My son. My beautiful 8-year-old son — with a smile as big as Texas, eyelashes that most women would kill for and a flawless complexion that is wonderful to touch.
He's perfect — perfect, perfect, perfect. Okay, so I'm biased...But then what mother doesn't think that her child is perfect?
The truth is, I buried the notion of the "perfect" child when my son Aaron was diagnosed at age 4 with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a neurological syndrome — believed to be transmitted genetically — characterized by distractibility, impulsivity and restlessness.
To be sure, the diagnosis was a blow. I'll never forget the doctor's words: "Aaron has severe Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. He'll never make it in a regular school. Be prepared to send him to a special school."
I was stunned by and angry with the diagnosis — and with the doctor who delivered it. As I drove home that day I thought: "How is it that my son isn't perfect? What kind of special school?"
In the days that followed, I tried to come to terms with the fact that my son had what I didn't want to acknowledge: a disability. My mind was flooded with questions: Did my son really have ADHD? Would he really have to go to a special school? Would his teachers like him? Would he have any friends?
Bury the Perfect Child
And then I picked up a book (one of many I've since read on ADHD) that gave me comfort and insight — and most importantly, hope. "ADHD," the book said, "is not the end of the world. Many children with this condition go on to enjoy successful lives. The first thing you must do," the book instructed, "is to bury the notion of the perfect child. There is no such thing."
Those few words were powerful. They helped me reframe the situation, if you will, and still provide me with a measure of comfort.
In the years since my son's diagnosis I've learned a great deal about ADHD. I came to understand, for example, that ADHD isn't a static condition and, for that reason, I've been open to adjusting our course of action and redefining our coping strategies.
ADHD Strategies That Work
That said, I'd like to share the strategies that have helped me to help my son who, by the way, is doing well in a regular classroom of 24 kids! (Thank you very much!)
- Get Educated. Learn as much as you can about ADHD (which affects between 1.6 and 2 million adults and children) so you can be an effective advocate for your child. There are many good books on the subject, including Answers to Distraction by Edward Hallowell, M.D. and John Ratey, M.D.
- Be Upfront About Your Child's Condition. Tell your child's teachers, coaches, camp counselors, babysitters, etc. that your child has ADHD. This will help them to better understand your child and work more effectively with him.
- Keep Abreast of Changing Medications. Depending on the severity of your child's condition, you may need little or no medication; however, if your child does need it, make sure you're aware of all the available medications to treat ADHD symptoms. New drugs continually come out on the market; Concerta, Focalin and Strattera (the first non-stimulant to treat ADD/ADHD) are among the newest. Speak with your pediatrician and/or neurologist about them.
- Be Prepared for Trial and Error. Responses to medications for ADHD are highly individual. You may have to experiment — under your pediatrician's guidance — until you find the best medication and dosage for your child.
- Understand That Medication Is a Partial Solution. While medication can do much to help alleviate the symptoms associated with ADHD, medication is not the total solution. Behavioral modification — an effective discipline/reward system at home and school — is key.
- Learn Effective Discipline. The best behavioral modification system I've found — and use daily — is 1-2-3 Magic. It's been very effective with my son at home and at school. The concept was developed by Thomas Phelan, Ph.D., who wrote: 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12. This precise and effective tool also works for kids who don't have ADHD.
- Work With Your Child's Teacher. Establish a good rapport with your child's teacher. If your child is misbehaving at school, work with his teacher to develop an effective discipline system like 1-2-3 Magic (many teachers already use this system). If your child is having trouble staying focused on his studies, work with the teacher to develop a reward system.
- Create an At-Home Rewards System. Develop a list of tasks (be specific) that your child must complete each day (homework; gathering the recyclables; etc.) Then decide upon the reward. If your child is very young, consider filling a jar with small prizes such as colored pencils, stickers and the like. Let your child select one prize each day if he accomplishes all of the tasks on his list. If he accomplishes only three of the four tasks, for example, tell him he did a good job but that he must complete all four tasks to get the reward (this really worked for my son!). If your child is older, consider other rewards, i.e., a trip to the zoo or to a movie on Saturday.
- Get Professional Help. Consider working with a psychologist to learn parenting skills that can be particularly helpful for children with ADHD. If your child is developing negative ways of interacting with family members, consider family counseling to try and turn things around. Everyone's self-esteem is bound to benefit.
- Connect With Other Parents. Many communities have created organizations to help parents of children with ADHD (known as CHADD [Chapter of Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder]). These groups can be enormously helpful. Not only do you feel supported, you can pick up effective tips and strategies that have worked for other parents. Ask your child's doctor if there's a CHADD in your community.
- Take Care of Yourself. The challenges of ADHD can be taxing. Find positive outlets to keep your physical, emotional, mental and spiritual life in balance. Regular exercise is one great outlet.
- Focus on the Positive. With proper education, structure, coaching and medication, the prognosis for kids with ADHD is good. It's also important to realize that kids with ADHD often exhibit these prominent, positive traits: creativity, warmheartedness, trusting attitude, forgiving attitude, ability to take risks (a double-edged sword, to be sure), flexibility and tenacity.
The steps I've taken — and continue to take with Aaron — have helped him to shine both at home and in school. It's when I receive report cards such as this that I know I'm on the right track: "It is such a pleasure having Aaron in our class. He has made outstanding progress since the beginning of the school year. Aaron has become an excellent student who loves school! We will continue to work together so that Aaron is successful in all areas! Keep up the great job!"
Isn't that perfect?
Donna Engelgau is the former editorial director of Discovery Health Online and the parent of a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.