Raising a Difficult Child with ADHD: Our Story

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Two Psychologists Raising a Difficult Child

My husband and I are both clinical psychologists with more than 20 years of practice between us. We know a lot about several disorders, including ADHD. We were formally trained in understanding, assessing, and diagnosing it. We both specialize in ADHD in adults.

We also have a 6-year-old son with ADHD.

Naturally, and informed by our profession, we have been trying to do all the “right things” in raising him. We have followed a predictable routine at home since he was born (and years before we knew he had ADHD). We have used a token economy for years, applied behavioral and medicinal treatments, and kept up with the latest on ADHD by reading copious books, listening to ADDitude podcasts, and more. All the while, we have continued to educate our clients on ADHD and to help them manage their lives.

Despite all our knowledge and resources, raising our son is by far the hardest challenge we have ever faced. There are good times, but it often feels like there are more negative, frustrating moments than rewarding ones.

The Hardest Parts of Raising a Difficult Child

Raising a neurodiverse child is hard. The judgement from others — from the dismissive opinions of other adults to the looks you get when your child has a public meltdown – is demoralizing. Seeing his peers doing “normal” things is defeating.

Heck, we’ve never taken our son to a movie theater or a live show. We haven’t been on a family vacation in years (being home is hard enough). I haven’t even traveled with him on a bus.

[Read: “When Strangers Notice Your Child’s ADHD First”]

Our son started school just a few months ago, and, to our delight, is apparently years ahead in reading and mathematics. But every day, there are reports about his behavioral issues. Sometimes, it’s like his medication isn’t working at all. He has to be dragged away from other children at times. Teachers have had to lift him off of classmates on whom he decided to lie on top. He can’t attend the after-school programs, and he is developing a reputation with other parents. Just the other day, a parent asked us whether he “just” had ADHD, or something else, too. We think it’s “just” ADHD, but nothing seems definite.

We live in New Zealand, and there is a limited range of medications available. There is also the monthly requirement of counting how many pills we have, how many the school have, and how many the pharmacy is giving us (which isn’t always correct!) for a prescription renewal. I look at the list of ADHD medications available in the U.S. and I yearn for some of them (that one you administer before bed and it starts working just before the child gets up in the morning – amazing!). Our son’s doctors care, listen to us, and are willing to try new things, but I often wish they had a child with ADHD so they could truly “get it.”

I recently broke a bone in my foot after rushing down the stairs to stop my son from destroying the living room. That situation was particularly upsetting because my own anger triggered his meltdown, resulting in six weeks of moon boot and crutches for me. (I also can’t drive for a while, as the injury was to my right foot).

This injury came with a lot of grief, as home life was already hard to manage. I realized I needed to think harder about how I was handling my emotions.

Even if you know a lot about ADHD, trying to keep your child on the straight and narrow is a daily struggle, and will probably be one for years. The rewards may be fewer and further between. There are more negative emotions getting in the way.

[Read: “My Child’s Neurodivergence Is Not a Choice. My Empathy Is.”]

How We’ve Struggled to Help Our Difficult Child

Considering that your child might benefit from medication may feel daunting — and defeating. I started thinking of that when my son was 3, when we first suspected ADHD. I had a negative reaction to the thought, despite knowing that medication was likely the most effective treatment.

When he started medication at age 5, we realized it made more of a difference to his behavior and everyone else’s mental health at home than all the behavioral treatments we had implemented before. That’s a bit of a punch to the gut when you’re a clinical psychologist. Kids with ADHD just don’t learn from rewards and punishments in the usual way.

We’ve had to accept that his social skills are delayed, that he often doesn’t notice the emotions of others, and that he doesn’t particularly care when he does. We know we are always going to have to explain his condition to teachers and wonder if they think we are exaggerating (they soon learn that we aren’t).

I am sad that his younger sister is frightened by his aggression, from which we try so hard to protect her. How will her life be affected by having an older brother with these behaviors? Will she have the empathy and perseverance to maintain a loving relationship with him into adulthood, or will she want nothing to do with him? How would her life have been different if her brother was neurotypical? Would it be better or worse? It’s possible to feel guilty about so many aspects of family life over which we have no control.

We remind ourselves frequently that at least our son was diagnosed and started ADHD treatment at a young age. Surely he can’t have as many difficulties as we see in adults in their 20s, 30s, 40s, or beyond who are just now diagnosed and starting treatment.

Maybe we can help him build his self-esteem by being open about his diagnosis and emphasizing his strengths. Perhaps he can avoid disabling mental health problems, relationship problems, financial problems, and the drug and alcohol problems that so many of my adult clients endure. Surely?

I’ve learned that, because life is so challenging at home, I need low-stress and low-expectation activities. My husband and I are able to pay for some help, including a nanny for several hours per week. It makes such a huge difference to our stress levels. But not everyone can do this; I am in awe of single parents of neurodiverse children, parents with more than one neurodiverse child, and parents who are neurodiverse themselves.

It has also helped us to get to know another family with a similar experience. Talking about the shared difficulties and the differences has been excellent. We can truthfully share how difficult things can be without being dismissed or judged as exaggerating and ungrateful.

I think I’ve mostly accepted the differences that neurodiversity has brought to our family. Acceptance does not mean I have to be happy about it, it just means I don’t waste time in a futile search for a cure.

ADHD will change in its presentation over my son’s life, but it will not go away. I will focus on being an advocate for my son and for others with ADHD. I’m lucky I am in a profession where I can do that. As more adults understand their symptoms and are diagnosed, the recognition of adult ADHD within the community increases. It takes time for these effects to permeate through the community. Then again, we have also seen lessening of stigma around mental health in recent decades, especially among the younger generation. I am hopeful this will continue to happen for neurodiversity.

I try every day to be calmer, less angry, less judgmental, and less irritable. I am making it a choice to spend more time with my son, on his own, and create positive moments with him. I’m going to be easier on myself and forgive myself when I don’t act the “right” way. It’s always a work in process. And it’s usually difficult.

Let us not pretend that we have it all worked out. Let us be able to be vulnerable and realize when we need to ask for some extra help. And let us hope that help is there when we need it.

Raising a Difficult Child: Next Steps


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Updated on May 5, 2021



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