When my son started preschool, I wasn’t a coffee drinker. But I’d always see groups of moms, carrying white and green Starbucks cups, chatting alongside their children. Months later, when I found myself still standing alone, I thought that maybe if I had a morning cappuccino, I’d have all these mom friends, too.
That’s when I started drinking coffee.
But my mommy isolation didn’t end with a simple soy latte. Nope, there was always an awkwardness in the air when I would talk to other moms with their children. One that I couldn’t ignore, and one that no double shot of espresso could wash away. It was shame.
Raising a child with ADHD presents its challenges — all of which are expressed behaviorally, like pushing, grabbing, and shouting. Sure, your child can partake in therapy for the defiant, impulsive, and hyperactive behavior. But there are just some aspects of ADHD that are hard to mitigate. And shame is one of them.
Like all of us, children absorb the cues they take in from the world around them. ADHD kids, particularly if they are hyperactive and impulsive, receive messages like: I’m a bad kid. I’m not like everyone else. No one likes me. I never get invited to anyone’s birthday party. There’s something wrong with me. From a very young age, they learn to feel ashamed.
When my child first told me, “I hate being different,” I knew it was an angry wound that had been afflicted on him. One that I had to fix. But, how? This wasn’t something that I could just put a band-aid over. I would spend nights strategizing how to be a better parent, and how to better shield my son and his self-esteem from a misunderstanding society. I would become so frustrated with myself for not finding a solution, and just feel like a failing mother. After all, what kind of mother couldn’t take away their child’s pain? I believed that if I were a better parent, I’d be able to fix this.
And, then, there was the judgment of others.
When you have a hyperactive child, getting phone calls from the school is not unusual. They would say things like, “Your child doesn’t get along with others,” “He is constantly moving,” and “He is argumentative.” So how can you not feel somewhat responsible?
It’s of general belief that a child’s behavior is a direct result of a parenting style. Which would mean that if a child behaves poorly, they are an example of poor parenting. ADHD kids are easy targets for these type of judgments (as are their parents). And, even though I know this isn’t true, I still felt the blame. Since we live in a hyper-competitive parenting world, many parents will judge your “bad” child and associated parenting style, even if only to make theirs seem twice as “good.”
And in the early years of childrearing, moms typically seek out other mom friends. But if these mothers think your child is different, it’s extra difficult to find friends. It’s not that they are trying to be exclusive or judgmental — even though that’s how it feels — they just don’t understand what you’re going through. And, let’s face it, it’s much easier to hang around another easy child than a difficult one.
What’s even harder? The Herculean task of advocating for a child with ADHD at school. The process of securing an individualized education plan or special accommodations from a school is incredibly daunting. There are serious questions that need to be considered: Will you medicate? Do you have the time (and financial means) for additional therapies and doctor appointments? Will you be trying out elimination diets? The list of decisions you have to make goes on and on …
When interventions were going well, I felt so much better about myself as a parent. But, when they weren’t going so smoothly, I would feel worse. I was desperate to get off of this emotional roller coaster, and decided that I would try writing about my experiences. It was just the turning point that I needed.
The renowned shame and vulnerability researcher Dr. Brené Brown explains that the best way to overcome shame feels counterintuitive — it’s showing up, telling your story, and reaching out. It worked for me. Sharing my experience about parenting a child with ADHD freed me from the shame that had been holding me back in so many ways in my life. The emails, comments, and messages that came pouring in from other parents in similar situations not only helped me feel less alone, but it also empowered me as a mom and person.
A shift began to occur at home, too. I began to set the tone that ADHD was nothing to hide, and that no one was to blame. And everyone else in our family felt lighter because of it. Most importantly, my son. I witnessed a space opening up in my child as he could talk more honestly about his feelings. We began to laugh a lot more, too.
My son is older now. And he’s able to eloquently articulate the stress he feels of being different and feeling singled out. Above all else, he knows he is valued for who he is. He does not hold shame or blame, and neither do I. Opening up and sharing our experience has cured us of viewing ADHD as taboo.
When I finally stopped feeling like one big fail, so did he.