What It’s Really Like to Have a Child With ADHD

What It's Really Like to Have a Child With ADHD
Dr. Zoe Shaw, A Year of Self-Care

I ran inside before the car even pulled away from the curb. Letting them see me cry was not an option. Whether they could tell by my anxious pace or the slope of my shoulders, I’m not sure.

But I needed the space, the separation, to cry. Really cry.

Looks Can Be Deceiving

I am a tangled mess of emotions. I felt like a failure, my nerves frayed, and my ego constantly bruised. I needed the space to let it all out, in choking heaps of sobs. I needed to grieve the “normal life” and “normal child” fantasy that has been slowly eroding for 12 long years.

My son looks “normal” on the outside. He’s very good-looking. He dresses nicely. There is nothing that would tell people of his struggles or show the world that all is not well, yet I promise you that it is not.

Mothers often joke, with loving affection, calling their sweet kids “handfuls” and wearing graphic t-shirts calling themselves “Chaos Coordinators.” I would never show how much this hurts or how much I want to scream, “You have no idea!” But I don’t. While we appear to be the normal family with the triple blessing of three beautiful children, what is hidden right under the surface to all but the closest of the close in our lives is that we’re all slowly dying inside. Because my son is more than just a “handful,” and our “chaos” is something I’m completely unable to coordinate. To admit that we have no control over our growing son, to give a glimpse into how we live and struggle daily, is way too embarrassing and hard. Because ADHD is no joke. And ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder) is slowly ripping us all apart.

To admit that we have no control over our growing son, to give a glimpse into how we live and struggle daily is way too embarrassing and hard. Because ADHD is no joke. And ODD is slowly ripping us all apart.

There is no peace in my household. None. Everything is a constant battle. Before I had other children, yes, even when he was a baby, I knew no different. Mothers say, “Oh, my baby doesn’t sleep well,” as they lovingly gaze at their dozing babies, and I would laugh to myself because “sleep” and my child never met or made friends. I had no idea the motion and noise and activity and frenzy that was a constant from my baby was not ordinary. It wasn’t until my second son was born that I realized babies don’t constantly move, and yes, they do in fact, sleep sometimes. They don’t always cry, and sometimes they even like to be held close and cuddled.

I didn’t know any different.

Fast forward 12 years, and parenting this child runs our life. We struggle daily; let me repeat, there is no peace in my household. After years of counseling and medication, he has learned to manage at school, yes with classroom modifications and accommodations, but he seems to be well-liked and academically successful.

But when he comes home, and he’s here in this safe space, he lets loose, and we all pay.

This Is What It Really Looks Like

There is no sleep. Never. He roams the house, stealing electronics that we try to lock up safely (yet he learned to pick a lock at two, so it seems humorous for us even to try). He steals food, his siblings’ things, phones, and anything else he can get his hands on. We try to stay ahead of it but are completely exhausted and unable to do so, and things fall through the cracks. And there is no trust, no boundary he won’t cross, and nothing off-limits to him, no matter how hard we try.

He tortures his siblings. Tortures. “Brothers fight” and “boys will be boys,” yet I know what goes on in our house is not normal. I cannot protect my other children from him as much as I know I should. I’m incapable and it’s scary. His brother, just 18 months younger, has taken to fighting back and hard. He’s normally mild and easy-going, but he has anger and rage against a brother who has used him as a personal punching bag for years.  I can’t stop them once they start and feel completely helpless when they do.

We struggle daily; let me repeat, there is no peace in my household.

His sister, who worships the ground he walks on, hides when the chaos starts. She begs him to stay when he threatens to run away (which happens at least once a week). She cries, and she writes him notes telling him how much she loves him, as if her love can save him, save the day. And he is as mean to her as he possibly can be, going for the jugular every chance he can get.

There is no normal. We cannot go out to dinner without a scene unless it’s his restaurant and his choice. He will throw a fit, refuse to eat, and embarrass us. My husband and I have just stopped. We’ve stopped trying. Family trips are, without fail, ruined. With nothing being good enough, no family outing was approved. We divide and conquer more than we care to, and most often, one of us ends up sitting in the hotel room a lot more than should ever be allowed on a “vacation.”

Our marriage has suffered immensely. We try to work together, and we try to work it out, but it’s a constant challenge when everything is about trying to “fix” your child. We worked through years of blaming each other, of differing ideas of what was wrong and how to fix it, of mutual guilt over what made this happen, and of where we went wrong. We’re stronger now, but still, parenting this child dominates our lives and our conversations. My husband resents him. He’s mad. He feels that it’s unfair to our other children, and he feels helpless to protect our son from himself or us from him. It’s a vicious circle.

I’ll Always Fight for Him, Even When We’re Not Normal

Yet, all in all, I love him. I’m his biggest champion and will go to the ends of the earth to fight for him. I’ve tried counselor after counselor after counselor and fought with schools, teachers, and coaches. I watch as the vicious cycle takes a toll on his mind and his sense of self, and he struggles with feelings of self-worth and will never, I’m afraid, ever see himself as anything other than “the bad kid who is always in trouble.” So, I try to moderate and work with him and pick my battles. But then my other children wonder why he doesn’t have as many consequences as they do for the same infractions, and I can’t find the words to explain that he’s been in trouble for the majority of his life on this earth already and if I punished him again it would be redundant and completely ineffective. So they resent him and resent me for protecting him.

And it breaks me.

Yet, all in all, I love him. I’m his biggest champion and will go to the ends of the earth to fight for him.

Teachers say, “There are no bad kids,” and it seems universally accepted that troubled kids are the result of troubled homes, but I wonder what the heck we did wrong. I put the blame squarely on my shoulders but can’t figure out how I have two other kids who are kind and nice and seem to be able to adjust in ways he can’t. It rips at our family, and it rips at our hearts, and we feel hopeless and isolated because no one sees how hard it is.

Family get-togethers put us on edge, and we’re always on the alert, as history has taught us that no space or place or gathering is immune from a “moment.” We’ve been embarrassed and judged and felt helpless more times than I would ever admit.

And even during breaks like I have today, as I watch all of my children pile into my mother-in-law’s car and drive away for the evening, I still feel on edge. I cried as I chased him around the house, trying to get him ready, with teeth gritted in that “I’m not yelling” yell mothers are famous for when they don’t want to be judged for losing their tempers. Praying I won’t lose it in front of my mother-in-law so she doesn’t see just how rough it has been. Praying that he would stop chasing his sister and locking her in rooms, praying that he could just hold it together for one night so my husband and I could have a much-needed break.

What the Mom Without Peace Really Needs

There is no peace in our daily lives.

I am that mother. I am the one you see in Target with a tantruming toddler. I am the one called into the principal’s office yet again. I’m the one with “that kid,” and I promise you, it was never in my plan to be here. He is loved and cared for and treated the same as all of my others; he’s just hard. And our lives are hard. And it exhausts me and breaks me on the daily.

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What I don’t need, I promise you, is friendly advice in the checkout line about how to handle my child. What I don’t need is rolled eyes and judgment so strong I can feel it coming off of you. I don’t need you to understand or walk a moment in my shoes. And I certainly don’t need you to step in and try to teach my already-spinning child a lesson in public.

What I do need is a caring smile. A kind word. It is the struggle of my life to be “that mom.” I promise you I don’t want to be here, like this, my chaos exposed to the world. So, if you see it, give me grace. Give my son grace, even when he is acting like a monster and doesn’t seem to deserve it. Grace is the balm to this weary mom’s heart and the one thing I need in the silence of this moment. The space to grieve the #momlife I don’t talk about in public.

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