Article published 8th June 2008
From purgatory to pride: a parent’s experience of ADHD
'No one teaches you how to be a parent, let alone of a child like ours. Our son has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Looking back, it hasn’t been an easy road, but he’s now enjoying life to the full, as a bright and sensitive 8-year-old in a mainstream school – some of our strategies must have paid off ...'
Celia Mannings shares her experiences as a mother of a child with ADHD.
At one time, my son couldn’t keep or even make friend; he threw violent tantrums, bit and hit other children, was defiant with adults and usually did the opposite of what he was told at every opportunity.
Now I look at Matthew, and my eyes well up with pride. He has overcome huge personal obstacles with great courage for a little boy.
It’s clear he still has ADHD, and he’s been taking medication for four years, but he’s developing into a caring, thoughtful young man with enormous energy and a drive to achieve more every day. Family life is what I imagine to be near-normal for us now!
It hasn’t always been like this. Matt was a difficult baby, not sleeping, crying, always restless, but the problems began in earnest as he turned 1, and his little brother arrived. All hell broke loose. We didn’t understand, and it was put down to ‘sibling rivalry’; I muddled on, not knowing that other little boys didn’t behave like mine.
One friend’s toddler lost a nail because Matthew bit him so hard.
We’d go to toddler groups and each time a child cried it’d either be Matthew himself or a child he’d pushed off the slide or whose toy he’d stolen. I’d get angry and upset and leave in despair, never to return for embarrassment. Life became pretty lonely, especially as I was an ‘Army wife’, newly posted to London. Nobody wanted to befriend the hopeless mother with the uncontrollable and destructive child.
Things didn’t improve when we sought help. Family therapy told us to ‘take away his favourite toy’. One friend said to me ‘Why don’t you give him the thrashing of his life so he doesn’t do it again?’ Everybody had suggestions, assuming I was doing nothing. Even at home we disagreed; my husband and I have come close to divorce on several occasions. I began taking antidepressants, and periodically still do. Life was about getting through one day and on to the next, in a fog of exhaustion and depression.
Getting a diagnosis
The turning point was being given a diagnosis.
Overnight, I was allowed to stop thinking of Matthew as a naughty child, but rather as one who is special, needing a completely different approach. I no longer had to try to make him conform, but could begin to love him for the way he is.
Things at last began to make sense, and I can remember the overwhelming sense of relief and oddly, happiness, to be told there was something wrong with my child. Knowing the reason, there was something tangible to work on, and at last I began to develop the relationship I’d always longed for with my little boy.
The next invaluable step was starting medication. There are many opinions about Ritalin, but our experience has been only of good. About half an hour after his morning dose, it’s as though Matthew’s true character starts to emerge; he isn’t doped up, or a ‘zombie’ as has been suggested about Ritalin. On the contrary, he’s no quieter than usual, but is able to interact with his friends without flying out of control, concentrate at school, relax, enjoy his games and hobbies and take a full part in family life. Stimulant medication like Ritalin provides a ‘window of opportunity’ to learn, and the more he learns, the less he needs the medication. I’m a GP, so am perhaps more comfortable with the idea of medication than some parents may be, but I think it would be sad for others to miss out through misinformation that’s often written about stimulants in the press.
In praise of school angels
Choosing a school is always very individual. I spoke to the headteacher, and gauged the school’s attitude to ‘difficult’ children first. I also made sure they had programmes in place for special needs children.
We’d learnt that Matthew responds so much better to calmness and praise rather than punishment. I was terrified he would be made to stand in the corner or outside the class, for talking or fidgeting, and that he’d then hate school for ever more.
I was also terrified that he wouldn’t be able to make friends, or would make them, then push them too far and lose them again. I never really thought about him achieving at school, only that I longed for him to fit in and be happy.
I have always been very impressed with how the school have responded to Matthew. I find it works for parents and school to be firm, but not to over-discipline (especially important for the very young child), to state rules and help him conform, but also to support, show the way, encourage. Matt gets angry when he feels he hasn’t been able to express what has happened. There’s usually a reason why he’s done something, even if it was trivial and his response wasn’t appropriate.
We, and the school, have learnt to talk to him, and to listen, not to single him out – ADHD children are usually low on self-esteem in any case. Matt is incredibly oversensitive, and something going wrong that a ‘normal’ child might shrug off easily stays with Matthew for far longer; he will fret for days if he thinks he’s been misunderstood.
Strategies that help
Matthew began his medication just before he started school. At first, when he had a lunchtime tablet at school, the school secretary gave it to him without fail for a year before he went on to a long-acting preparation. She was under no obligation to do so, but she’s just that kind of helpful lady. This, together with being blessed with two wonderful teachers, really began to turn things around.
I’ve heard many ways to help ADHD children at school, such as allowing them to move to another chair in the classroom without having to ask, to help the ‘fidgety’ feeling.
One boy was allowed to do star jumps in the toilets to get rid of excess energy in private, without drawing attention to himself.
Matthew hasn’t done these, but has had a hugely positive experience of school, with one lovely teacher for two years in a row.
I read once in an ADDISS newsletter, in response to the question ‘What single thing has helped your ADHD child the most?’ A family had simply written the name of their child’s school teacher - an answer that brought tears to my eyes. I could say this has been true for Matthew too, in the form of Mrs Hannah Chivers. She understood his personality perfectly, and managed to bring out his strengths and give him confidence. She told me she’d enjoyed seeing the change in him as he progressed; in short, she was nothing short of an angel. Not only is he now achieving expected grades, he’s ahead in subjects he enjoys.
Undoubtedly, schools can do a great deal to help a child with ADHD; I think Matthew’s future has been turned around by Colerne Primary School. They liaise with parents; they don’t make you feel you’re being a nuisance or, worse still, at fault for the child’s problems. I ask them for strategies they have found which help and use them. They tell me when he’s doing well; there’s nothing better than praise (especially if previously all comments have been bad).
If Matt upsets one of his friends, I explain to them that he does want to be their friend, but he has an illness that makes it hard for him to always be good. Usually, they say ‘Oh, fine’, cheer up and run off to play with him again.
Facing the future
Things still aren’t always easy. It’s only a few months since Matthew last threatened me with the carving knife, and it’s frightening to see how he can fly off the handle and physically attack his brother in a disagreement.
It sounds surreal, but the nature of ADHD is impulsivity and lack of control, and it’s an ongoing learning process. Thankfully, we’ve come a long way down the road already, and are progressing every day.
I’m worried again, now it’s just three years before he moves schools. We’d like to choose private education, and being an Army family need to look into grants. I think Matt might be easily led because he is desperate to fit in, and I need to be confident about the environment he’ll experience. I just want him to be happy more than anything else – if this is the case, I think he’ll flourish and do well academically.
Celia Mannings is a photojournalist, former GP, and mother of Matthew, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and Christopher.