Sometimes our friends wonder why we don’t invite them on family outings. I’m often tempted to, and then I remember how some roll their eyes or look disdainfully at my son when he behaves strangely or inappropriately. I think it’s difficult for people with neurotypical children to understand how enervating having a child with ADHD and SPD can be for families. How isolating it is. After all, it’s just ADHD, right? No biggie. Lots of kids have that. He probably just needs more discipline.
Children with ADHD don’t respond like “normal” children to “normal” discipline (action = consequence) because there is a significant delay in development in the area of the ADHD brain which controls decision making and specifically processing the long-term consequences of those decisions. These children live, literally, in the immediate moment. They can be fully cognizant of rules and consequences and yet have an extremely difficult time acting accordingly.
So Powell, who shows no outward signs of having any disorder, looks to most people like a kid with behavior problems. And his exhausted parents, discouraged by the constant yet often unsuccessful attempts at disciplining him, sometimes let him get away with things we shouldn’t.
And sometimes we just know that he needs to be allowed to do some things his own way, even if we don’t understand it.
I had an epiphany recently when our family went for a short hike up a small “mountain” in a National Park. It was an exceptionally gorgeous day, and the park was very crowded, so we had to park in an overflow lot and walk about a half a mile just to reach the trailhead. We took a quick potty break at the ranger station, which involved the usual fight with Powell over not touching everything in the bathroom, and then over washing his hands. He was, by this point, tired, cranky, and asking to be carried. I explained to him that I could not carry him up the mountain. Thus ensued the inevitable meltdown, whereby he crumpled his little body in a heap in the middle of the sidewalk and bawled inconsolably for fifteen long minutes. Tate, Aila, and I examined some nearby trees and waited it out, knowing from experience he is unreachable once in this state. In my peripheral vision, I could see the many passersby stepping around Powell, staring at his dirt- and snot-streaked face, and casting disapproving glances in my direction. All the while, I was fuming, inwardly cursing the ADHD and the SPD that cause him act this way and make me feel so powerless as parent. I was feeling intense regret that we can never just have an easy, fun family outing. I was telling myself I should scoop him up, carry him to the car, and drive back home, but that wouldn’t be fair to Aila. THIS is why we can not invite friends along.
Powell finally recovered from his meltdown, and we began our hike. It took us just over ninety minutes to reach the summit (one mile up), and another hour to get back down. The first half hour was truly an exercise in patience for me. I was agitated already and wanted to get some good exercise. Contrary to what you might expect, Powell was not so much interested in getting to the top of the mountain, as he was in thoroughly inspecting every rock, stick, leaf, and bug along the way. I reminded myself to be patient. After a while, watching his intense focus on all the minutiae of the trail, I was reminded of a cartoon in Russell Barkley’s Taking Charge of ADHD. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, and this little sketch fully lives up to that. It is a of little boy floating down a river in a fishing boat, so intent on reeling in the fish he has hooked, he is completely unaware of the steep waterfall just ahead.
Powell is that little boy. And because life is replete with danger, I spend my life in a constant state of worry that he will pitch over that proverbial waterfall. But sometimes, just sometimes, when I take the time to see things through his eyes, I find that I can learn a lot from the different way my little boy views life. That day on our hike, he forced me to slow down and be present in the moment. He forced me to notice the finite beauty in the details of the forest. The delicate intricacy of a spiderweb. The chilling carapace of a scorpion. The unique beauty of a gnarled tree stump. Focused on reaching the summit, I would have passed right by it all, letting these many small wonders go unnoticed.
Mindfulness. Defined by Wikipedia as, “bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis…a kind of nonelaborative, nonjudgmental, present-centered awareness in which each thought, feeling, or sensation that arises in the attentional field is acknowledged and accepted as it is.“ Originally a spiritual concept, akin to Zen, mindfulness is being hailed by the medical and psychological communities as a cornerstone of emotional and physical wellness. A way to bring serenity into our chaotic lives. I find it ironic and humbling that my hyperactive, sensory-seeking four year old has taught me the most profound lesson in mindfulness. We get so focused on what we need to teach our children, on how to mold them into doing things our way, we spend so much precious time worrying whether we’re raising them “right,” or whether people are judging our parenting, that we forget that our children have so much to teach us.
So today, I am grateful for ADHD and SPD. I’m grateful for the two amazing little Zen masters in my life who constantly challenge me to be a better person, inspire me to live every minute of life to the fullest. And I wouldn’t change a single thing about either of them.