“I Can’t Do This, Dad!”
The heartbreak one dad feels on seeing his daughter blame herself for academic challenges she faces due to dyslexia and ADHD.
“And you can’t win against them no matter how hard you try, because they’ve got all the breaks and even whipping them isn’t going to change that fact.”
– S.E. Hinton, The Outsiders
Picking up from my last post about reading, writing, and communicating creatively with ADHD where I meant to talk about my 7th-grade daughter’s Social Studies meltdown and instead went off on a tangent about my own 7th-grade Social Studies difficulties. Being ADHD and keenly self-absorbed, I tend to wander off on paths that usually wind up circling my navel.
So, my apologies, and on to my daughter’s night of homework hell. Now, besides ADHD, my daughter, Coco, also has to deal with other learning disabilities like pretty severe dyslexia and some comorbid memory issues that are similar to mine. Consequently, for years it seemed as though she’d never be able to read or write. In second grade she still couldn’t recognize letters. It was a daily frustrating and heart breaking struggle for her as she worked at it at home with us, in school with her teachers, and after school with tutors. There were days where she’d seem to get it – recognize letters and words and how sentences worked, and then the next day it’d be gone again.
“I can’t do this! I can’t! I’m too stupid,” she’d cry, imprisoned by the constant defeat. Each time we’d continue the patient encouragement, always reassuring her that she wasn’t stupid at all. We told her that soon she’d be able to understand, though we too were beginning to lose faith that that day would ever come.
Then, when she was eleven years-old, Coco somehow put it all together, and seemingly overnight, made a startling breakthrough in reading and writing. Of course it wasn’t overnight. Breaking through this barrier was the cumulative result of the years of her hard work combined with the mystery of the growing adolescent brain. Now, at thirteen, she writes for school assignments, and also writes stories about her life. She’s also able to read at school above her grade level and also reads like crazy for enjoyment – going through books from the whole Twilight vampire series to the juvenile delinquent classic, The Outsiders to the death and disaster-filled The History of Shipwrecks. She likes her reading enjoyment with a little edge.
But the point is that Coco had worked hard and had busted through a huge barrier not only in reading and writing, but also a barrier of defeat that had held her confidence and hope hostage to an unrelenting internal judge constantly denigrating her self-image. She broke that pattern when she accomplished what had for so long seemed impossible, and she reawakened her natural curiosity and openness as well.
Then came the end of this semester. Despite our help and her dedication to checking her planner during the semester, Coco had lost or not completed overdue homework in Math, English, and Science. But she buckled down in the last couple of weeks, went to study hall and managed to get it all turned in.
Then at the end of the last week of school, the night before the last Social Studies class it hits her that she’s completely spaced her final project and class presentation on the history of Norfolk Island that’s due tomorrow and she hasn’t even started it. And she’s supposed to do as a PowerPoint presentation in front of the whole class and then it also hits her that, despite what she’s told her teacher, she doesn’t have the first idea how to make a PowerPoint presentation.
Now, unlike me and my 7th Grade Social Studies teacher, Coco loves her Social Studies teacher, but paradoxically that only makes things worse.
“She’ll hate me!” she yells, tears welling, “I can’t do this! I can’t! I’m too stupid! Everybody knows I’m stupid. She’ll hate me and give me an F!”
When my wife, Margaret, tries to help her, Coco lashes out, throwing her planner down, “Leave me alone, you don’t know anything. I can’t do this – it’s impossible!”
Everybody, and certainly every junior high school kid, has faced a similar landscape of possible defeat.
But sometimes my daughter and the other kids with ADHD and comorbid learning disabilities face that landscape knowing that no matter what they accomplish there are so many land mines of demoralizing surprises ahead of them that defeat and failure seem preordained. They get worn down with the immense effort it takes to do what they expect of themselves, that when an ADHD perfect storm of missed assignments, overdue work, broken promises, and looming deadlines hits them they call themselves stupid and lazy and worse before anyone else can. And then they fall back inside the barriers they’ve worked so hard to break down, and are once again trapped – but protected inside their low expectations.
These are the times that try kids’ souls.
Updated on June 1, 2021