; they think he needs a good hard spanking. Another part of them thinks that if I just got his diet perfect and gave him Chinese herbal supplements, he’d be like everyone else. In both cases, Falcon’s hyperactivity is our fault. That’s a hard burden, especially when you’re trying your best to parent.

People don’t understand that five-year-old Falcon can’t just stop. The impulsivity and need to move is wired into his brain. He needs the physical thing the same way other kids need food and shelter. People don’t get how he can sit, entranced, for a two-and-a-half hour Pixar movie, and then wreak havoc on the playground. There’s a deep misunderstanding of the symptoms of, and treatment for, ADHD. Our kids pay the price for it.

Sometimes, though, our parenting egos pay an even higher price.

[Read This Next: Never Punish a Child for Behavior Outside His Control]