Confessions of a Guilt-Stricken Mom: Loving My ADHD Son
It’s taken me five years to muster up the emotional courage to tell this story. Most people describe me as a hard-charger, as she-who-knows no fear. But I am scared of something – to face my feelings, about the missed opportunities to help my ADHD son Clark and the times others have scarred (or helped) him. You won’t find my trademark wit in this blog; here, you will see a mother’s guilt.
The yoke of parental guilt weighs heavy upon me. Flash back to kindergarten, day two.
School: Your son is reading the Harry Potter books. He’s quite a bit ahead of the other students.
Us, proudly: Yes, he loves to read. He reads aloud to us at bedtime now.
School: We don’t think we can keep him interested and engaged in the kindergarten curriculum. We’re afraid that school will become a negative experience for him, especially if in his boredom he causes a distraction for the other students.
Us: [HUH, blank stares]
School: We’d like you to consider moving him directly to first grade. The teachers will work with him to make sure he doesn’t miss any building blocks.
Us: He’s our first child. We had wanted him to be at least as old as his classmates. He seems a bit immature to us. You are the ones with all the experience in education, though. If you really think so…
Clark attended a school with only 500 kids from pre-k through 12, which seemed an ideal environment, if there was one, for him to skip a grade. We fretted, worrying about his middle school years, but ultimately decided to move him forward. As a result of this momentous decision, our son, who would have been almost the oldest in his grade, became the youngest.
Out of an abundance of caution, I scaled back on my work as a human resources consultant and volunteered in his classroom two days a week. First grade didn’t go so bad, but we began to notice differences between Clark and the other kids which hadn’t been apparent to us before he started school.
- Clark moved 2-3 appendages at all times, although he did not leave his seat and usually did not disrupt others
- He was easily put off task
- He seemed even more disorganized than the other kids
- He had a lot of trouble following sequential sets of instructions
- And he either did not remember or did not tell the truth about homework, although we were able to double check against the reminders sent home by the teacher
In short, Clark displayed behavior remarkable in its similarity to other first grade boys, yet more pronounced. We called this type of behavior “lunchy” in our family, short for “out to lunch.” Clark’s dad was the king of lunchiness, and Clark came by his traits in a genetically and possibly even environmentally predictable manner.
Had Clark not been our first child, we might have noticed his other developmental differences more clearly. He had some odd mannerisms. For instance, he constantly waggled his left hand. In some of my more honest and middle-of-the-night-terrors-type of moments, I wondered if he was autistic. But we didn’t have experience or other children to compare him to, so he was simply our son. His quick annual visits to his pediatrician revealed nothing more than a needle phobia. No one else thought he was anything but cute, or, if they did, they didn’t share it with us. We looked for the ways in which he was normal, not the ways in which he was not.
First grade became second.
Clark’s difficulties became more pronounced. From a sheer brain power and creativity perspective, he soared. But he now regularly lied to us about schoolwork and chores. Still, everyone kept giving him a thumbs-up. I wondered where I was failing as a parent that he was so untruthful, but I was reassured by, again, a pediatrician, that lying was an expected developmental stage, and age-appropriate.
Second grade became third. Boy, we were really struggling now. And we had his younger sister Samantha to compare to. As first graders, their differences were stark. Could it just be gender? Clark’s wonderful third grade teacher at our small private school in the U.S. Virgin Islands reassured me: “Clark will be fine. He’ll have a fabulous secretary some day and run rings around all of us.”
Third grade became fourth. Another wonderful teacher. She assured me Clark was an angel, brilliant, and well worth her small doses of additional effort. She noted that all she had to do to keep Clark with her was pass by him in the aisle as she commenced speaking, and gently touch him on the shoulder and say his name.
At home, meanwhile, we were strategizing daily on how to motivate him to tell the truth and do his assignments, in and out of class. We tried positive incentives. I created a beautiful, simple game board on a poster that hung on his wall. For each day he told no lies and did his work, he got to move forward a space. For each day he lied or failed to do his assignments, he moved back two. Rewards abounded on the spaces, easily attainable for the “normal” child. In fact, his second grade sister demanded with a pout that she get a game board too. She cleaned up. Clark moved backwards. We tried punishments. We tried prayer. I cried, and worried.
And then we came to fifth grade. Up until now, compassionate teachers had smoothed our path, teachers who loved their students and wanted the best for them. In fifth grade, we were not so lucky. Most of the year I have blacked out from my memory banks as the darkest pit of hell. Clark seems to have blacked it out as as well and even did so at the time – he became noticeably more anxious and “down” over the course of the year.
