Well, I Sure Didn’t Expect This: Part 10
By the end of second grade, while medication, therapy and some growing up controlled his hyperactivity, impulsiveness and attentional issues, something else sprang up in their place: social issues. He wasn’t maintaining old or acquiring new friendships and he was feeling very bad about himself. As much as his recent oppositional behavior was driving me nuts, I couldn’t stand to see my child feeling left out and lonely.
ADHD expert Russell Barkley, Ph.D, says that ADHD causes Oppositional-Defiant Disorder and that the behaviors associated with these disorders creates social problems for the kids who have them. He notes, “50-70% of ADHD children are utterly rejected by close friendships by second grade. It is, in fact, one of the more devastating consequences of this disorder…this inability to make and keep close sustained friendships with other children and it is heartbreaking for parents to see this happening. That their child is not as liked as other children, that the sleepovers, the going to the movies and the other social events in which other children celebrate their peer relationships are shut off for this child.” It was true that the play date requests and birthday party invitations had trickled down to little or none. His little brothers had great social lives. He did not and he noticed.
Barkley points out, “The single best predictor of peer rejection is…emotional impulsiveness. Friends forgive you your distractibility, your forgetfulness, your working memory problems and even your restlessness, they will not forgive your anger, your hostility, the quickness with which you emote to other people because it is offensive. It is socially costly.” Unlike many other kids with ADHD, however, my son does not act out at school. The other kids don’t see his emotional outbursts like we do at home. At school he had become quieter and more serious, holding in his uncomfortable feelings all day. He had become guarded around other kids; feeling like no one else would want to be friends with him because he was different. I feared a sad, friendless future for my son, who, despite his ADHD is actually a really fun, funny, interesting kid. I soon realized that I had to step in and set up play dates for him and give him pointers on how to get and keep friends.
Our big problem, luckily for him, unluckily for his brothers, is mainly at home, where he feels free to let his emotions fly. I have had a hard time wrapping my brain around his emotional behavior, especially when his brothers are the innocent victims. He seems to want everything all the time and when he doesn’t get it, everyone else pays. It is nearly impossible for him to temper his emotions when disappointed in any small way. When I get annoyed, I often say, “I could just scream!” When he get annoyed, he screams. Because of ADHD, the inhibitory function in his brain doesn’t take that extra step to say, “Yes, you want to scream, but don’t.” Or, “You want that toy, but take your turn.” The slightest thing can send him into a full-blown, earth-shattering, nerve-destroying meltdown: his brothers laughing, his brothers getting something that he doesn’t have, his brothers getting attention. This behavior, I’ve come to understand, that looks selfish and bratty on the surface is actually the expression of normal emotion, but normal emotion that is entirely unedited. His thoughts and emotions are not different from the rest of ours, it’s his reactions that are out of whack. It’s hard enough for me to grasp, but try explaining that to a four-year-old or six-year-old. I can only imagine how difficult it is for them to have such a fire cracker for a brother. His constant outbursts have been hard enough for me, an adult. I get overwhelmed by other people’s strong emotions. Nothing makes me want to turn and run more than someone losing control. But just knowing where the behavior is coming from makes it a little easier to handle. Which is good, especially considering the fact that I don’t get the turn and run option. I spend a lot of time shielding my little ones from his emotion.
His ODD arose two years after his diagnosis with ADHD (right on target, according to Russell Barkley). The behaviors include the “inability to manage frustration, impatience and anger” and came to a boiling point during the summer between second and third grade. He argued with me over anything and everything. I was exhausted and exasperated. We had limited success with The Kazdin Method. He was a bear, particularly in the mornings, and was not interested in earning points for good behavior. So, after a bumpy summer, we were all ready for his first day of third grade. We expected the traditional pre-bus meltdown. And, true to (unpredictable) form, he got on the bus without an issue. As the bus pulled away, he waved at me, grinning ear-to-ear. As our eyes locked, I felt a deeper connection with him than I had felt in a long time. He suddenly appeared to be the baby I remembered. The baby who would stare into my eyes with unusual intensity and, yet, innocence. The baby I felt was perfect just as he was. After months of negativity, opposition and defiance, he seemed happy and secure again. I snapped a great picture and walked back into the house feeling relieved and bewildered. I just never knew what to make of this kid.
