Family teamwork, love and support were key to success in school and in life.
In the Princeton, New Jersey, household of the McGavern family, Katherine McGavern is in charge.
Katherine has an infectious laugh and a sweet demeanor, but she is a drill sergeant when she needs to be. Katherine has had to call upon her tougher side often: Two of her three grown children have attention deficit disorder (ADHD).
The changes that two ADHD diagnoses caused at home were significant, and the trajectory of Katherine’s career also was altered. Katherine had been a marketing executive, but she stopped working 16 years ago to be more available to her sons, particularly James and Ted, who were diagnosed when they were in first and eighth grades, respectively.
In 2005, Katherine launched her own ADHD coaching service. Her years of strategizing with the boys have given her many tools for the coaching toolbox. Last year Katherine co-founded the Mercer County, New Jersey, chapter of CHADD, and she is a CHADD-certified Parent to Parent teacher.
The closet in Katherine’s office is packed with souvenirs of her early attempts to bring order out of chaos: notebooks, Post-Its, calendars, and every sort of timer imaginable. “I was buying out Staples,” she says, laughing. She eventually realized that no one organizational tool held the perfect solution, and that she had to keep changing strategies.
Thanks to the support and dedication of a team of players — including Katherine, her husband, Alan, and their middle son, Tim, who doesn’t have ADD, as well as a number of therapists and tutors — and a lot of hard work on the boys’ part, Ted and James have flourished. Ted graduated from Dartmouth College and now works in financial services in London. James attends Pratt Institute in New York City, where he is a freshman with a merit scholarship.
KATHERINE: Ted’s natural brightness carried him through seventh grade. But in eighth grade, things changed. He was always losing things and earning Cs and Ds. He’d either score 110 on a quiz because he’d done work for extra credit — or he’d get a 5. When setting the table, he couldn’t remember where to put the fork. But he could build a remote-control car with thousands of parts.
Teachers called Ted a “divergent learner.” He would solve math problems his own way and not use formulas. Ted was our first child, so we didn’t realize there was a bigger issue. We just thought he was a quirky kid.
TED: One of the most challenging things was feeling that I was doing something wrong because I didn’t work with a normal routine and structure. With math problems, I just had my own way of solving them. In high school, and later at Dartmouth, I often flew by the seat of my pants. When it came to writing papers, I had most of an outline in my mind, and, when push came to shove, I sat down and wrote it. I pulled a lot of all-nighters.
TIM: As the younger brother, I looked up to Ted. I’d go along with whatever he was into, whether it was remote-control cars, rock climbing, or mountain biking. One year it was fishing, and he’d say, “Let’s get a canoe; let’s get a tackle box.” You’d never know what to expect.
KATHERINE: My husband Alan and I reacted to the situation differently. The worse Ted did in school, the angrier Alan became. I knew that Ted wasn’t failing deliberately — nor being lazy. I sensed that something else was going on.
My oldest brother had trouble in school. It turned out that he was severely dyslexic. He flunked out of high school and was not diagnosed until years later. Our struggles with Ted reminded me of my parents’ struggles with my brother, and led me to wonder: Is there some unseen condition at work here?
The stress at home was uncomfortable. Alan and I went to Susan Bogas, a family therapist. We learned that ADD can triangulate a marriage. The primary caregiver is inclined to trust and over-help the child, which further distances the other parent. Thanks to Susan’s awareness of ADD (in 1991 it wasn’t a household word!), Ted was diagnosed in eighth grade. While I was relieved, my husband and Ted thought it was baloney.
ALAN: It was difficult for me to accept the diagnosis. Katherine said, “Think about it as if he needed glasses. He’s not lazy – he just needs glasses.” After reading Driven to Distraction [by Edward M. Hallowell and John J. Ratey], I came to accept that his brain is wired differently.
KATHERINE: We started Ted on Ritalin, and his grades improved. We focused more on project management and schoolwork. But in tenth grade, Ted announced he wasn’t taking medication anymore. You can’t force a 16-year-old to do anything. He told us, “This is my business.”
In eleventh grade, he took medication only before finals and when he needed to write a paper. His grades were up and down and stayed that way through Dartmouth. He was like the classic absent-minded professor. It’s not funny when you’re living with it. At times it’s heartbreaking.