One event sums it up for me, as the culmination of the ineffective and unjust punishments and belittling comments about and to Clark and us. And our experience matched that of other non-ADHD students that year and the one previous; the complaints about this teacher to the school had become increasingly angry.
The teacher, let’s call her “Ms. X,” was administering a test to the class. One of Clark’s challenges was that if he became immersed in a book, he would not re-emerge without physical stimuli. He loved his fantasy world of books. The only thing he loved more was the computer, which we had already learned was a dangerously addictive space for him, and a resource we had to carefully limit. In fact, if he had too much game time, he would become angry and hostile – even physical – when we pulled him away; he would “game” to the exclusion of all other life activities, even at this young age. The child has spent most of his years on earth grounded from screens, sometimes months at a time. The issue at school, though, was books.
Back to Ms. X and the test. Ms. X had been teaching Clark for six months at this time, and knew him well – and she found him to be too much trouble; she had let us know this in no uncertain terms during our mid-year parent-teacher conference that he was “impossible” and “took her attention away from the other students” although she could give us no examples of how. On this day, Clark sat in class, all parties agree, reading a book at his desk until the bell rang to start the day. Ms. X passed out the test and gave instructions. Standing beside her desk at the front of the room, she told the students to start the test.
Clark didn’t break free from what he was reading. He was completely in another world. Not maliciously and rebelliously so. Joyously so. He was on a journey into fantasy, and he would not be able to return on his own. While the class took the test for 25 minutes, he flew at 40,000 feet above Hogwarts.
And Ms. X sat silently and watched him, knowing she had been coached on how to get his focus to return to the class, and that she was acting differently from this coaching. She sat there and did nothing. When she called time on the test, she passed by Clark and took his blank paper and chastised him loudly in front of the other students for not taking the test. She kept him in at recess.
I don’t know about the rest of you ADHD parents out there, or even parents of non-ADHD kids, but the bad faith and casual cruelty in her passive aggressive actions still take my breath away, five years later. This woman, this teacher of my child, this person entrusted with the gift of contributing to his development, this 20-year veteran of fifth grade teaching, this THING who knew from us, from Clark and from the other teachers and administrators at his school that all Clark needed in the way of accommodation was a gentle touch on the shoulder and reminder to return to planet Earth, sat there, watched him, did nothing, then embarrassed and punished him. She knew he wasn’t making a choice. Yet she treated him as if he did.
[Insert expletives and choice names here.]
So, up to the school I sped the next morning after reviewing the contents of my 10-year old son’s back pack with him, and hearing his story. I can guarantee you I made an impression that day, although I cringe to think what it was. The end result was that for the first time these experienced educators suggested we test Clark for ADD/ADHD. And I let them know that if anyone in their school ever treated my son again like Ms. X did, that I would pull my private school tuition and take him elsewhere, no matter what the outcome of the testing. They apologized profusely, excused Ms. X for having exceptionally trying personal circumstances (like I cared, at this point) and promised to look into it.
And the psychologist said: “Well, hmmm, I’m not sure, he’s certainly not a severe case if he is ADHD, yeah, ummm, well, it’s your decision but I’m loathe to label him, especially if the school will have these records. How about I counsel him on organizational skills and keep an eye on the situation? I’ll prepare an instruction manual for teachers on how to accommodate him, and you can share it with the school? If you want a referral to a psychiatrist for medications, I could give you one but I’m not sure he needs it.”
My Ex-husband: “Well, Clark reminds me of me, and I turned out all right. He just has trouble getting motivated. Drugs have too many side effects. We’ll work with him too.”
Me: “I guess…”
If doubts had tortured me before, they now kept me up at night. My ex-husband’s behaviors and stories about his childhood now made sense. And Clark was a carbon copy of his father, except that he was 10 times worse, according to his paternal grandmother. But if my ex was ADHD, he had still made it through, sans drugs. He was convinced Clark could, too. We read mounds of paper and scoured the interwebs on ADHD, we sought out support groups and counseling for ourselves, but nothing answered the question of what WE were to do.
On to sixth grade. The school worked with us on the accommodations and moved Ms. X out of the classroom and into a resource role, based on the many complaints against her. Yay, school! They were able to salvage a long-term employee by a later move into a hard to fill role that she was more suited for, and which, it turned out, she was relieved to fill. They hand-picked Clark’s sixth grade teacher and pre-screened Clark and his accommodations with her. She enthusiastically embraced his unique attributes. She was a dream. Clark’s struggles were no different, but his outlook on life was sunshiney again. For the fifth out of six years, the feedback on our son was that he was “no trouble at all” and “remarkably sweet and well-behaved,” at the same time as the teacher employed seamlessly the suggestions on how to work with him.
