The Purple Notebook

My ADHD child’s ADHD behavior problems improved once I stopped holding my breath and seeing him as a ‘diagnosis’ rather than a little boy.

Purple notebook where mother used to keep record of child's behavior before ADHD diagnosis
Purple notebook where mother used to keep record of child's behavior before ADHD diagnosis

I was cleaning out my office the other day when I found the purple notebook beneath a pile of papers. My heart skipped a beat as I remembered the time when that notebook was a daily part of my life.

When my son, Jake, now seven, started preschool, problems started along with him.

I got daily phone calls reporting his bad behavior.

Invitations to other kids’ birthday parties routinely “got lost in the mail,” and no one, it seemed, was ever available for a play date.

At first, I blamed everyone else. The teachers were incompetent, the mothers cliquey. Sometimes, of course, mail really does get lost. But in my heart, I knew there was something else to it. So I bought the purple notebook and began to keep a daily record of Jake’s behavior. My goal was to figure out if certain times of the day or certain situations made it worse.

[Free Resource: Friendship Guide for Kids with ADHD]

Waiting and writing

I had a lot to write about. I spent each day waiting for the latest incident to be reported, and then I wrote it down: Jake hit someone on the playground. Jake wouldn’t share. Jake refused to listen to instructions. Each time the phone rang, my heart would start to pound.

My husband and I tried every discipline strategy we came across. When nothing seemed to work, we started blaming each other. The atmosphere at home became increasingly tense as we waited to see what Jake would do next – and argued over how to handle the situation. As he got bigger and stronger, it became impossible simply to remove him from a situation and re-direct him. My daughter’s friends were scared to come over.

I quickly found out who my own “friends” were. One suggested that I lock Jake in his room and let him out only for 15 minutes at a time. If he behaved, I was to let him out for another 15. Jail my four-year-old? I didn’t think so. Other friends stopped inviting us to their homes and including us in social plans.

Whenever the subject of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) came up, I discarded the notion. I convinced myself that Jake couldn’t have ADHD because he could focus and, at times, exhibit self-control. Of course, by this point he had developed quite a reputation; his social life was virtually nonexistent, and his sister’s was ailing. Things were headed in the wrong direction. But if it wasn’t ADHD, what the heck was it?

We took Jake to a variety of professionals, who diagnosed him as having everything from a mood disorder to sensory issues. One suggested that my husband and I take a parenting course and establish firm rules. (Ha! You come over to my house and establish firm rules.) If the professionals couldn’t agree, what was I to do? I didn’t want to make him a guinea pig and throw medicine and discipline at him to see what worked. I wanted a diagnosis. A label. Something to explain what was going on. Something that would tell the world I wasn’t a bad mother.

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have ADHD?]

Fear of the known

Finally, we found a doctor who was able to help us. He told us that Jake had “major” ADHD. I was relieved and sad at the same time. I sank into a deep depression. I would drive him to kindergarten, and then come home and spend the afternoon crying, mourning the loss of what I thought he was and what he could be.

Then I made a big mistake: I began to see Jake as a diagnosis rather than as a unique little boy with strengths and weaknesses. I became obsessive about finding out everything I could about ADHD. I lived and breathed the disorder. I attributed just about everything he did to his “issues.” I kept him on a tight leash. He wasn’t Jake anymore. He was “Jake with ADHD.”

Once my husband and I decided to put him on medication, our life quickly took a turn for the better. I still held my breath when we were in restaurants or with friends, but most of the time nothing happened. Slowly, he began to get positive feedback from his teachers and from other parents. One or two kids called for a play date.

But while others were seeing positive changes, I was still anxious all the time. In hindsight, I think I made the situation worse. I expected him to be bad, and he didn’t disappoint me. Gradually, I started believing in him, and he started believing in himself – and his behavior improved. Weeks went by without incident. I no longer felt the need to write down all his transgressions.

And when I rediscovered the purple notebook the other day, I didn’t open it. Instead, I tossed it into the recycling container and took that out to the curb. Now, when Jake goes on a play date or to a birthday party, I don’t hold my breath, waiting for the tense phone call. When he is down the street playing, I am no longer one step behind him. His teachers tell me he is kind and helpful.

I wish I could say that life is perfect now, and that we never have problems. But I know that, even without ADHD, there are no fairy-tale endings. We still have tough times. But now I know that Jake is simply Jake. ADHD is a part of him, but not what defines him.

[Accept Them. Support Them. Have Their Backs.]