SUSAN: Ted had difficulty being motivated enough to follow his own schedule. He’d decide, in an instant, to go play golf or get food. He’d also get bogged down with details. I used rewards with him. He’d work for 90 minutes and then go get a drink. I had him choose a place to study that he would associate with getting work done.
KATHERINE: With James, we were better prepared, and his condition was more obvious. He was hyperactive from the time he was a toddler. He didn’t sleep through the night for two years. In nursery school, his impulsivity would cause him to get into fights, and he was a biter. Luckily, he had a wonderful second-grade teacher who enjoyed his uniqueness and realized he had to be in motion all the time. She accommodated him. Unlike Ted, James’s anger was hard to manage. If you gave him a time out, he’d trash the room.
SUSAN: In second grade, James was getting pretty good grades, but at home he was impossible. I helped Katherine learn to manage him. Her tendency is to negotiate, but she had to be a firm disciplinarian and give him airtight limits and positive rewards. Working as a team, she and Alan became highly structured parents.
KATHERINE: We started James on Ritalin in the second grade, so he could focus enough to do his homework. But he said it took away his “funny.” James has a wonderful sense of humor and adventure.
On the days he didn’t get his medication, the phone would ring by noon, and it would be his teacher or the principal saying that James was in trouble for something-again. Like Ted, James stopped taking medication in tenth grade. It affected his grades, but we made sure he had the tutors he needed.
JAMES: I was crazy and loud in elementary school. The medication would shut me up, but it made me feel blue. I didn’t want to take it any more-though I continued to take it during exams.
TIM: At first I didn’t buy that there was a reason James was forgetful and disorganized. When he was older, we started to have more in-depth conversations about it. I realized he was trying hard to do all these things. He hated when he forgot his lunch or when my parents had to drive stuff to school. He didn’t want to use his ADD as an excuse.
KATHERINE: Tutors, pediatricians, psychiatrists, and counselors — they were crucial to our survival. When I was overwhelmed and exhausted, I would turn to other ADHD mothers for support. We’d hold each other up.
The trick was finding a balance between making Ted and James accountable for their ADHD challenges and knowing when to support them. You also have to figure out what works for each child. With James it was art. He drew incessantly from the day he picked up a pencil. I’d carry a pen and a pad with me wherever I went.
JAMES: I was impatient. Bribery helped. If I got something done within a set period of time, I would get Legos or go to a movie. Drawing worked too. I’ve been doodling and drawing for as long as I can remember.
KATHERINE: There wasn’t only the emotional toll on the family. It was expensive, too, starting with the doctors and the professionals. We got the boys re-tested and diagnosed every three years.
Also, Alan and I believed that the best thing that we could do for our sons was to encourage anything they seemed interested in, because that was where they had focus. Ted liked sports, so in the summers we sent him white-water rafting, mountain climbing, rock climbing. Jamie went to soccer and squash camps, but especially loved the summer art programs we found for him. Children with ADHD spend a lot of time in the doghouse, so these experiences allowed the boys to master something they loved.
TED: After Dartmouth I started a career in investment banking. You had to be incredibly focused on little details. It wasn’t a good fit for me. In my current job, my boss is comfortable with the way I do my work, and I have a lot of freedom. I can work on a lot of things at the same time. I keep ideas in my head until I reach the tipping point. Then I say, “Uh-oh, time to write it all down.”
Some things won’t change. There’s always that frustration over trying to get things done. The trick, though, is being happier with the gifts of my ADHD — namely, my creativity and insightfulness.
JAMES: I’m still pretty impatient. I don’t want to hear about the problem. I just want to hear about the solution. I’ve found comfort in art, which allows me to be myself. I create the best paintings on impulse. When I nitpick over every detail, the paintings don’t turn out as well.
ALAN: Ted and James are not wired to be planners or organizers. Ted is still impulsive. He decided to come home for Father’s Day, two hours before the plane left London. That’s just who he is, and we enjoy that about him.
KATHERINE: Nowadays, I can laugh more about it. These kids are spontaneous, creative, and exciting to be around. They have a different life view and are full of ideas. ADHD presents a challenge for everybody in the household.
But it’s made our family stronger and helped Alan and me work better together. With Jamie off to college now, I want to focus on my ADHD coaching and maybe write a book about my last 25 years. I thought I’d write about being an ADHD mom — if I can find the time. There’s never a dull moment with our two sons — and we love it that way!