One month into the term, we asked for a tutor to work with Clark after school for twenty minutes each day to organize his backpack for the evening. They came back to us with a proposal: Ms. X had volunteered to work with Clark. She believed she could help him, and I suspect she wanted a chance at redemption, for Clark and herself. It was a genius move for them both, and it helped heal Clark’s wounds. His counselor was as happy with the outcome as his parents.
If only salve for the soul could solve the overall issues, though, and it could not. The differences between Clark and his peers were becoming more pronounced.
Up until the middle of sixth grade, Clark had attended the same school. He was friends with the same kids he had played with since his two days of kindergarten. His class and school were small, and his oddities were absorbed lovingly into the “family.” These oddities included things like long silences or drawn-out, “uh, yeaahhhhhhs” to fill his gaps. He took to using catch phrases – and they caught on like wildfire with his classmates – in lieu of following conversations and making appropriate remarks. “Um, I like cheese.” “Well, yeah, I’m a monkey.” Everyone loved him.
And then we moved to Texas in the middle of sixth grade, and his father and I divorced.
Clark moved into a public school with nearly 500 kids – the size of his pre-k to 12 Caribbean private school — in just his grade. Unbeknownst to us, he was entering the height of his social difficulties. He did not attach; he did not make friends. He did not do homework. He missed in-school assignments. He relied more heavily on the books and computer. He played on team sports, but he did no other physical activity. He gained weight. He lied. He lied and lied and lied and lied and lied and homework and schoolwork.
We started him with a new psychologist in Houston, to address ALL the issues — the divorce, the “ADHD-like behaviors.” Clark’s resilience, actually, was amazing, and the psychologist pronounced him well-adjusted to the family situation. The “diagnosis” was almost exactly the same regarding the ADHD, and the treatment prescribed the same as well. Some day I will blog in more depth about his middle school years, because these two short paragraphs do not do it justice; to write about the steps we took to help him develop organizational and life skills would take 3000 words itself. I developed a continuous stream of communication with moderate to excellent teachers who did the best they could, and I appreciated it. Clark survived.
Every new person who came into Clark’s life thought they could “fix” him, or, rather, his behaviors. They meant it lovingly, but the assumption was always that he was just somehow getting the better of his parents. Even as I hoped each one would succeed, I felt relief at their failures, as I escaped exposure as a bad parent.
Through middle school, Clark eased himself out of athletics. He was on the teams…but not in the action. It was like he had the best seat in the house to watch a lacrosse game in 3D, standing in the middle of the field. In a way, participation in team sports was a metaphor for his life.
Now, it was time to enter ninth grade. My ex-husband and I came to an uneasy agreement that we would seek a psychiatrist to diagnosis and, if appropriate, medicate Clark as ADHD. I was determined; Clark’s dad still had reservations — well-meant, heartfelt fears. I pushed, as I am wont to do, and this time I was successful. Clark started Concerta when he was 13.
It was like a light switch went on and Clark was finally home in his brain. Within 24 hours, he began engaging in multi-sentence verbal exchanges with us; he could follow a thought through to a logical conclusion. Uh, Huh, I like cheese, etc. disappeared. Instead of walking in aimless circles around the house unable to remember what it was he was supposed to be doing, he would walk into the kitchen and start helping me unload the dishwasher without me asking. I could give him a two-part instruction, and he could follow it (sometimes!). The lies stopped. The lies that I had never quite believed were related to his condition, but had believed were a choice.
And the voice in my whispering that it was my divorce and not ADHD stopped.
I wept. Why had I not pushed harder? Why had I not insisted on a psychiatric evaluation despite the difficulties of reaching any kind of agreement with my ex, with whom it took nearly three years just to hammer out a written custody agreement that had been in effect for two of those three years? Why had a I failed to get this help for my son earlier? Had I just given in to the wishes of a school to maintain an orderly kindergarten class room, years ago, and moved him up to first grade? Had I been duped by psychologists hoping to milk my insurance company for session fees rather than pass Clark along to a psychiatrist, and possibly end the sessions? Could I possibly take back the pain of middle school now — missed friendships, missed joy, frustrated parents — just by wishing it so?
