My ADHD 8-year-old

I overcame a violent past, but my kid is testing my limits.

Published May 28, 2009 10:28AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I've always considered myself to be the kind of person who handles adversity pretty well. I grew up in a household with a crazy, violent drunk, but I eventually went away to college, got therapy (a lot of therapy) and cobbled together a nice life: good husband, two healthy kids, gainful and occasionally satisfying employment. I try to be proactive, having learned pretty early that no one's going to solve your problems for you.

But lately, I've been feeling stuck and angry about the situation with my oldest child. Our 8-year-old son is a handsome, charming, bright kid -- a character. He's also been incredibly difficult to raise, as he has attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, probably some kind of disorder at the "mild" (whatever that means) end of the autism spectrum, and a learning disability. Ever since he was 2, my husband and I have put a lot of energy into getting him the help he needs -- speech therapy, occupational therapy, behavioral therapy, you name it. Those things have made a big difference, but he still hates school (I would too if I struggled all day long), still has moments where he screams and screams and screams at the top of his lungs in frustration, throws things at me and refuses to do basic things like put his shoes on when I really need to leave on time. Last year he got suspended for hitting his teacher, an incident that brought my depression back with a vengeance.

Let me stress that when he's under control, he's a funny, lovely kid. We've started working with a specialist about meds, but I know from my own history that it's trial and error; hit and miss -- but they can help. Some of my family members keep suggesting that this is a parenting and discipline problem -- specifically mine. In other words, if we were more firm and vigilant and took him to church, we wouldn't have these kinds of problems. This is laughable coming from people who stood idly by when I was hiding under the bed from my raging father. It's increasingly difficult not to resent my friends whose children are doing great in school and generally not giving them any problems -- at least that I know of. At a sleepover, one of my son's friends came up to me and said that my kid was going to do poorly on a state standardized test and "probably doesn't do well in school." I wanted to deck him.

I know lots of parents have it much worse. My son is physically healthy, and there's no reason to believe that he won't be able to live a productive, independent life one day. But dammit, he's got a million advantages I didn't have, not the least of which are two loving, engaged parents who don't throw crockery, sleep with guns or forget to pick him up from school because they're drunk off their ass at a bar somewhere. If I could somehow keep it together, get good grades and essentially take care of myself while battling constant anxiety and depression, why can't he just stop being a jerk? It's a ridiculous question; I know. My husband is an optimistic guy who finds great solace in his faith. Unfortunately for me, I don't think God gives a shit, assuming he exists.

I'm just trying to figure out how to reframe things in my head, because I keep trying to "fix" things and feeling dejected when my efforts fail.

I know you don't have kids, but your writing is lyrical and compassionate, and that's good enough for me. Is there a way to simply accept the situation -- even embrace and find some joy in it?


Dear Stuck,

How about this: What if you could have the visceral experience of letting your son go out of control, in a safe environment? What if you found a setting, either some vast, anonymous desert miles from anywhere, or a clinical setting where he can't break anything, and let him act out without intervening? What if you found a place where you felt safe, where your role of parent is not being judged, where the child cannot reasonably hurt himself, where your embarrassment and shame and anger at others can just be, and where you can simply feel those things as they arise and deal with them yourself, without having to control your child and correct his behavior, where you can for once just sit back and let him act out as he has to act out ... where you could even hide from him if need be, as you used to hide from your drunken, raging father? If you could, in this safe, nonjudgmental setting, feel the fear that you feel and take precautions to protect yourself, and experience the freedom of turning away from him and giving the responsibility to someone else, of trusting that in just this instance someone else is going to take control of him? Perhaps you could thereby gain some measure of peace, acceptance and detachment.

And then you could carry some of this detachment into the world with you. Having seen that even in his worst and most out-of-control, annihilation does not occur, the world goes on, he eventually calms down, maybe seeing that would give you something to believe in, something to fall back on in your day-to-day life.

In some areas of life, we can say to ourselves, well, it is not my job to control this situation. And thus we gain some acceptance and detachment. But with an 8-year-old son, you cannot simply say, well, it is not my job to control this person. It is your job to control him. Isn't it?

There lies your dilemma: True control of another person -- even your own son -- is impossible. You can set limits and boundaries and create consequences and routines and hope that he learns things. But we cannot control anyone. We cannot erase otherness; we cannot take over the console.

Many of us struggle with "control issues." We do the best we can. We try to let the other person say what they are saying or wash the dish the way they are washing it or wipe the counter the way they are wiping it and take a step back. We try just observing and we see that the dish gets washed just fine without our expert intervention and guidance. We see that the counter gets wiped just fine and we do not need to supervise. We learn to trust. We learn to back the fuck off.

The way we learn to accept these things is through experience. Yet we believe there are certain things we just cannot let go of because we have real responsibilities, like parenting. We believe there are limits to our detachment. It is often in precisely those areas in which we feel we have made so much progress -- overcoming the trauma of a violent childhood, for instance -- that we find later in life, in some metaphorical way, we are most stuck. There are reasons for this, I think, having to do with how we confuse our own selves with the selves of others.

Acceptance is a bit of a mystery.  Yet there are practices that seem to bring it about. And there are rules of thumb.

Generally what we cannot accept is the thing that is right in front of us. In this case, your son is the thing that is right in front of you that you cannot accept. Why is this? Because he is nearly indistinguishable from yourself. It's a bit much for anyone to handle.

So that's my theoretical yet practical suggestion: Experience what it is like to have him completely out of control in a safe environment. See what that is like. See that no real harm comes. Experience the extremities, the edges, and feel the safety that is there when you let go of control. See that life goes on. See that no real harm will come, no shame, no recrimination. Find safety there. Carry it into the rest of your life with him.

Control issues? Sure, we've got that.

Makes a great gift. Can be personalized for the giftee of your choice. Signed first editions on sale now.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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