Parenting these days can be pretty intense. It’s rare to find anyone raising their own tiny human and not paying attention to the new theories, philosophies and debates on child rearing. It seems as though there is an unspoken plan to raise this generation as a fleet of super humans. We strive for perfection in every domain. We try to foster emotional development, intelligence and connection. We have high standards of nutrition, health care, discipline and hygiene. We question and debate constantly in effort to ensure we have made the very best decisions for our children. We have powerful and differing opinions on everything from vaccination to television and the pros and cons of hand sanitizer. Parenting has somehow evolved from a very natural, biological and evolutionary process where there was room for the occasional beer and a box of KD – to an emotional and intellectual extreme sport! EEeesh!
A few years ago I ran one of those mud races. You know, the ones where they set up a bunch of stations? Things like, greased monkey bars over pools of icy swamp water, and flaming hay bail pyramids you climb over with your feet tied together. Okay, I exaggerate, but honestly I think those are the kind of obstacles we pit ourselves against as parents! We set such high expectations and then ANGST over every little detail. Most especially when it comes to our children’s health.
When I ran that race I had a 4 year old and a 1 year old. I was TIRED. I had very little time to train. I had NEVER done anything like it before and I was so nervous that when the starting gun went off my legs immediately turned to jelly. The first 10 minutes were completely occupied with the goal of staying upright. (Hmmmm…..yup, this is the right analogy for this conversation). Despite my disadvantages I had some really good stuff going on too. I was running with friends. I had one in particular who stuck with me the entire time. We had loved ones rooting for us. Another friend travelled along the course gallery. She watched us the entire time despite the rain and cold. There were strangers cheering all along the route and wonderful marshals at every obstacle. At one point my friend and I were stuck trying to find a way over a 15 foot wall. The rest of our team had gone ahead which left us fairly disadvantaged. The marshals and spectators just kept encouraging us to try again, to try new strategies and never give up. When we finally made it over they cheered as if we had won the super bowl. All these things made the race a wonderful experience. I never doubted that we would finish. Despite being tired, muddy, cold and wet. Despite slipping and sloshing and getting banged up, I enjoyed every moment of it.
It’s interesting because if absolutely everything had been the same except the spectators were heckling, it would have been HELL. Forget heckling. Even if they had just stood on the sidelines talking about how THEY would run the race and what we SHOULD be doing, I would have fought a sickly, vulnerable feeling the entire way.
Back to parenting…
My son starting showing evidence of unique learning needs very young. He was super sensitive to noisy environments, emotionally hyper-reactive, and extremely resistant to change. He also had been a terrible sleeper since infancy. ( I am talking about real true sleep disordered lack of sleep.) By grade one we were recognising fine motor issues and I began to suspect dyslexia. By grade two he was having serious problems sustaining attention. I wondered if he had a spectrum disorder, or was struggling with mental health issues, or maybe just so chronically sleep deprived that he was starting to break down. In time we found ourselves with a clear understanding that our child was dealing with ADHD (Distracted type), dyslexia and dysgraphia. The insomnia, was (is) part of the package.
By now you may be asking “what are you driving at Kate? Connect the dots here, what’s your point?”
My point is, ADHD has become a particularly popular aspect of the sport of parenting, and the spectators on the side lines are RUTHLESS!! You can not research the topic without coming across endless opinion pieces about how this is a made up condition. A product of a system trying to fit indigo children into pale grey uniforms. You can not make an inquiry about medications without getting pelted with horror stories and buried in well meaning nutritional advice. There are countless posts on social media accusing schools and parents of medicating as opposed to teaching or parenting. Parents of typical learners, and the childless fancy themselves experts in the field of ADHD parenting. There is always a friend of a friend who cured their child by eliminating red food dye and gluten (ADHD parents united in knowing laughter here 🙂 )
Honestly, I kind of get it. It is easy to form opinions and to underestimate the struggles when you are not living the situation. I think most people are speaking out of concern for the children and that is GOOD. Most of the time the intent is in some way supportive. But it doesn’t feel supportive. To the parents of the ADHD child, as we scale the walls and throw ourselves over the hurdles, it makes us feel lonely, misunderstood and judged.
What I’m saying is, just like during that rainy, cold, muddy race. What we need are cheerleaders, motivators and genuine encouragement. No sideline coaching and most definitely not hecklers. We need help to build a core belief of success, and we need to find our child’s path to success without the added strain of misinformation, fear mongering and judgement.
Medication is a particularly tense topic. We fought against the notion for years. In the sleep department I honestly think I have researched and tried everything on the planet thrice over. We are experts in sleep hygiene, and sleep routines. We have tried yoga, meditation, guided meditation, audio books and classical music. We have done white noise and blackout curtains, essential oils, massage, high protein snacks, herbal teas. I could go on! I have sung songs and told stories until my voice was rough and my throat was raw. Never any progress.