And yet Clark was still Clark. Now we battled him skipping meds, some days by accident, and others by sabotage. He wanted to feel like himself, free-floating and untethered, creative and alive, and he said the medicine dampened that. There was never any doubt on the days he skipped. The return to the old behaviors was pronounced, and frankly, irritating beyond endurance. It was months before he had an epiphany and became religious about trying to take the meds, but I’ll save that for another posting.
Clark enrolled in all Pre-AP classes at Bellaire, a notoriously large and academically excellent public high school in Houston. We needed medication in him daily for him to have a chance to succeed, even with his genius IQ. Clark begged me not to contact his teachers; I didn’t, but I did introduce myself at Parent-Teacher night and talk to each about Clark’s ADHD, and request that they let me know if he floundered. They all said the same thing — Clark is a great kid, he is not a problem, we understand, he will have to do the work, but don’t worry, he is a super addition to the class.
He needed to maintain an 80 average in each class in order to stay in at the semester. His missed homework had decreased markedly, but it still occurred enough to make an 80 almost impossible. We made a deal with Clark that we would let him fly free on schoolwork, but that if he did not have the grades at mid-term, we would have to remove him from the classes.
He was failing biology. Over his strenuous objection, we moved him out of Pre-AP. We soldiered on.
Near the end of the semester, I got an email from his Pre-AP English teacher. Clark was failing English . She and I corresponded about his challenges and our approach. She gave him a roadmap to follow and assistance to pass for the semester. (By the way, punchline: he did, and ended up with a B for the year)
This teacher in a 3000-kid public school was accommodating my ADHD son with compassion, without me even having to request it. I can’t describe how much I appreciated what she did. I couldn’t help but compare it to Ms. X five years earlier.
I told her that I thought I would have to remove Clark from her class because of his grades. And this is where she floored me. Despite the school rule about GPA maintenance in Pre-AP classes, she floored me. Here’s the blog I wrote at the time:
Clark is an eternal struggle for us, God love him. Well, truth be told, all five of the kids are, each in their own unique and painful ways! But with Clark the struggle is to keep his gigantic brain from being sabotaged by his personal traits, namely ADHD coupled with a well-centered personality which finds very little need to push, and is near impossible to motivate. This in a family of type-A athletic, academic, and professional overachievers: the boy marches steadfastly to his own beat, although floating is a more accurate way to describe his movement than marching.
So, young Clark insisted that he be allowed to try to a) take pre-AP classes for all his substantive subjects and b) succeed/fail independent of parental control. We said yes to both. It is definitely time for him to fly solo (so says his counselor and his parents), even if he has to take summer school as a result. And, he may! Each grading period is a battle to the death to overcome zero’s for missed assignments, and low grades on work concerning topics that did not pique his interest. He failed science in grading period 1, and moved out of pre-AP; he almost failed geography in grading period 2; and he still may fail english and geometry this grading period, with the grades at 61 and 59 heading into the last 2 weeks.
I have to share, though, the wonderful email(s) from his English teacher, because she seems to see the real Clark and not want him to leave her class, despite my desire to move him out of all the pre-AP classes and achieve a less stressful household. I’ll admit the person whose stress I am concerned about is MINE. Clark is unperturbed, except over my intermittently voluble frustration. Clark also wants to stay in the pre-AP classes. I have visions of summer school and non-acceptance to college in my head, and the fear that Clark’s heart will be broken if he can’t eventually graduate from Texas A&M. He loves A&M. He is obsessed with A&M. And he has no prayer of getting in with the kinds of grades he makes. AND HE HAS A GENIUS IQ!! Lord help the boy; he is my heart.
Keep in mind that Bellaire High School has over 3000 students. This woman takes the time to inform, to know my child, and to gently encourage the parent as well as the student — it shows a woman doing her job, plus a little bit, which is more than we could ask for, especially in a gigantic public school, and with a student like Clark who teachers since kindergarten have found to be a real challenge:
From: Blank, Charleen S
To: ‘Pamela Hutchins’
Sent: Thu, Dec 3, 2009 8:35 am
Subject: RE: Clark’s English grade
I’m sure grammar does not inspire his interest, and as a faithful Longhorn, A&M anything is out of the question. He appears to have enjoyed The Count of Monte Cristo; I’m afraid Jane Eyre may not be as entertaining. I’ll see what I can do if you decide to leave him in here. I will let you know if he comes next week.
