Thursday, March 27, 2014

Helicopter Parenting (not mine) and ADHD - A Long Rant

"Children with ADHD also tend to be less skilled in the use of complex problem-solving strategies and the organizational skills needed for solving intellectual or social problems." (Taking Charge of ADHD, Russell A. Barkley, PhD).

My good friend and neighbor, who often ends up being the go-to mom in the neighborhood for the kids, wrangles all of the various trolls and ferries them home from the bus stop each day, (a God send to every last one of us) had the misfortune of being on the receiving end of a complaint about Liam. Because I am never at the bus stop in the afternoon - I have to work until 6 PM - the bus driver spoke to my neighbor about Liam "using inappropriate language" and asked my neighbor to speak to me about it.

The offensive language? Liam was telling another little boy about how he used to call [the vehicle] Hummer a "humper. "

I'll wait a minute while you pick yourself up off of the floor due to the shock that I would possibly allow my 11-year-old son to use such inappropriate, profane language.

For the record, Liam has no idea that a hummer is a euphemism for a blow job. I'm not entirely sure what a "humper" is, except that it has the word "hump" in it, and that's possibly why it was so inappropriate.

What bothers me is the complete overreaction of the bus driver. If she had paused for just a second and thought to ask if Liam even knew what the words meant, she would've discovered that he was telling a story about word slip-ups, much the same way that I tell stories about how cute I thought it was that both of my sons called bananas "blannas" and how, to this day, I still call them that. Instead, she freaked-the-fuck-out and made my kid feel like he was being persecuted FOR TELLING A CUTE STORY.

...Way to kill a kid's spirit, helicopter parenting!

So my friend, good soul that she is, calls me at work to tell me about the situation. I started to chuckle about it and explain what Liam was actually talking about. She would hear none of it. THAT just about floored me. She kept saying things like, "well, if he doesn't know what the word means, he shouldn't use it. He needs to set an example for the younger kids."

/insert "da fuck?!" look here

She then goes on to tell me that Liam wanted to walk home and she made him get in the car so she could talk to him. When she pulled into my driveway, Liam hopped right out of the car and tried to go into the house. She tried to stop him and he threw his backpack and hat at the wall.

... The tantrum was a little over the top but, not for nothing, the kid was giving off all of the "I'm losing my cool" and "leave me alone so I can process" cues and she completely ignored all of them. I might've thrown my backpack, too.

After regaling me with that part of the story, she proceeds to tell me that Liam needs to "learn better coping skills" because, if he doesn't, "he's going to be in a lot of trouble later." I tried to explain that the ADHD brain doesn't really facilitate learning things like, "how to cope" quickly or easily. She cut me off and said, "I know about learning disabilities! People can overcome them all the time." Yup. They can. ADHD isn't a learning disability.

And that's part of the frustration of finding out your kid has this disorder. Firstly, it's almost always diagnosed after the child experiences profound delays in achievement at school. Usually, the testing is initiated by the school district and is followed up, after formal diagnosis - which can be made by the school psychologist -  with a 504 educational plan.

...But it's not a learning disability. It's a behavior disorder that impacts a child's ability to learn.

Those are different beasts, my friends; they're not synonyms.

ADHD is also not a behavior disorder in the same way that anxiety or depressive disorders are. Anxiety and depression are the result of fluctuations and imbalances of brain chemistry - specifically norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine. You can take pills to adjust those things. ADHD is a disorder of the brain structure:

"In general, the studies in [abnormal brain development in children with ADHD] have found that the prefrontal region, especially on the right side, several structures in the basal ganglia...the midline anterior cingulate cortex...and the central area in the cerebellum, again, more on the right side, were significantly smaller and/or less active in children with ADHD than in normal children. These five brain regions are usually involved during tasks requiring inhibition, holding information in mind to guide behavior, and other executive functions. All of these results have led scientists to the conclusion that ADHD arises from delayed or impaired maturation of these regions...than is typical of normal or non-ADHD individuals." (Taking Charge of ADHD)

Fortunately, ADHD changes with development, but typically presents with one or more other behavior issues. In Liam's case, the comorbidity is ADHD and ODD (oppositional defiant disorder). The ODD, which is really, really mild, is manageable and can be dealt with. However, with difficulties that present with ADHD - impulse control issues, decreased executive functioning - make learning coping skills (as we "normal" folks would talk about them) downright fucking impossible.

But here again is the problem of explaining ADHD to a world that thinks it's all shiny squirrels and college kids hooked on Ritalin: the world thinks you can just "willpower" this shit away. The kid seems like he can act normal most of the time. He behaves himself here or there. He's good with other kids. Sure... all of those things are very, very true. But those are also less emotionally charged situations.

In most cases, they're novel situations - a break from the routine that is the bane of an ADHDer's existence - and the ADHDer can certainly navigate those waters. But present an ADHDer - whose frontal lobes are smaller or less active - with a difficult emotional situation, such as being wrongfully accused of being inappropriate, and he can't physically process the flood of feeling hitting his brain because his brain is short on space. "Dealing with it" is not part of an ADHDer's emotional vocabulary.

But the kid doesn't look brain damaged. Well, he's not. His brain is just developing more slowly than a "normal" kid's brain. However, in order to get across the gravity of what we're dealing with here, the only way I know how to express it is to say, "Liam's brain doesn't work correctly." The wiring is there; it's just hooked up oddly.

Truthfully, Liam's brain actually does work correctly. It just operates on a plane that isn't considered "normal" in certain situations. Because of that, Liam will be expected to modify his behavior - rewire his brain, so to speak - to accommodate a world that thinks there's nothing wrong with him... simply because he doesn't have a big neon "I have a disability" sign flashing on his forehead.

The thing that most "normals" don't get about ADHD, either, is that it's not black and white. ADHD is all shades of grey. I can teach Liam how to cope tomorrow. The day after that is a different story. The best analogy I can think of is to say, "I have an old computer. Today, I'm only processing word documents one at a time and my computer can totally handle it. Tomorrow, I'm going to visit a web site with a lot of Flash, while I listen to music and write four papers simultaneously. My computer is going to move super slow and probably crash."

The really messed up thing with that analogy is that we'd get frustrated with the computer, but understand that it didn't have enough RAM to process everything. We'd adjust our behavior to accommodate the computer's limitations. Yet we don't hesitate to make the ADHD kid adjust his behavior instead of shifting our own expectations of his capabilities and letting him thrive in his abilities. We make the ADHD kid a victim of his disability. We're more humane to our hardware than we are to our children.

Liam does indeed need to learn to navigate the world at large because, as much as *I* think he's a mastermind of spoon bending capabilities, able to contort the world at his whim, the world doesn't agree with me. What his village - those of us that have made a commitment to help this child grow into adulthood - needs to do is adjust our teaching methods. Things like, "teaching him better coping skills" and "telling him he needs to make different choices" need to be stricken from our collective vocabularies. WE need to figure out how to help him learn to use what processing abilities he has in his immediate control - which means that we need to rewire our own brains.

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