For the distraction issue we embarked on a similar journey. Motivators, sensory tools, rewards. Strict routines and repetition. We went gluten free, dairy free, dye free, sugar free. We used magnesium, omega 3’s, and herbal supplements. If someone had told me to hold him by the ankles and swing him over my head I would have done it. These were not his solutions.
We finally found ourselves faced with the decision of taking medication, because we had tried everything else. There are a lot of factors people do not consider when they stand at the sidelines. Like the social experience of the child who cannot work independently in class because they are too distracted. The equal if not harder impact of being taken out of class for special attention. Or the emotional impact for the child who can not read the page in front of them because “the letters dance on the page”. People assume that it is the parents and the teachers deciding the child must “conform”. We couldn’t have cared less. We felt that as long as our child was happy and enjoyed school the rest would come. The teachers were completely supportive. They were prepared to put the time, supports and resources in place regardless of medication. But when we asked our son what he wanted, he didn’t skip a beat. “I want to be able to finish my work, and I would like to be able to listen to my teacher”. A very modest ask from anyone. An impressive, insightful and revealing one from a 7 year old. He wants to learn, he wants to show his knowledge and he wants to focus.
I think the biggest fear with regard to meds is that your child will become sedated, or changed in some way. That was most certainly top of the list for us. There was also the fear of side effects. That was a doozy for me. Our son has a very bright light. He is cheerful and silly and loving. He thinks everyone in the world is his friend. I was terrified that the medications would make him depressed or withdrawn. We were so worried that the first trial was short lived. We were hyper alert to side effects and didn’t really give him a chance to adjust. But as time went on we had the good fortune of building trusted relationships with his teachers and our paediatrician. They helped us become more confident that we would catch any ill effects quickly and that anything problematic would be temporary or resolved. When we started feeling as though there was a solid tribe around our child, a tribe who knew him, saw him and valued him as he was – our fears eased a little, and we tried some more.
My son is the same child he was all along. He is quirky and confident and deeply loves people. My fears about him being sedated and changed have utterly dissolved. Medication was the right decision for him and I feel that making this decision was far from a parenting cop out. It was agonising and terrifying. Making the decision was not defeat – it was bravery. I am proud of us as parents for being willing to tackle the thing that not only frightened us, but was unpopular and polarising. We set our own comfort aside and did what was right for our child.
Medications come with their own tricks and challenges. Adding stimulants came as a package deal with adding sleep aids. We ran the same emotional gauntlet and have had the same experience. I can not tell you how much I have come to appreciate and value my son’s nightly meds. Finally, after 9 years I have the simple joy of watching my child drift off to sleep. Such a critically important element of health and well-being that I was unable to give him without help. I completely admit it sucks to give your child sleep aids. It is even suckier though, to lay with your child in the middle of the night as he cries and begs “ Mommy I’m so tired but my mind won’t let me sleep”. To pack your 7 year old off to school knowing he has probably only slept 10 of the last 48 hours. To keep him home for a sick day because he is just too tired to function. Aweful.
It’s also true that we don’t know exactly what the long term effects of some medications could be. We do however know the long term effects of sleep deprivation, which can include depression, learning disability and loss of concentration (Lord have mercy NO!). I refuse to let fear of what could happen later get in the way of what my child needs now.
As I write this article I am aware that it is significantly longer than I would typically produce. I feel a little spark of insecurity. I wonder, if it’s too long and worry no one will want to read it. Then I remind myself why I sat down and started in the first place. I know how deeply relieved I would have been if I had found a story like ours when I first went searching. I know that there is an infinite number of families struggling with the same set of questions and worries we had. There are parents feeling the same sympathy for their child, the same grief of seeing him or her struggle, and the guilt of thinking it is somehow their own fault as parents. I don’t want to stand by quietly at the sidelines watching others struggle. I want to be the cheering friend jumping up and down yelling “you’ve got this!”. I want the journey of ADHD to feel like a victory waiting to be claimed, not a cold, grey, uphill trek through the mud. I want to help displace fear and drown out judgement so that every family can consider all the options and decide for themselves what is best!
Our ADHD children are amazing. They are built to see the world through a new lens. To interact, observe and contribute in new and significant ways. Given the right tools and support ADHD can be like a super power! For now though, they are still our wee babes, and straddling the space between the world they will build and the one we live in is tough. Every parent should feel safe and able to use every tool available in order to help their child move forward with confidence. What that will look like is difficult to decipher and deeply personal. There is no right, no wrong. There is only a series of cautious experiments, loads of careful observation, hundreds of hours of conversation and the most loving of hearts full of courage and hope.
Keep going, keep trying, don’t give up, YOU’VE GOT THIS!!