Enjoy your holidays as well. Charleen Blank
From: Pamela Hutchins [mailto:email@example.com]
Sent: Thursday, December 03, 2009 7:39 AM
To: Blank, Charleen S
Cc: Dan Johnson; Eric Hutchins
Subject: Re: Clark’s English grade
Thank you. We have never found anything positive or negative that truly motivates Clark, so whether he will choose to put in the work is the big question. He has said he will come to tutorials for the next two weeks. I hope he shows up. Could you please confirm whether he attends?
The closest things we have found to motivational for him are a)interest b)Texas a&m admission.
If you notice anything that appears to e working, let us know! 🙂
Have a good last few weeks before break–it’s crazy times, I’m sure!
On Dec 3, 2009, at 7:21 AM, “Blank, Charleen S” <CBLANK@houstonisd.org> wrote:
I would hesitate to put him in the academic level. Of course, that is your decision, but from my experience in teaching that level, the atmosphere is not always conducive toward higher level thinking. I have several students for whom I would encourage such a change, but Clark is not one of them. Of course, Clark has to be willing to put forth effort, and if he is not, he will not be successful at this level.
Thank you for your kind words and your support. Charleen Blank
From: “Pamela F. Hutchins” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Date: December 2, 2009 8:15:16 PM CST
Subject: Re: Clark’s English grade
Thank you Ms. Blank. We are painfully aware. We have battled exactly this type of performance since kindergarten — big brain doesn’t translate to classroom but does get a little better every year, and certainly his ADHD struggle makes it no easier. We have reinforced the need to do extremely well from here on out and to seek out help, and he has chosen a day for his test where his other class is PE. He really wanted to take the pre-ap classes and finds them so much more interesting than his normal classes, but we are really leaning toward regular classes at the semester as we are always on the brink of disaster.
He does enjoy your class, and we really appreciate your communication and concern.
From: Blank, Charleen S <CBLANK@houstonisd.org>
Sent: Wed, Dec 2, 2009 3:25 pm
Subject: Clark’s English grade
I just want to make certain that you have been checking GradeSpeed for Clark’s current average. He has really slipped as his current average is 61. I just spoke to him about this. He said it was the homework sentences. I’m concerned about his average. He said he will need to take the final exam early which if fine with me. I asked him to come one day when he can devote time to study before this final;he should make it a day when he does not have other difficult finals to take. Just let me know the day. He needs to do well. He is a very smart young man and should be doing much better. Let me know if you have questions.
->Contrast this with his fifth grade teacher who stared at Clark while he joyfully read Harry Potter oblivious to the others taking a test around him, then informed us that Clark was “impossible.” Yay Ms. Blank!
and ARGOPOTAMUS CLARK JOHNSON !!!! 🙂
(End of previous blog)
I cannot say that all the steps we have taken over the years have worked, or even that the medication was the answer now. Clark is learning to engage in sports and friendships after a several year gap, to plan ahead and to pick up on the subtle social cues he had been missing. He still blurts out hurtful, weird, insensitive comments that other kids his age learned not to say along the way, but he still misses a lot of the signals coming his way, although he catches a lot more since the Concerta. It is so complex, parenting an ADHD child. It is definitely still a journey, a road, a path we are on.
My guilt, my crushing sometimes inexplicable guilt, is not over any gross failures but over the tiny accumulations of missed opportunities to make it easier for him. But isn’t that what being a parent feels like to most of us, whether our kids have disabilities or not? I have one other child, and three step children, and we feel plenty of guilt and pain for them, too.
If I had it to over again, the only change I would make would be to seek help from a psychiatrist and possible medications before middle school. Yet I am his mother, the one that brought him into this world and feels all the pain and slights he feels, and so I feel guilt out of proportion to my culpability. I know this rationally, but it doesn’t help much.
I can’t give you a how-to manual on how to parent your ADHD child — each child is unique, ADHD or not. Lord, I still can’t figure out how to parent Clark most days! I do love him in a special way, like no one else in the world, even though I still want to kill him half the time, too.
I guess the take-away for me after 15 years of being Clark’s mom is “love them hard and trust yourself.” They may even sort the rest of it out themselves along the way, because they are nothing if not resilient, these fascinating kids with the special brains.
One thing I can tell you for sure: Clark and other special, wonderful ADHD kids like him require a little (only a little) extra effort…and that they are worth it. Thank God for the Ms. Blanks of this world.
And maybe someday when Clark is grown, and I see him happy and thriving, I can let go of this Mommy Guilt over Everything, missed opportunities, times he was hurt, times I showed my frustration…Everything. Maybe…or Maybe Not.
Nearly 5000 words later, half the story remains untold. For those of you that soldiered through as I expunged my guilt-demons in this blog, bless you.