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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.

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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!”

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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.

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24 Comments & Reviews

    1. Instead of criticizing the author, could you please share your knowledge and/or personal experience regarding the benefits of Neurofeedback vs. medication? Shared knowledge and personal stories are how we help each other!

    2. I think this is a great read. There is so much to be said about openness and honesty. I think that many people are critical of how we choose to raise our children. I was recently at a birthday party with my 6 year old twins. One has trouble focusing, following directions and is impulsive. I sat back and let him have a chance to engage socially with his classmates. I could see he was fidgeting and moving around some, touching all the bowling balls while waiting in line. I thought he was doing great. I sat back and didn’t sweat the small stuff. Until another mother at the party thought it was her place to tell him to stop touching the bowling balls. I went from smiling and happy watching to suddenly feeling very sad. I know I shouldn’t have let it bother me so much but it did. I have an older child
      with a diagnosis of ADHD so I am very familiar with how hard socializing can be and the worry of whether they would be accepted by their peers. . I use to try and protect my oldest child from anything
      and everything. Mostly out of my fear. Clearly this other mother is
      not raising a child like mine and just doesn’t get it. At the end of the
      day, I am happy to have my child who is creative and full of life.

    3. Because current research has had mixed results, had a small number of participants, and had design flaws. Some of the studies that showed positive outcomes had “statistically significant” results, which means that it is unlikely that the results were due to chance. Statistically significant is not the same as significant. The studiies can have very small differences between the groups being studied and still have statistically significant results. The most conclusive results available is that more research is needed. And, as has been stated, is often not covered by insurance making it cost prohibitive for many people. That would be why most people don’t turn to it.

    4. Spent my entire life as one of the “undiagnosed”. At 37 years of age, with my work performance suffering, life at home all over the place, and beginning to feel the signs of anxiety, I sought help.

      My therapist is fantastic. He listens to what I say and makes and I do mean MAKES me talk about my issues. I was prescribed Adderall and also do Neurofeedback sessions with him. I would have to say that Neurofeedback is overhyped. I find it so ineffective that I am going to request we stop doing them altogether.

      Everyone is different of course, but I don’t feel it is very helpful. Medication and being able to talk with someone who can help describe to me the proper process to wrangle my scatterbrained ways is 100x more helpful.

  1. Why is this mother not on medication? If anyone in that family needs them, she does. Why does she not help herself before she tries to help her sons? I can tell her from experience, this won’t get better until SHE gets better.

    1. As someone with ADD, my first instinct used to be criticizing others’ mistakes or shortcomings….my own defense mechanism.
      It took many years of failure, trial/error, research, and self-reflection to become the person and parent I am today. Please share your story, empathy and compassion with fellow readers of ADDitude. We can change the our world for the better by offering others a hand up instead of a slap down!

  2. This article struck a cord with me! I’ve been feeling the same way for the past few years. My children (girl age 11 and son age 9) have ADD and I was diagnosed as an adult. Honestly, we were all diagnosed within 2 years of each other 🙂
    During the past few years, I’ve researched ADD/ADHD, spoken to a number of medical professionals including a personal therapist (less than 6 months) and spend a lot of time self-reflecting. Being a parent is HARD…..being a parent with ADD/ADHD is even HARDER!!!! I’ve found that admitting when I’m wrong and showing my kids that I’m accountable for my actions has been very helpful. Also, I no longer feel like an out of control tyrant who’s holding everyone else to a higher standard. I am not always right, loose my temper, forget things (buying milk or bread…grrr!), and fail often. With that said, I try to learn from the mistakes, take responsibility for my actions, am ok (sometimes) not being perfect, and tell myself I’m enough (and so are my kids) despite my imperfections. So simple to say to others (especially outside of my immediate family) yet so hard to do for my kids, husband, and especially myself.

