“Raising My Sensitive Child Was Hell. Here’s How We Both Survived Her SPD, Anxiety, and ADHD.”
When a Cheerio hitting the floor leads to hours of relentless screaming, you’re in a parenting hell that must be lived to be understood. But after 12 years of struggling, my daughter and I are finally learning what normal feels like — and it’s wonderful.
In the photo, taken 11 years ago, my (smiling) daughter had just turned 1. We had just emerged from a year of pure hell, though I never would have described it that way then. I would have lied. Lied because until pretty recently I believed the problem was me.
Had I known how to properly parent, I told myself, the noises, sounds, smells, food textures, clothing textures, etc. — the ordinary things that set off the countless tantrums that made our daily life hell — wouldn’t have been such terrible triggers. I called them tantrums, but looking back, they were much more than that. They were meltdowns over baths, clothes, food, sounds, naptime, bedtime, almost every daily routine and interaction.
In my desperation, I read parenting books. I prayed. I looked for hope online. Nothing worked. My daughter still would scream or cry for hours on end because a Cheerio hit the floor or a sock seam wasn’t laying right. I’d pick up the Cheerio and fix the seam… nope… more screaming.
Family was no help. They criticized me and told me not to coddle her. I felt suffocated. Trapped. Here’s what wasn’t a lie… I wanted my life, and hers, to end. Not because I didn’t love her but because I didn’t see a path for us in society.
But somehow we survived the toddler years, and at the age of 4, preschool became an option. I didn’t know how or if it would work. My emotional state was low. My weight, erratic. My thought every day was “just get through it.” When you are raising a highly sensitive child with challenging behavior you live in survival mode.
Will I get sleep tonight? An hour? Twenty minutes? How much? My husband couldn’t help, and my mom was gone — passed away when my daughter was 4 months old. His family didn’t live close but made sure to share regular reminders that a firm hand was what was needed for a strong-willed child.
Yet, I saw sweetness between the fireworks. My daughter wanted to please. She was precious until this force — whatever it was — would take over. And take over it did — daily, for hours, with no relief and no pleasing her. I did not know how to parent her, and I cried more than I care to admit. I was failing and didn’t know what to do.
My daughter’s preschool teacher — whom I adore to this day — suggested the problem: anxiety. I was confused. Yes, she clung to me. Yes, unexpected noises sent her climbing up me faster than an agile spider. But anxiety? Really?
When she turned 5, I had her tested. The preschool teacher had been on to something. Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) and ADHD. Wow. It all started to make sense. The inexplicable behavior had a cause. A name.
Medicines were next but not without soul searching. I went home and cried some more. What kind of mother puts a 5 year old on drugs? Wasn’t there another way? Therapy? “No,” said the specialist. She was too anxious for therapy alone. Too anxious to be away from me for an hour!
Treating My Sensitive Child
Okay. Here we go again. Hell. Medicine after medicine. Trying to get it right. The dose. The type. Gaining weight, irritability, her begging me to kill her because of the meds. Me begging the doctor to please just treat her anxiety, forget the ADHD.
Finally, results. The anxiety medication was helping but sounds, textures, bath time still led to meltdowns and nasty, hateful talk that drained me and caused me to sink down, down, and further down.
Years passed. We switched therapists. Went to different psychologists. Over and over. Round and round. Sleepless nights for me. Bed wetting and nightmares for her. Surviving. Holding on. Begging to die but wanting to live, to thrive.
She was bright, so bright, so sweet, and so kind to animals especially but easily — and highly — agitated. The bullying started in first grade and continued in second grade. Some teachers were caring. Many were not.
More sleep problems, bedwetting, and sinking deeper into despair.
In third grade, we decided homeschooling would be best for the relief it would provide from mean students and apathetic teachers. In fourth grade, the bullying got vicious, but there were light moments, too. My daughter loved younger children. She led her class academically. But we were both outsiders. I held my head up on the outside but inside I was full of despair. Crying for her. Crying for me.
Finally, a Turning Point for My Sensitive Child
In fifth grade, I noticed her trying to find her footing. This was new. She was actually trying to work with us instead of against us. She was desperately trying to understand what she needed to do and understood she was different. It was both heartbreaking and enlightening.
In April, after hearing about her progress and continued challenges, our family doctor suggested occupational therapy (OT). We went. I cried through the check list, which started at birth. The diagnosis, a trifecta: Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) with anxiety and ADHD.
I felt validated and frustrated. All those years spent with psychiatrists and therapists… being told “no” whenever I asked about the sensory issues I saw and lived through. No, no, no, they said. It’s just part of her ADHD.
With puberty in full swing and regular sessions of OT, things are finally starting to improve and let me tell you something: the world is radiant. The load of 12 years has lifted.
My daughter is in a new school and she’s thriving. Does she still get into trouble? Yes, but it’s minor and has only happened three times the whole school year (compared to multiple times a day, that’s a big improvement).
More importantly, she’s making friends and doing well academically, too. She joined the speech club and took first place in her first-ever meet. I cried from the back of the room watching with glee and amazement as her classmates screamed her name with excitement and belted out the school chant. My daughter was the recipient of high fives and heartfelt encouragement. It was hard to believe.
But I took it all in with pride. I watched her smile. I saw her dimples appear and her eyes glow. I cried uncontrollably, but this time they were tears of joy and they sent me running to hide in the bathroom so not to embarrass her.
A Message of Hope for Parents of Sensitive Kids
Here’s the thing: It’s not that she delivered a winning speech; it’s that, for the first time in her young life, she’s winning at life. Yes, she’s 12 and she’s sassy and forgetful and dramatic, but I’ll take it. I’ll take every minute of her moody, needing chocolate, “OMG, this boy has a crush on me and OMG Claire isn’t talking to me today” any day of the week because, when you have never had normal, sometimes normal feels like heaven.
So, as we start the New Year, I’m thanking God for lifting the burden of bad parenting. I am kinder and gentler with other moms and kiddos now, and for the first time in ages, I smile just because. My plan for 2020 is to focus on me. Moms and Dads, hold on. Your day is coming, too. This year or next year may not be your year. Heck, it may take a decade for your time to arrive, but hang in there. Life WILL get better, oh so slowly, better. And it will be worth the hell it took to get there.
Updated on March 31, 2020