Guilt, Judgement and Parenting an ADHD Child

Over the last few weeks, as life has thrown many curveballs at myself and my family, I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting on raising children with ADHD and how that impacts the parents. As I was walking with a friend and extremely dedicated parent today, it struck me how often we question ourselves as parents. With my Occupational Therapist hat on, I decided to dig a little deeper into this topic.

In my workshops I give to professionals, teachers, and parents, I’ve started incorporating a lot more on the impact on the family of having a child with a disability. Often, as parents of “invisible disabilities” such as ADHD, language disorders, & learning disabilities, the world judges us harshly. Here are some comments that regularly come from people towards parents with ADHD:

“If **** has ADHD, then every child must have ADHD”

“If **** would just try harder, she is lazy and I know she can do it. She is 10 years old, she should be able to organize herself.”

“She is such a liar, I told her 3 times that her test was tomorrow.”

Kindergarten Teacher to mother: “We assume you must do everything for your daughter at home as she can’t even get her shoes on in time for recess, she is holding everyone else back”.

“If he would just put the energy into his school work as he does his soccer, he would be great”

“How did that mother get you to evaluate her daughter? She can’t possibly have ADHD!”

“I think this mother, just needs to let her kids be, they’ll be fine”

What is so dangerous about seemingly small comments like we see above are the alienation and separation and judgment this places on the parents. When these small comments are heard over and over, the parents can begin to fall into feeling guilty. This can quickly evolve into feeling shame about their child and all they “should” have done to help. What parents of children with ADHD and other invisible disabilities need most of all is a supportive group around them. One of the favorite people I follow and has really changed how I practice Occupational Therapy is Brené Brown. One of the quotes that I think sits appropriately here is:

“If you are not in the arena getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback-Brené Brown”.

Her quote was inspired by Theodore Roosevelt’s quote: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”-Theodore Roosevelt

Parents with a child with a disability are navigating a whole new life path than they probably had anticipated. Their children have been diagnosed with a real disorder. ADHD is not made up and it is a disorder according to CADDRA (The Canadian ADHD Resource Alliance). The brains of children with ADHD are different and they often do have a delayed development of their executive functions which involves attentional control, working memory, cognitive flexibility, problem-solving and a lot more.

Each parent’s path when supporting their child during and after a diagnosis can be different. How each parent and family navigates that path depends on many factors. What I have come to strongly believe is that every parent is doing the best they can in the circumstances they find themselves in. Some parents can easily take the path of early diagnosis and intervention, for other’s it takes longer. Some parents struggle just to keep going and get their children off to school dressed and on time. There are many factors that affect how a parent will deal with and navigate having a child with a disability. What we need to remember as health care workers, parents, and concerned family members & friends, is that judgment will not help. If we truly want to help we want to meet the families and their children where they are and help them figure out what is getting in their way. Often, families struggle with not knowing which intervention to pursue after a diagnosis. Even if they do get a clear intervention path outlined by neuropsych testing they did to diagnose their child, they may not have the financial means or time to pursue these interventions. Private therapy is very expensive and parents are often trying to juggle their job, the increased needs of their child and doing the therapy. In remote communities, this is even harder as services might not even be available.

If you know someone who is parenting a child with an invisible disability, the best thing you can do is really listen. Please don’t judge them, instead, take the time to listen. Maybe you can be the person that can help them figure out what is getting in their way! Offering a helping hand such as childcare or a meal can go a long way for parents parenting a child with a disability. Empowering a parent to take action and find the energy they need to keep supporting their child can not happen if, as outsiders, we stand in judgment of them. As Brené Brown and Theodore Roosevelt remind us, if we are not in the arena, stay out of judgment!

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