“I Was the Tiger Mom Who Denied My Son’s ADHD for Too Long”
In my own childhood, the stigma associated with academic failure was enormous. I feared nothing more than disappointing my parents and that led, quite predictably, to crippling anxiety. When my own son showed signs of ADHD, that anxiety kept me from helping him for far too long. Here’s how I let go of the “tiger mom” mystique and finally helped us both.
I was raised by “tiger parents” who believed that a child honors her elders by staying quiet, obeying, working hard, and accomplishing great things in life. Acceptable accomplishments included the following: amassing money, owning a large house, and lavishing relatives with expensive gifts.
Feelings were not processed, shared, or considered. They were swallowed whole — lest they interfere with life’s important pursuits: education and work.
The expectation of perfection, so common in South-Asian families like mine, was a heavy weight to carry. As a child, I felt responsible for my parents’ happiness. Fulfilling their dreams was, I thought, my obligation because they had immigrated to the United States from Nepal to give me a better life. Becoming a successful doctor was the only option, right?
So I kept moving forward with my head down, ignoring my feelings, and staying determined to repay my parents’ sacrifices.
The Cost of Being Perfect
In high school, I began feeling persistent tightness in my chest and frequently experienced shallow breathing. My mile-long list of fears and worries never left my mind. I was deathly afraid of driving — absolutely convinced I would get into a horrible car accident.
If I tried hard enough, I told myself, I could sweep those ‘small’ insecurities under the rug and live up to my family’s expectations. Revealing my weaknesses would mark me as a failure — and, worse, a disappointment. The ultimate shame. Feigning happiness and ignoring how I felt was merely the price I had to pay to make my mother and father proud.
It wasn’t until college that I realized the chest tightness, shallow breathing, and endless rumination was actually anxiety. By that point I’d suffered from it for most of my life.
Not Ready to Surrender to ADHD
Today, I’m mom to an eight-year-old boy who can’t focus, is easily distracted, and suffers from low self-esteem. For years, friends urged me to schedule an ADHD assessment with his pediatrician. Teachers echoed similar concerns. Online article after article described his worrisome behavior as ADHD.
And yet, I remained in denial.
My instinct, borne from a childhood spent sweeping my own mental health under the rug, was to pretend that my son was healthy and thriving and successful in all aspects of his life. Reaching out for help, I believed, would make me a failure. Successful parents don’t have children with ADHD, do they?
For too long, my anxiety kept me trapped in an impermeable web of worry about how ADHD would doom my son to failure. I tortured myself with self-blame:
- Was there something I did wrong? Fed him the wrong foods? Allowed him too much screen time?
- Was there something wrong with me? Did he inherit his neurological challenges from me?
- Could I teach him to bury his feelings, just as my parents had taught me?
As I tried navigating through the confusion and my escalating anxiety, my son slipped farther away. The boy who used to light up the room with a bright smile, who could find a joke in anything, who made friends with everyone, was changing.
I remember his First Grade teacher commenting, in a parent-teacher conference, about how quiet he was and his tendency to keep to himself. I was surprised since just 12 months earlier his kindergarten teacher had provided the opposite feedback. I remember feeling proud when hearing then about his bubbly personality — how he was alert and active and well-liked by his peers.
What was happening to my son? Where was his fun-loving, outgoing personality?
Was it time to accept that he needed help?
Out of the Mouths of Babes
The moment that finally shook me out of denial and into action was when he said this: “Mom, I’m quitting soccer because I’m never going to be good at sports. And I’m not good at anything else either.”
When an 8-year-old talks like that, you listen.
The writing was on the wall and this time I stopped to read it. My child was unhappy; his self-esteem had started to crumble. Finally, I was ready to face this.
I pushed my own anxiety and fears aside and saw, for the first time, that he needed help. He needed me.
After some failed attempts to get support at school, I connected with a local Facebook support group. The community willingly answered my many questions. I also met with a supportive woman at church who owned a private school and had experienced similar ADHD-related challenges with her son and grandson. I told these women I was nervous and unsure what to do, where to go, or how to help him. They listened and gave me a game plan. They laid out the specific steps I needed to take. They generously shared contact information for the right doctors and the right school personnel.
They counseled me to put my requests in writing for anything school related. Up to that point, I thought verbalizing my concerns was sufficient. But once my requests appeared on a signed, dated paper, the wheels started moving.
They also explained that many children with ADHD also suffer from learning disabilities such as auditory processing disorder or dyslexia. So I went to a highly specialized diagnostician, who thoroughly tested him for ADHD and learning disorders. Knowing that my son was being seen by the very best in the field helped calm my nerves and trust the test results.
My anxiety is still a persistent struggle, but thanks to help from a doctor, a good therapist, and anxiety meds, I’m much better. Though my anxiety is likely something I’ll manage for the rest of my life, I’m grateful I was able to work through my personal struggles to get my son the help that he needed.
Today he’s back to his old self — laughing, playing sports (baseball and soccer), reading for hours, and always finding something to smile about. We have our struggles, but we’re working through them with clear eyes and open hearts.
Updated on February 7, 2020