By Eric Braun
For many parents, my wife and me included, the journey toward a child’s diagnosis of ADHD begins with a note or phone call from the teacher. You probably already knew that your child struggles to hear instructions or tends to be hyperactive at certain times. But it’s usually that communication from the teacher that marks the first time you seriously consider the possibility of those four letters being attached to your child.
And that communication is rarely pleasant. The note or phone call is freighted with a litany of disruptions your child is causing in class and a list of his failures—failure to complete tasks, adhere to routines, work independently, stop reading The Hobbit and start solving math problems, and consider the effect on his neighbors of his various mouth pops, foot taps, rhythmic knuckle raps, and pencil flips. The communication ends, finally, with a very specific suggestion: Have your child tested for ADHD.
You are stunned. You think, He’s so young! How could we be talking about ADHD at this age? Is he damaged? Is he going to be on medication for the rest of his life? Is he going to be at a huge disadvantage throughout school and into his adult life?
And, if we’re being honest, many of us think this less-generous thought: Isn’t the teacher basically just asking us to medicate our son into submission to make her own life easier?
But you dutifully take your child to the pediatrician and the pediatrician gives you an inventory with questions like “Does it seem like your child’s motor is always running?” You fill it out, and so does the teacher. Next thing you know, you’re going to the pharmacy to get a bottle of pills.
Because my son was diagnosed some time ago, and because I’ve edited a handful of books on the topic, I’ve had three different friends approach me in the past couple months to talk about their sons’ diagnosis. They were nervous about doing the right thing. They received that note or phone call, went to the doctor, and were suddenly trucking down the ADHD freeway. For all four of us, the experience was remarkably similar.
My reaction to my friends probably surprised them. The short version goes something like this: “Awesome. Congratulations!”
Well, I’m a good friend. I acknowledged their fears, and I commiserated with them about what it’s like to be the parent of a kid who can be seen as a disruption. But I believe ADHD is more of a blessing than a curse.
All the kids I know with ADHD are smart. They have passions that make them excited. I love to see a kid who is so psyched about a topic that he’s driven to learn, analyze, and create, all without an adult telling him to. These kids are usually incredibly imaginative. They are intuitive, too—they seem to have a natural ability to understand things. (If they care about those things. Maybe they’re not putting that energy into understanding the Latin roots of their spelling words. Can you blame them? Latin roots are boring.)
Luckily, there are some smart people out there talking about the good side of ADHD. The psychiatrist Edward Hallowell uses an analogy I love: Having ADHD is like having a powerful race car motor for a brain—but with bicycle brakes. Treating ADHD is like strengthening your brakes so you’re not so out of control, and you can start enjoying the benefits of that powerful brain. Actor/inventor/artist/author Jonathan Chesner’s book ADHD in HD: Brains Gone Wild is bursting at the seams with positive energy and great ideas for “harnessing the awesome powers” of ADHD as well as advice for managing the difficulties.
It’s true that our kids need help with their brakes, and there are lots of ways to give that help. Medicine is one. We also need to help by giving kids support at home and at school and by encouraging their passions.
I know teachers are not really just trying to make things easier on themselves. They want to help kids—that’s why they became teachers. But that initial contact is like a blunt force trauma in a parent’s life, and teachers can help families a lot by noticing the child’s strengths and talking about them.
I also know that these kids don’t want to be disruptive. All three of those friends I talked with reported back to me in the weeks following diagnosis that things were going great. Their kids were no longer getting so much demoralizing negative attention from teachers and classmates. They felt competent and in control. They felt good about themselves. Now that they were getting help, they were more able to use their strengths appropriately in school.
A positive point of view doesn’t make everything easy. Struggles are real, and they persist no matter how hard we focus on strengths. I still get the occasional note or phone call from school. Homework can be a battle in which all tactics are valid, including subterfuge. But as long as my son works to manage his ADHD difficulties and feels confident in his strengths, I feel like the war is already won. He is going to do amazing things.
I would love to hear more diagnosis stories from parents and teachers. Please share yours in the comments.
Eric Braun is a writer and an editor living in Minneapolis. Learn more at www.heyericbraun.com.
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