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I tried to talk myself out of a growing panic. While four of us tramped through the woods in search of my 11-year-old daughter, the sound of loons echoed eerily out on the lake. Soon, it would be dark.
Rose had wandered off without warning. Because she has poor impulse control, she routinely does things without asking. Rose has ADHD, a neurological disorder.
I searched behind bushes. My hand shook as I clicked my flashlight on high. Tree branches were scratching my legs, but I was so numb I couldn’t feel the sting. Sweaty and bleeding, I walked around a huge tree and caught a glimpse of red and blue, the colours of her top and shorts. I cried out.
“I’m here,” Rose said, 20 metres away. She held up a tiny, plastic salad dressing container that had gone missing. She said she’d gone into the woods to track it down.
“A squirrel ran off with it. I found it buried under pine needles,” she said.
At that moment, because I couldn’t speak, I crouched and pulled her into my arms. She didn’t resist. I buried my face in her soft, brown hair and held her cheeks in my hands.
“I was just right here,” she said, bewildered.
Part of me was annoyed, and another part was proud of her for being clever. Not many people are observant enough to track down a tiny piece of Tupperware in the forest at twilight. Yet, I couldn’t decide whether to rejoice in her unique intelligence or chastise her for going off by herself – a constant dilemma that her impulsive behaviour creates.
My daughter is perplexing to parent. I’ve struggled with being a mother to a child with ADHD for years, often second guessing myself. I wasn’t an understanding parent for most of her childhood. When she was 8, she gave me a birthday card signed: “Happy birthday Mommy, hope you have a great day with me, the Annoying One.”
I wanted to weep. I resolved to hide my irritation better.
To ask my daughter to sit still without distraction for five minutes is to invite failure. Because she has a sluggish, dopamine-starved reward system in her brain, even interesting activities can seem dull to her, causing her to lose focus. Rose is a novelty seeker. She’s wired for adventure. Trying to change her into a person who loves routine, order and rules wasn’t going to work. What had to change were my expectations. I vowed to relax around my daughter’s unfiltered, creative brain.
As if she sensed my new resolve, Rose tested me the next week. As I opened the front door, our dog jumped up to greet me. When I bent down, I realized that Rose had painted our dog’s toenails pink. Of course, she hadn’t asked permission. I laughed and told her it was a lovely colour she’d chosen.
In July, she invited all the kids on the street to our yard to play “Olympics,” and created a precarious obstacle course out of inverted swing sets, camping mattresses, three-step stools and rope. My husband protested, “what if a kid gets hurt and we get sued?”
“They’re having fun,” I said. “Let’s notice how inventive she is this time."
Now that she’s a tween, I decided that it was time to have the talk about her unique brain. We had to stop calling ADHD the “wiggles.” She had a right to know what caused her to get bored at school; what made her do backflips on the living room rug for hours; what gave her poor self control.
But when I brought it up, she shouted, “Stop! I’m not talking about this.” Then she ran out the back door, slamming it hard and hurled her body on the trampoline.
The truth? I was relieved not to have that conversation.
What would I tell her? ADHD behaviour annoys teachers and can frustrate people who don’t understand that it’s a disorder? Some ADHD kids often have poor emotional control, which means you could go off like a bomb in a public place at any time. It wasn’t a conversation I looked forward to. Instead, our entire family avoided the topic. We said it was because we were shielding Rose. It was really because talking about a disability is uncomfortable.
Until one day, I found out how it made her feel to have ADHD. It slipped out in conversation. I asked her if she wanted to meet my cousin’s daughter, who was smart at school and great at sports.
It took her a long time to answer.
“No,” she said. “She might not like me.”
“Why wouldn’t she like you?” I asked.
She didn’t answer for several minutes. Finally, she said:
“Because I have ADHD.”
That conversation was a turning point. I could no longer collude with my daughter to pretend that her brain wasn’t an issue.
I didn’t force Rose to talk about it because pushing my agenda doesn’t work. Instead, I started to insert remarks into our daily conversation.
We were watching a Finnish crime show on Netflix. The detective was able to track down the murderer by taking off his socks and shoes and standing in a grid on the floor he’d made with masking tape. He would gaze at photos of suspects and crime scenes, then close his eyes and enter a dreamy, altered state. When he opened his eyes, he knew who the killer was.
“I’m sure that cop has ADHD,” I said. “He’s very smart but has a quirky way of figuring things out. People think he’s odd, but they admire him.”
“I’m like that, Mom,” Rose said, smiling.
Another day, she asked me about Will Smith, Justin Timberlake and Jim Carrey – actors she admires who’ve gone on record as having the brain disorder.
“Lots of creative people have it,” I said.
Rose was surprised that people with ADHD could end up being successful.
“People with ADHD learn differently,” I said. “Because nobody understands this disorder, it can make you feel like you’re not smart.”
My daughter’s impulsive behaviour doesn’t mean she won’t be successful in the future. Rose responds best by being given a choice, which requires a small but critical tweak in how I talk to her.
I know that self control is a necessity. Sometimes, it takes longer for certain kids. But I’ve decided to accept my daughter with all her quirkiness. I’ve discovered that there’s a big difference between tolerating a child and genuinely accepting someone as a person.
Joanne Nixon lives in Port Perry, Ont.