The Education Blog

23rd November, 2021

Learning about my daughter’s ADHD, and how we can better support our children

by Alison Gleeson, Founder of Raising Parents

Earlier this year I had the following conversation with my daughter Hannah.

H: “Mummy, when I was younger I used to think that it was shoes, and not feet, that changed size; but that I only ever experienced them getting smaller, never bigger’’.

(Pause – while I considered this for a second)

Me: “Well of course you did – I have only ever said ‘these shoes are too small for you now’ rather than ‘your feet are now too big for these shoes’. Your way of thinking was actually more logical than my way of explaining!”

This conversation is typical of many that I have with Hannah. She has a way of seeing the world that is often slightly more interesting than everyone else’s way. She has a great ability to think outside the box. She often struggles, however, to think inside the box!

Hannah was recently diagnosed with mild to moderate ADHD. She meets both the criteria for the Attention Deficit part, as well as the Hyperactivity Disorder. Hannah is 14.

In my capacity as a parenting coach, I have worked with parents facing myriad parental challenges – everything from toddler tantrums to anxious teens. No matter the issue they are facing at the time, the unspoken and unsayable question is so often ‘Is there something wrong with my child?’

As parents, our primary instinct is to protect our children. From taking folic acid and avoiding certain foods in pregnancy, and right up until, as I understand it, well… forever! From the start we are attuned to socialising them, hoping they succeed, fit in, are liked, are safe, and when they struggle or don’t thrive in these areas, our wish, more than anything, is to fix it for them.

So an ADHD diagnosis is a mixed bag. Firstly, the idea of a ‘diagnosis’ has connotations of an illness; something to be cured. The more I learn about the ADHD brain, the more I realise how misplaced that notion is. Having any label or name for the thing that makes our brains or our bodies operate differently can feel like a burden or perhaps, as some fear, an excuse to behave in a certain way. On the other hand, for the child who finds it difficult to concentrate, is impulsive or disruptive etc., the relief of naming the condition which causes lots of these challenges can be enormously vindicating.

In the week that we were waiting to hear about Hannah’s ADHD I asked her how she was feeling about it. Her answer was, ‘well I hope I have ADHD, because if I don’t, then what’s wrong with me?’

The ‘what’s wrong with me?’ question is a common one – not just for those with ADHD but for so many of us, indeed maybe everyone at some point, as we feel, for whatever reason, that we don’t quite fit in or experience the world the same way everyone around us seems to be able to do. The joy, and relief, therefore, in knowing what it is that has caused us to feel that way, can be enormous. As parents we can often watch our child making bad decisions or getting into trouble and we can guiltily wonder to ourselves, or indeed say aloud, ‘what is wrong with you?’

The underlying fear is that we as parents have failed our children somehow, by not doing or being enough for them. So the ‘what’s wrong with you’ question can often feel like ‘what have I done wrong as a parent?’

So changing the language to ‘what’s going on with my child?’, instead of ‘what is wrong with my child?’, is a subtle but kinder way to approach things – though not always easy. And finding out what is going on with our children, and getting to understand what impact that can have on their daily lives, can go a huge way towards supporting them and providing them with what they need to thrive.

Rather than giving children an excuse to continue with the unwanted behaviour, once they have an explanation (or a diagnosis), we can begin to understand them better, and use that knowledge to explain and improve their world, for them, and with them.

This is the case for so many areas of parenting, and not just those facing the challenges of ADHD. Understanding the world from our child’s perspective can help us communicate with them better, help them to navigate the world better, and know themselves better. And knowledge is always power.

I know, for example, that I struggle to stay awake when I am driving long distances, so I can put in place the various things I need to distract and stimulate me so that I don’t get sleepy. I will sing along to music, stay well hydrated etc., and notice the signs of when I am starting to get tired. Instead of ‘what is wrong with me?’, I understand what is going on with me and I can take the appropriate measures to make things easier, and safer.

When speaking to Hannah recently I asked her what she would like others to understand about ADHD. She said, ‘I just wish people could understand how busy it is in my head all the time’. She then said, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore’’ and left the room. This is very typical of an interaction with Hannah, and previously I might have taken her sudden shut down as a sign of her being upset or angry. Or I might have told her she is rude to just end a conversation so abruptly. I am learning (gradually) that this is just who she is, and trying to fight that or make her conform to how I think she should behave all the time is just going to cause pain for both of us.

In some ways, this is at the very heart of the matter. How I think she should behave. So many of our interpersonal challenges, not just as parents, but in many aspects of our lives, are coloured by our ideas of how we imagine others should be. If I give someone a present, they should say thank you. If someone upsets me, they should apologise. If my child goes to bed, they should sleep there all night and not come into my bed. When I ask my child to eat his dinner, he should eat it. And so on. So much of my work with parents is about changing the narrative from what should happen, to what could happen, and when they can make that shift, life becomes a bit easier. This is not to say that bad behaviour, bad manners or chaos is ok, but removing the should from our parental expectations and facing the reality of the situation we find ourselves in is incredibly freeing.

Like most things in life, the suffering comes from the dissonance between how we feel things should be, and how they actually are.

I am in the very early stages of learning about ADHD: strategies and habits that can help, outside support which exists, and the importance of it not being a defining characteristic of a personality.

What I have found though is that the more I speak about it, the more I learn, and like most things, there is a wealth of knowledge and information out there.

We can’t get it 100% right as parents, and there are many days where I feel like I get it 100% wrong; there is no holy grail of parenting. All we can do is to try and stay curious, whatever the challenges are, at whatever age our children are, by asking the question ‘what is going on with my child?’ We need to give ourselves a break and ask for help sometimes. And for me, realising that ADHD might be the very thing that makes Hannah so sensitive, so creative and so bubbly, has given me a much better insight into who she is, and that, as a parent, can only be a great thing.

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