When my son was diagnosed in second grade with ADHD, one of the first things we did was put him in therapy. It was a recommendation I’d come upon multiple times in my reading about raising a kid with ADHD — the point was ostensibly for my son to learn cognitive techniques that would help him develop the skills he struggled with, like focusing and impulse control.
The therapist was lovely and my son loved going to see her, but to be honest, even after nearly a whole school year of attending weekly sessions, I saw no change in my son’s behavior. My son is a teenager now and doing great, but not because he went to therapy in second grade. No, it was my going to therapy that made a difference. It was my highlighting and studying stacks of books that helped him learn to focus on his schoolwork and gain control over his impulses, with or without the assistance of medication.
Looking back, there were two glaring pieces that I was missing: First, I was far too optimistic about what my seven-year-old child could absorb from a kind stranger he visited for 50 minutes per week. The kid had ADHD and was unmedicated. He literally was not even listening to this nice lady. He did like playing with the toys in her office though.
And second, I was too confident that I wasn’t the one getting in my son’s way — at first, anyway. Early on, I viewed my son almost like a problem to solve. He was so obviously different from his peers. Struggling parents sometimes message me and ask how I “knew” my kid had ADHD. They cite their difficulties getting their kid to focus on homework, or they tell me stories of epic meltdowns. Of course, the symptoms are different for every kid who has ADHD, but for my son, he really, really stuck out when grouped with his peers. Imagine a koi pond full of fish swimming languidly in gentle, aimless circles, and then picture one single koi constantly flinging itself out of the water again and again — that’s how my son looked in a classroom setting. And I wondered how we could teach him to be more like the other fish.
The more I read, though, the more I realized that I needed to stop asking my son to change himself to be like the other fish. I needed to figure out what we as his parents could do to bend the environment to satiate my son’s hunger for jumping but also, yes, to provide the skills he would need to control his own behavior when jumping wasn’t an option. That was impossible to achieve in a once-per-week 50 minute session.
I was the one who spent the majority of my time with my child, so I was the one who needed the skills and support to manage him. I was the one who needed to learn to effectively implement token economies with rewards and consequences, to set firm but fair boundaries and stick to them, and to model what “controlling your temper” looks like. I’m the one who had to meet with his teachers armed with knowledge about my son’s rights as a student with a learning difference.
Therefore, I was the one who needed the support — lots of it. I needed to deal with my guilt for when I failed at remaining calm, with my feelings of inadequacy when I told myself I was not a good enough mother to help this child, and with my fears for the future that my son might end up one of the many terrifying statistics of children who had grown up with ADHD.
So every time a parent messages me with questions after having read an article I’ve written about ADHD, it is not therapy for the child I suggest — it’s therapy for the parents. We are literally the front line for our children. We are the adults who possess the capacity to absorb the mountain of information needed to manage a child who is struggling with ADHD. It’s no easy road, and it’s vital to have a support system in place.
I’m not suggesting therapy wouldn’t or couldn’t help any kid who has ADHD, but I am saying make sure you as the parent get help as the priority. It’s that old adage about putting on your own oxygen mask before you put one on your child. My son was going into a room by himself with that counselor for 50 minutes per week, and each week I received only a summary of what was discussed. Perhaps a different counselor would have brought me in and educated us both — maybe we went to the wrong place.
What I know for sure, though, is that it was the many books and studies I read, the support I got from my own therapist, and even the “friend therapy” I got from support groups of other parents of children with ADHD, that ultimately led to my son developing the skills to be a competent, grounded, respectful kid. He needed me to have the specific set of parenting skills that a kid with ADHD needs. My other child does not have ADHD, and I think most parents who have one kid with and one or more without will tell you in no uncertain terms that a child with ADHD truly requires a different kind of parenting.
I’m not sorry I took my son to therapy that year when he was in second grade. It certainly didn’t hurt him, and his therapist was lovely. But more than anything, I’m grateful we went because I was able to see that it wasn’t my son that needed to develop some magical special skill set to fit in with the other fish. It was I who needed to learn the needs of an ADHD brain — so that I would have the skills to be his biggest supporter.