    I highly recommend reading/listening to the following book (I listen to the audio-book and read at the same time because it’s the best way for my brain to retain information). Both the first and second editions are good; I recommend the second edition because it was revised to update content on organization using technology and the dealing with the dangers of the time-sucking internet! I first got the audio-book through my local library’s online audio-book share program; free and life-changing 🙂

    ADD-Friendly Ways to Organize Your Life Second Edition: Strategies That Work from an Acclaimed Professional Organizer and a Renowned ADD Clinician
    By Judith Kolberg and Kathleen G. Nadeau, Ph.D.

    Remember to hug and love your inner child the same as you are trying to hug/love your own children. Letting my inner child off the hook now and again has been surprisingly helpful 🙂

    1. Amazing response!!! Much more complete than mine but in the same sync. I noticed we were writing at the same time. That part of being ‘enough’ me and them is such a critical piece that I’m working on. 🙂

  3. Thank you for sharing your struggles, I’m on a similar boat. I admire your courage to put it into words and for sharing it out and wide. I’ve been doing a lot of personal work, it’s an every day battle with myself to try and be more compassionate and understanding. I keep reminding myself what Dr. Ross Green says “kids do well if they can” it’s not that she doesn’t want to. Give yourself some love and compassion, you are doing the best you can. I’ve read that every time we notice what we’ve done wrong and offer a sincere apology, we are modelling to them that we are also human, how to make amends and that’s a good example for them as well. Just with that you are changing his experience from yours. I also do meditation, exercise, I pay attention to things that trigger me and carve little moments to calm myself. I don’t have a magic recipe, but I share the journey with you and we need to support and encourage each other.

    To the first commentators, let’s be more compassionate and kind. Please be careful when you offer a comment.

  4. This was literally just me an hour ago losing it with my boys over taking the dogs out. I’m medicated but have to give my body a break on the weekends because I’m not eating when I am on meds, but I notice how much less control I have off meds.

  5. I don’t feel like she’s a bad mom for reminding her kids to be mindful of others. These skills take time to develop, even longer for ADHD kids, but that doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t try to teach them. I struggle with the same issues, as an ADHD mom of 3 ADHD boys, and I feel like if I don’t tell my kids bluntly how important it is to have respect for other people’s space, property, etc. they will be punished even more harshly by peers in school. I know yelling, nagging and everything we do that makes them feel ashamed are not the way, and but giving up is also not an option.

  6. While I don’t have a child with ADD or ADHD, I have a 10 year old who has been told “he almost is ADD/ADHD/sensory sensitive/etc.” and can relate to how the words that exit my mouth affect him. It’s almost like watching my words travel to him, wishing I could pull them back. Great post.

  7. I have a few suggestions. They are in no particular order.

    Consider ADHD medications for yourself – in addition to or instead of anxiety medication. If you do, start it on a day when another adult can watch for negative side effects. Irritability/anger can be an indication that a Med is wrong for you. Case in point – my oldest was 9 when she was diagnosed and pu on meds. I waited until the weekend to try her on meds so that I could see how the affected her. Saturday, she was irritable, but not enough for me to be sure it was the med. Sunday, she lost her temper and hit me. She’s 24 now. That is the ONLY time she has ever struck me in anger. Knowing it was the medication, I calmly sent her to her room. The med we tried the following weekend had much better results. She is much more patient with her younger sister on it.

    Learn to forgive yourself.

    Be candid with your sons about the fact that your ADD makes it harder for you to be patient, but you are trying really hard to be.

    Try mindfulness meditation. It’s different from other types of meditation – and ADHD friendly. The research is promising, but i’m struggling to practice it regularly.

    Try Evening Primrose Oil. I started taking it for menstrual cramps, but because I couldn’t remember to start taking it a week before my period, and my cycle varied by as much as a week, I take it every day. The recommended dose is one three times meds a day, I take one twice a day. Within a few months, my husband was no longer able to track my cycle based on my PMS, because the irritability associated with it was gone. My mood and temper were much more stable. And it helped with my anxiety.

