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“‘My Brain Is an Overstuffed Garbage Can:’ What ADHD Feels Like to My Son”

“Parenting a child with ADHD is, to say the least, a humbling experience. It’s mostly been about putting aside what I think and working with my son’s brain – not against it. That alone takes a monumental amount of patience, trial and error, and an open mind.”

the bunch of crumpled paper balls in the metal rubish bin urn basket on the colorful background
Credit: Михаил Руденко via Getty Images

“My brain is an overstuffed garbage can,” my son once told me. “And the lid won’t stay on, so stuff is falling out all over the floor.”

That’s how he describes what it is like to have ADHD.

I thought I understood ADHD when he was diagnosed. By that point, I was a published academic researcher with a Ph.D. in pharmacology who studied ADHD medications. It turns out my background did not prepare me for the challenges of parenting a child with ADHD.

Contrary to prevailing perceptions about ADHD in boys, my son is not hyperactive or impulsive. He was diagnosed with inattentive ADHD, which makes him distracted, disorganized, forgetful, and emotional.

Parenting with ADHD: The Learning Curve

Despite my background, I have been guilty of forgetting that ADHD is a neurobiological disorder.

[Self-Test: Does My Child Have ADHD? Symptom Test for Kids]

I cannot count all the times I’ve said, “Why can’t you just…” to my son. “Why can’t you just clean your room/start your homework/study for your test/put away your bike?” It never occurred to me he couldn’t “just” get things done the way I could, even when he’d plainly state it.

When I asked my son to clean up his room one time, he said to  me, “Mom, why are we bothering? It’s going to stay organized for all of 10 minutes. You know me; I’m not organized.”

His problems with disorganization hit a new high in middle school, when his grades began to suffer due to all the assignments he had to keep track of. If my son couldn’t keep on top of his schoolwork now, I thought, how was he ever going to survive the rigorous course load in high school or, do I dare think about it, college?

Learning to Support My Son

Parenting a child with ADHD is, to say the least, a humbling experience. It’s mostly been about putting aside what I think and working with my son’s brain – not against it. That alone takes a monumental amount of patience, trial and error, and an open mind.

[Read: “Inattentive ADHD, According to a 12-Year-Old Boy”]

Eventually, I realized that my son was not choosing to fail his classes, be disorganized, or have uncontrollable emotional outbursts. He’s not going to sit still and study for hours at a time, like I easily did as a student. But maybe he could cut and glue pieces together for a paper airplane model while I went over a study guide with him for a test.

And I realized that I’d have to be more involved in practically all aspects of my child’s life than most parents probably are if I wanted him to thrive. It continues to this day (he’s in high school now), complete with lots of parent-teacher meetings and a multitude of emails to his instructors about his ADHD. Although most of my emails are received favorably, I know some teachers think my son is lazy and just doesn’t care. But that’s the unfortunate reality we have to face every day. As long as there’s stigma around ADHD, my most important role will be to advocate for my son, and to teach him to advocate for himself.

Trusting the Process

It’s easy to get caught up in the challenges that come with ADHD, so much so that we may miss the unique qualities that stem from it. I admire my son’s characteristics – like creative thinking and hyperfocus – that allow him to dive head-first into a project and not worry, unlike me, if it will turn out alright. He doesn’t always have to have all the answers – a valuable lesson I’ve learned from him. Sometimes you just have to let the lid fly off and see what happens.

What ADHD Feels Like: Next Steps


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