“Your voice, it chased away all the sanity in me”
– Evanescence, “My Immortal”
I wish I could convey the hopelessness and humiliation of walking into the room to face a person who treats you like a behind schedule construction project. If you know, you know. Having one’s “issues” monitored and managed by others can be an excruciating experience for a young person still forming their sense of self-worth, yet it is all too familiar to those of us with ADHD (or any other learning difficulty or mental health challenge).
Willpower cannot override ADHD. No amount of rigid structure, calendars, timers, reminders, discipline, consequences, and strict parenting can make your child’s brain neurotypical. Therefore, they will never act neurotypical. Even medication, as wonderfully effective as it can be, does not completely neutralize it. It helps improve focus and minimize distraction, but there are a host of other issues that it doesn’t really have the power to touch. We have the power to choose a lot of things in this life, but the brain we were born with is not one of them. Don’t hold your child accountable for something they can’t change any more than they can change their body’s need for sleep. It’s cruel to punish someone for not jumping high enough to reach a bar that was always set just out of reach.
Cutting out external distraction is useless, because the distraction comes from the inside. Stimulation is not the enemy for us, it is our friend. We run on an eternal stimulation deficit. When I started the first draft of this article months ago, I had 80’s hits blasting in my headphones so that I could focus. Slower music (Hozier, since you ask) came on and I had to immediately change it, or I would have slowed down to his pace and started feeling my feelings, and then I would have gotten stuck (“hyper focus” is the commonly accepted clinical term, but “stuck” is what we all say) for a couple of hours. In our heads, the rubber only hits the road when when our brain is vibrating at a higher frequency, if you will. If we spin our wheels a lot, it’s because we operate in a different gear – ADHD is best understood as an interest-based nervous system.
(I’ve used a boy’s image for this article, but please remember that girls are very under diagnosed due to different symptoms and not fitting the outdated stereotype of bouncing off the walls. The hyperactivity and impulsivity aspects of ADHD are more frequently absent in girls, leaving an inattention component that can be pretty non-obtrusive on the outside.)
If I could give parents one tip, it would be this: let students study/manage their life the way that works best for THEM, not the way that works best for YOU. Your kid has tried it your way. You think they didn’t, because it didn’t work. It always works, for everyone, as long as you try hard enough, right? Nope. In this case, throw the rulebook out the window. The only “right” way to learn, study, live, and get things down is the way that is most effective for them.
Think outside the box; there’s no moral virtue or brownie points for studying at a table instead of a sofa. (Or suspended from a trapeze or while running a marathon, if that’s what works!) If how-to videos online work better than reading the instructions, then hurrah and hallelujah – that’s why someone made them in the first place. You’re not responsible for raising a clone of yourself. The world’s great geniuses, and any highly successful person (many of whom have AHDH), got results precisely because they focused on results instead of one particular lockstep path to get there. Don’t bang either your head or your child’s head against a brick wall if something clearly isn’t working. Work with the grain of their nature, not against it. Oh, and pick waaaaaaay fewer battles. As they’re saying on the internet these days, that’s still too many battles. Put some battles back. Nope, still too many battles.
Children, teens, and college students with ADHD struggle mightily with issues like time management, organization, remembering to complete tasks, losing things, and other general life skills that may seem easy and straightforward to others. Because of this, even the sweetest, most eager-to-please children end up receiving more than their fair share of anger, disappointment and discipline from their parents, teachers, other authority figures, and even peers.
If you insist on trying to change them at a fundamental level, you will torpedo their self-esteem and your relationship with them, both now and in the future. If you harp on them and make a big deal about their issues, with constant criticism, they will first hate themselves, and then you, or both. I can personally assure you those are your options. Hopefully your child is well-adjusted enough to show love and forgiveness moving forward (good news: she or he very likely is).
If you choose to be authoritarian, unreasonable, or unsympathetic, your child’s spirit is in for the fight of its life. They’ll either be crying, thinking “What IS my problem? Why CAN’T I get it together?” or they’ll have an epiphany one day. They’ll look at you with a sudden distaste and it will all click. In a rush of compassion for themselves, a piece of them will snap and mentally stand up to you, and they’ll think, “What is YOUR problem? How do you not see that what you’re doing is not working? Why are you so delusional, so obsessed with control and with changing me, to think that your efforts are doing any good? BACK. OFF.”
It hurts. Please stop.
Contrary to popular opinion, rigid, militaristic outward structure doesn’t always compensate for our inner make-up. That’s a controlling viewpoint to adopt – we/I must be for you what you cannot be for yourself, until and only until you start doing it for yourself. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way. (Please see the entire section where none of this is optional?!?) Keep the micromanaging to a minimum, and for goodness sake, guests are NOT going in your child’s messy bedroom! We don’t like controlling behavior any more than anyone else does; remember that this is a relationship, not boot camp.
Please, on behalf of every distraught child crying into a pillow, staring out of a window, or finding a questionable coping mechanism, no more. No more of the repeated lectures, browbeating, and stormy, tearful scenes. Enough is enough. I shudder to think of the storm of consequences that rains down on the heads of children who cannot fit into others’ molds. I really do fear that the (extremely understandable) frustration of their caregivers is at a higher risk of crossing over into borderline or fully abusive behavior, based on my own limited observations and experience.
Don’t think that the rebellious, hardened, “wild” ones don’t notice or feel the disappointment and disgust from those closest to them. They do notice how others perceive them, and that’s part of the reason for some of their more over-the-top, ungovernable emotions. (Difficulty regulating emotions is a fairly common but rarely talked about symptom of ADHD.) The quiet, sensitive ones will suffer from even a few harsh words; they are already hard enough on themselves on the inside. Up to 50% of people with ADHD also struggle with some form of anxiety, including rejection sensitivity dysphoria. I won’t even mention the high co-morbidity rates of having other learning disabilities.
Be your child’s safe haven and biggest friend, cheerleader, and supporter. When your child struggles, do you want them to hear your angry, condemning, disappointed voice in their head? Or do you want them to hear a voice saying, “It’s okay, no big deal, I love you and I believe in you; you can get through this”? Progress, not perfection, is key. Model this. Make sure your child knows to aim for progress, because she or he probably already knows damn well that perfection is out of reach.
We already deal with so much frustration and shame over these issues. You really don’t need to add more. It may seem like we don’t care, or that we don’t understand how our space-cadet tendencies are problematic, but believe me, we know. And we do care. We just can’t do anything about it, whether or not you believe it. We learn quick how to care less about this stuff. Perhaps you could learn too.
I’m here on this earth for a short time, so I intend to work around my issues instead of wasting my time pointlessly , impossibly trying to become a copy of someone else. And on those days when organization, planning, or productivity doesn’t happen?
I smile, look around me, and enjoy this beautiful thing called life. It’s worth living, to the fullest. We all deserve this. As a matter of fact, would you like to come along for the ride? We can show you things you’ve never dreamed of.
Yes, there were times
I’m sure you knew
When I bit off, more than I could chew
But through it all, when there was doubt
I ate it up and spit it out
I faced it all, and I stood tall
And did it my way
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows, I took the blows
And did it my way
Yes, it was my way
“My Way”, Frank Sinatra
Songwriters: Paul Anka / Claude Francois / Jacques Revaux / Gilles Thibault