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“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.

[Take This Test: Sensory Processing Disorder Symptoms in Children]

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.

[Get This Free Download: Could It Be Sensory Processing Disorder?]

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.

[Read This Next: 3 Types of Sensory Disorders That Look Like ADHD]

Updated on March 31, 2020

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  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. There are many parents who are going through this and feel helpless and ready to give up. This article gives us all the courage to keep going for our kids, and know that things will get better. I have a 7 year old son and am just starting the process of finding the right meds and therapy and dealing with school and those issues. Thank you for making us feel like there is light at the end of the tunnel.

  2. I loved the ending, regardless how long the path is or how many different ways you take to find your right one, true happiness, kindness, and pure love is the best accomplishment a parent and a child can have. To this mom who wrote this post you found it and so did your amazing daughter, you inspired me and for that thank you, the up most love sent two you both💗

  3. Thank you so much for writing this article. It spoke to me and so clearly articulated my life! So similar to yours! I often feel when I talk to people they don’t fully understand or grasp the pain and suffering I had and my son had in the early years. You describe the Cheerio scenario…exactly! From the minute he awoke, just the process of getting dressed in the morning literally took three hours, multiple tantrums, and sheer exhaustion! You understand!! And of course family made me feel worse, like I was not a good parent. Your statement about feeling trapped! So on point! You capture everything in your article perfectly!! I thank you! To have someone who understands and can relate means so much to me. I am not alone. Thank you!

  4. I’m so happy you made it through, and so sorry that no one suggested OT to you until she was in 5th grade!! Readers, take heed. If your child’s behavior is reactive to sounds, lights,textures (of clothing or food), movement, etc. please find an OT to evaluate. OT may not be the silver bullet, but OTs can help you in many ways.

  5. Thank you for writing this article – I cried through the whole thing because I have been there. My 9yo son has all three as well and some days are so, so hard, especially because I know what a sweet, bright boy he is if people can only look past his struggles. Your message of hope really spoke to me. I’m so glad that OT is helping your daughter – we just found a wonderful OT as well.

  6. Thank you for this article! I cried with every paragraph you wrote like the same as other readers having gone through and still am at that situation. My beautiful, talented, smart, superhuman daughter at 19yrs old still has some moments. I felt growing up with her, going through the anger and frustration with her, fighting for her on all sides, mad at the schools and medical field for no assistance, and thoroughly daunted by every one including myself for not being able to help my girl with the struggles. I found myself becoming almost stripped bare of any feelings for anything other than to just get through the days. Basically a walking shell of a Mom. I have ADHD which added to the picture which did not help the matter. Now as she’s getting older, she has started to see how things affect her and not at her. I know I am not alone. But many doctors still don’t help and want to prescribe sedatives and walk away from it instead of actually being a doctor and assisting my girl with her situation.

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