  8. I’m confused. I don’t feel like she was shaming. At least not by the words she was speaking. Maybe more the way she said it? I feel she was just instructing him on the realities of life. My husband does the shaming thing. Telling my son things like “How hard can it be to close the refrigerator door. You’re just lazy.” But saying things like “think about what you are doing” does not seem like shaming to me. This article makes my niceness seem mean. I feel shamed now. Haha.

  9. I love how candid you are about your journey and your own struggles. As a mom of an ADHD kid, the bike path scenario in particular is so familiar! I’m also always telling my son ‘watch out for people!’ when we see them, but as soon as the people pass I compliment him on the way he moved over and used his body safely. I have not been diagnosed with ADHD myself, but I did go through some pretty horrendous stuff growing up in my family. So I do understand certain words or phrases popping out of your mouth sometimes even though you remember how much they hurt you as a kid. It’s just the way you got programmed because that’s what you were taught as a kid, not that you are a bad person. The fact that you recognize there’s a better way and are trying tells me that you can change that programming with practice and you ARE a good mom! You realize the words aren’t helpful, and you understand your sons’ condition. That’s way more than you got as a kid, how lucky for your children is that?

    If you do say something you didn’t intend to, I think your kids are old enough to say to them “You know what? I’ve thought about what I said and I think I could have handled that better. Because of my ADHD I tend to say things without thinking them through sometimes. It’s one of the things that I’m working on. Just like you are working on XYZ.” Boom, you put yourself back into their boat. Not only that, they see that you also make mistakes, and that it is okay to make a mistake and admit you were wrong. Rather than just feeling shame, you can feel reconnection and a bond that is strengthened because you have reminded yourself and them that you are all in the same boat and you are all a work in progress.

  10. I almost forgot – you and your sons can brainstorm ways to remind yourselves to do things like throwing away bandaid refuse. Maybe a note or drawing attached to the outside of the box, where it’s somewhat in the way.

    Some of the things we do in my house iare below:
    Swe’ll put oven safe things that we’ve washed in the oven to dry, or my husband will put the pizza pan back in the oven while the pan is hot. We have a sign that says “NO” on it taped to our stove/oven controls at the back of the stove. Usually, the sing is flipped up on the top of the control panel, out of the way. If there is an empty pan in the oven, we flip the sign down so that it cover the controls to turn on the oven. We have to move it to turn on the oven, which reminds (most of the time) us to check the oven.

    I used to be bad about getting the last roll of toilet paper from under the bathroom sink and not getting a new packe from the laundry room. So now I carry the empty plastic wrapper with me until I get out the new package. If I stop and throw it away in the kitchen, well I’ve just thrown out some random trash, my mind is off somewhere else and I will totally forget about the toilet paper I’m supposed to be getting.

  11. I was like that and hated myself and felt so ashamed for it.

    What really helped was talk therapy (gestalt psychotherapist) to deal with feelings related to childhood comments, and medication for ADHD. And lots of reading up on ADHD, and parenting

    I’m not saying I don’t have my moments but understanding and owning what was said to me as a child and how it made me feel helped me empathise more with my sons. ADHD medication gave me calm and ‘breaks’ needed to change my comment into a more proactive one and made me less irritable.

  12. Thank you to the person who posted self-help resources. I feel for the author, and I wanted to hear that she found a way to turn it around. Having strategies is helpful, so that’s what I’m looking for. With my son who is 17 and developed ADD later, I try to have him tell things back to me before we begin, so he starts to process things. When I see a prior ADD experience coming up, I try to talk him through things by asking questions: what might help you notice when you are starting to do x? Remember the last time we went for a bike ride? Do you remember when people got upset with you? What was that about? How did the t make you feel? How did it make them feel? How could you avoid that from happening again? I’m not a therapist, so it might be all wrong. I’m a teacher, and that’s what I would do in my classroom. Ultimately, my son has to survive without making everyone else adapt to him.

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