Will I Break My Child In the Same Places I Was Broken?
“And when I chastise him, I hear my mother. I hear my father. I hear my aunts and uncles, my grandparents. My son cannot pay attention any more than I could, and when I hear the words come out of my mouth (again), when I realize I’m saying them (again), my heart sinks. Parenting with ADHD is hard.”
I hear my mother, and it’s scaring me.
I grew up with an undiagnosed case of attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). I remember the exasperated sighs, the remonstrations, the can’t-you-justs. Now I am parenting with ADHD, with three sons who have the same disorder. One is medicated and doing great. One is very young yet and not showing the same symptoms an older child would. But one is eight, almost nine. We are working on getting him medicated, but it’s a slow process, and we want to be sure he needs it before we take the plunge.
I know he needs it.
I know he needs it because I hear the words coming out of my mouth and they scare me. They wreck me. But sometimes, with ADHD, there’s no filter, and things just pop out. It can make it harder to parent well, as those of us with adult ADHD well know. We easily fall back on old patterns. And my old patterns include the same phrases my parents used to try and normalize my own ADHD symptoms.
We went for a bike ride the other night. The bike path was crowded, and I heard myself yelling, again and again, from way behind him, “Watch out for people! Watch where you’re going!” When we got up close to him, the same word came out of my mouth, the same words my mother would say, “You need to pay attention to other people.”
My son has a disability. It centers on his very ability to pay attention. I had the same disability. And I remember wondering why, unlike everyone else, I had so much trouble negotiating where I was in relation to other people, what I was doing in relation to other people, where I was moving and how I was darting in front of and between them. How rude that was. Why couldn’t I just be like everyone else? I remember the shame.
And when my son dropped his bike in the middle of the path to look at a turtle in the river, I barked at him to pick it up without thinking. “You can’t leave your bike in the middle of the path!” I said. “Then people have to go around it! You have to think about other people!” Except he has trouble thinking about other people — the same trouble I had, especially when he’s distracted. I remember this and my heart sinks. I say that I know it’s hard and I apologize. But I know the damage is done. I know that I’ve made him feel less than. That I’ve pointed out he’s not the same as other kids.
He stops his bike, again, in the middle of a blind curve. He is looking at a moth. “You can’t do that,” I tell him. “People will run into you. You need to pay attention to where you are!” I hear my mother. I hear my father. I hear my aunts and uncles, my grandparents. My son cannot pay attention any more than I could, and when I hear the words come out of my mouth (again), when I realize I’m saying them (again), my heart sinks.
Later that night, I find Band-Aid refuse on the bathroom counter. “Who used a Band-Aid?!” I roar, because it seems no one can throw away their Band-Aid trash in this house but me. My oldest slips sheepishly into the bathroom. “Me,” he says.
“You can’t just leave trash out on the counter!” I say. “Who do you think is going to pick it up for you?”
I wait for his answer. There isn’t one.
“That’s right. Me. I am tired of picking up your things. You need to THINK!”
And in that phrase, I hear my mother again. I hear her exact words, and I close my eyes in shame. “It’s okay, buddy,” I say. “I know it’s hard to remember. But I need you to try hard, okay? Please try hard for me. It’s frustrating.”
His shoulders are sagging. “I’ll try, mama.”
“Thank you,” I say. But again, the damage is done. I am not an ally in this journey of his. I am the one telling him that he’s wrong, that he’s bad, that he’s not enough and he needs to improve in ways his brain is simply not wired to do. I am telling him that he needs to fix himself and he can’t. He just can’t.
I go into my bedroom and sob.
I cry for what I am doing to my son.
I cry for the words I said to him.
But I cry, too, for the words that were fed to me. For the words that made me always feel less than, always made me feel stupid and guilty and wrong. I cry because I felt like I could never get it right. I cry because I never knew when those words were going to come down on me, because I never knew when I was doing something wrong.
I cry because I know my son feels that way now.
And I promise I will try, as hard as I possibly can try, as hard as a mother can, to shield him from my own demons.