I was still seeing a hypnotherapist to deal with the origins of my stress and how they relate to my relationship with my son. It seemed all I could talk about was him. Having a child with ADHD was becoming my defining characteristic of motherhood. Make that my life. She told me that the main problem was that I wasn’t accepting him. She instructed me to let go of my expectations. So, what did I expect of him, I had to ask myself. Truthfully, I expected him to be exactly what I wanted, what I ordered when I decided to have a child. I wanted him to be easy and outgoing and cheerful. Actually, he was all those things as a baby. But, then, by about eighteen months, he became hard and demanding and prone to meltdowns. I wanted him to be quiet, calm and obedient. I wanted everyone to think he was well-behaved. I wanted him to share attention with his brothers. I wanted him to be able to express his intelligence by doing his schoolwork with effortlessness and enthusiasm. I wanted him to play team sports. I wanted him to have a best friend. I expected him to be perfectly normal, just like other kids—just like my other kids.
I was starting to realize that most of my problem with him was me. Yes, we had to finesse his behavior but he didn’t have to become a different person. While it is undoubtedly stressful having a challenging child, it became obvious that my thoughts about having a challenging child rather than simply having a challenging child were the real problem. My thoughts were causing me the most emotional stress. Physical stress results from friction—from something being pulled in two different directions. Emotional stress comes from wanting one thing but having something else. Therefor, I could never reduce my stress without getting rid of my unrealistic (and unfair) expectations of him. In my defense, my expectations weren’t completely selfish, I wanted the best for him. I wanted life to be easy for him (not just myself), for people to like him and for him to enjoy life. But what is really best for him is just letting him be him. *Hopefully realizing this now (during pricey therapy sessions for myself) will help to avoid pricey therapy sessions for him in the future. He can thank me later.
A conversation in the fall of third grade was both eye-opening and saddening. “Mom,” he began, “is Santa real?” What do you think?” I asked. “I don’t think he is,” he responded. I asked him if he was sure he wanted to know the truth and he begged me to tell. He was relieved. After he pinky-promised me not to tell his brothers or anyone at school and peppered me with questions about the realistic Santa video he gets via e-mail every year, the guy in the red suit at the mall, the white powdery bunny tracks he sees on the floor each Easter morning, and, “Oh, is that why I found my baby teeth in Daddy’s drawer that time?” the subject turned serious. I told him it was really important that he didn’t tell his six-year-old brother what I had told him. I said, “You know, he is different from you…” And he responded, “Yeah, he’s not evil!” What I was going to say is that he doesn’t question these things as much and will probably believe for quite a while. In any case, my heart dropped. I wasn’t sad that he didn’t believe in Santa anymore, I was sad that he thought of himself as evil. I’m sure he doesn’t fully undertand what that means, but it’s distressing nonetheless. He asked me if I remembered when he was in kindergarten and he used to be the bus bully. Uh, yeah, hard to forgot, all the phone calls from the assistant principal and all. He said that all those kids from the bus remember that and they told people and they told people and now everyone knows that he used to be a bully. He worried that it was too late to change his reputation. Despite my own fears for his reputation in the small town we live in, I told him it’s never too late to change. I explained that the way you act is like a boomerang, what you put out you get back. You put out nice, you get nice. You put out mean, you get mean. I assured him that he was neither evil nor mean and that life is what you make of it. He seemed to get it. So I kept droning on and on about it with different examples and inspirational phrases and he soon became bored with the conversation.
In any case, if I changed my expectations for him, he might not become an entirely different person, but I would feel better. And, if I felt better, he would feel better. I know my nervous energy around him is a trigger for him. So, if I could just be more patient, he would be calmer. But it’s hard to just flip a switch. OK, I won’t be stressed anymore. Click. Done. That would be nice. But I could start small. I could let the little things go. I could remember to praise the positive things, no matter how small. I could remember in the moment that he needs help learning to control himself–not discipline for not being able to do it yet. I could do the basic things that the Kazdin Method asked of me.
Since transition resistance is the most challenging part of our day, I started to notice what I was doing to trigger it or at least make it worse. Getting him to turn off the television and come to the dinner table was always a struggle. I tended to march into the playroom, abruptly turn off the TV and announce that it’s dinner time. It never went over well. One night after doing that very thing, he had a bigger meltdown than usual. It occurred to me that I turned it off with about three minutes left of the show he had been watching. Well, I had to admit, that was kind of rude. I wouldn’t have liked it if someone turned off Downton Abbey with three minutes to go. So I told him I was sorry and that next time I would let him finish what he was watching if it was almost over. In the past, I would have felt like I was letting him run the show. I’ve always been hesitant to give him an inch, lest he take 26.2 miles. I’ve had to be very black or white with him for fear that the gray area would be a slippery slope to caving in to his every wish. However, this time he was satisfied with the new approach and now we rarely have meltdowns over turning off the TV off before dinner because I softened the transition. I have to resist the compulsion to do things “the normal way”, and do things in a way that’s more appropriate for him. I also added a new prize to earn when he behaves regarding TV time. He can earn an episode of Seinfeld to watch with me before bed. Maybe slightly inappropriate for an eight-year-old but he loves him some Kramer and it’s fun to hear him quote famous lines. “The dingo ate your baby” is a favorite.
Getting him out of bed and ready for school has been a nightmare since he was a toddler. He is almost nine and I still find myself chasing him around the house, dressing him, brushing his teeth and alternately threatening and coaxing him into compliance. It’s physically exhausting and mentally draining. On top of that, it does me no good to compare him to anyone else in these moments, i.e., “What eight-year-old needs to be dressed by his mother?” “The bus is here and I’m putting shoes on my third grader!” These thoughts just escalate my own anxiety, and ramp up the emotions in the house. And when emotions are high, everyone gets upset and we go even slower. So, I’m trying to work in more time for any meltdown or nonsense that may occur. If he decides to run a mile around the kitchen island instead of putting on his jacket, I let him do it, wait until it fizzles out and remind him to put on his coat when he’s done. It’s easier and more effective and time-efficient than putting effort and emotions into resisting ultimately harmless, albeit annoying, behavior. One recent morning before school, he was being an absolute delight. “You’re so calm this morning,” I said, “You’re doing great!” “Yeah,” he replied, “just wait and see what I’m like when the other two come downstairs.” At least he’s self-aware. Right?
The name Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder is misleading as it only captures a few parts of the problem. Often when I tell people that my son has this, their response is kind of like, “Big deal. So what.” But it is a big deal. OK, it’s not necessarily life-threatening (unless it leads to dangerous impulsivity or major depression down the road, don’t get me started) but affects every aspect of his life. And it greatly impacts my other children’s lives, our home and my marriage. I’m preoccupied with his present, past and future. What caused this? Will he change? Will he learn to control his emotions? Will he grow out of ADHD? Will he have a normal life? No one can tell me all the answers. He might grow out of it. He can learn to manage his emotions with continued intervention. Most people with ADHD go on to normal, rewarding lives. But who knows for sure? But who knows anything about anyone’s life for sure? All I can do is manage the present moment.
They say that the people and circumstances in our lives appear to teach us things. Sometimes I really get sick of learning. But, I will admit that dealing with his issues has forced me to constantly take things to another level. I have to go above and beyond to find answers (or force myself to accept ambiguity, which I don’t particularly like). I have to give him more attention than I ever thought I’d have to give to another person. I have to explain things that I didn’t really think needed explanation. I’ve had to grow more than I’ve thought necessary. My patience has been tested (and failed miserably on many occasions). My professional aspirations have been put on the back burner. I have been put on the back burner. However, I have learned some crucial life lessons. I used to think that we are supposed to strive to be happy all the time and if we are not, something is wrong. So basically, I felt like something was wrong much of the time. I used to think that we should work really hard to make things go the way we want them to go or we have failed. I used to think that we were supposed to coast along in life with all the answers up front. I now realize that you must accept life as it has been given to you and improve upon your circumstances as much as you can without killing yourself in the process. Happiness does indeed come from the inside. Hey, all those enlightened people were right after all! We can’t avoid ups and downs in life, but we can develop resilience. You appreciate the ups, expect the downs and know neither will last. You accept “what is” and you work to make it better. One expression I really like is, “Change how you look at things and the things you look at change.”
I’m learning that we both need to take baby steps towards changes. We don’t have to overhaul our basic personality traits, we just need to tweak our thoughts and behaviors. While I wished for him to be calm, quiet and agreeable, I don’t want to toss out his energy, charm and creativity. While I wanted to be one of those serene earth mother-types who, despite her many challenges faces it all with gratitude and a unwavering positive attitude, that sounds really boring and humorless to me. So I can accept both of us are we are and put in the effort to refine our rough spots. It is a little hard to know when something needs more effort and when to let go, but I guess that’s the challenge of life. Since I began helping him on the social front, he has been able to make new friendships and rekindle old ones. He has had quite a few successful play dates and is clearly feeling much better about himself. Interestingly, when I spoke to his teacher about his lack of friends, she assured me that he’s always playing with the other kids at recess and that a lot of it is in his head. She assured me that no one remembers him as the bus bully from kindergarten. But whether it’s real or imagined, it’s a problem that needs to be solved. And we’ve made good progress. That’s good enough for now.
In the next installment: getting back on the Kazdin Method, rethinking medication and trying a new approach with a new psychiatrist.
To be continued…