Why Hugging My Son With ADHD Is Like Hugging A Butterfly

by Rita Templeton
Originally Published: 
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My 9-year-old son hugged me yesterday afternoon. Really hugged me. He wrapped his skinny arms around my waist and leaned in, resting his head peacefully against my chest. And he stayed there.

It was like — for lack of a better explanation — hugging a butterfly. Because normally, that’s impossible; the butterfly flits around, touching lightly on a surface before skittering back into flight. Even when they’re perched momentarily on a flower, their wings open and close, ready to flutter away in a blink.

That’s how my son is. Kinetic. Ever-moving. When he talks, the words tumble out at a mile a minute, and he shifts his weight quickly from foot to foot, throwing in a random hop or raising up on his toes. His eyes flicker away, distracted. When he sits at his computer, his short periods of silence are punctuated by a series of staccato thumps as he gets up to run to his window and then back to his chair; he cannot be still. He literally bounces off the walls. LITERALLY.

And his hugs. They’re stiff-armed, quick, like a cat who doesn’t want to be picked up. I love them, and I’ll certainly take what I can get, but they’re few and far between.

He’s in fourth grade, and every year it’s been the same song and dance. Since Kindergarten. Colin has difficulty following procedures, say the notes in his daily planner. Colin is pestering others. Colin will not stay seated. The comments never change, only the handwriting, as the years and the teachers tick by. This whip-smart boy, who asked me when he was five if I could buy him some ammonium dichromate to make a realistic erupting volcano, who was expertly programming computers by age seven, has been reduced to “that kid” in school. The one who’s always out of his chair, always poking someone else’s paper, disorganized, falling behind. But he’s not “that kid.” It’s just that his inabilities have far overshadowed his potential, and it’s sad.

No – sad isn’t the word. “Sad” is a gross understatement. But I can’t explain the way it tears at a mother’s soul to know that, both at school and at home, her child is the target of more frustration and “no” than encouragement and “yes.” Somebody’s always getting onto him (granted, it’s not without good reason). I’m sure, beyond a doubt, that it’s hard to be Colin. If you’d just do what you need to do and behave, you wouldn’t have this problem! Just stop fidgeting and listen! I want to plead. But I don’t. Because, for whatever reason, he can’t.

We’ve been witnesses to his decline, feeling helpless as we watch his love of school dwindle, his flame of curiosity glowing less brightly with each passing year. And though we’ve railed against it with all our might – changing his diet, trying multiple disciplinary tactics, using positive reinforcement – we have failed to address it adequately. And it’s heartbreaking to watch him struggle.

I want his teachers to know the beautiful kid we know, the one who emerges in the occasional calm moments. To see the sweetness, the compassion, the brilliance. I’ve tried to convey this a hundred times during parent-teacher meetings, frustrated at my inability to hold back my tears as I try to explain that my son is so much more than the way he acts sometimes. I know he can get on your nerves. Please don’t let that make you dislike him. Please see past his difficulties to the amazing child he actually is.

At one of these meetings about a year ago, it was suggested that he may be somewhere on the autism spectrum. We took him to a psychologist who specializes in childhood autism, learning disorders, and the like. He was tested extensively. And finally, we had a diagnosis. But it wasn’t autism. I should have been relieved, but I was dismayed. Colin has attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Instead of being glad we were finally onto something, I was disappointed. I have to admit, I’m one of those people who felt like the diagnosis of ADHD was just another way of saying “your kid can’t control himself.” Like it was a blanket diagnosis covering all kids who were merely active, the way kids are. Like it was just an excuse to drug kids to get them to sit down and shut up and conform. I felt like medicating him for it would be taking the easy way out, and plus, I was afraid he’d turn into some sort of insensate zombie.

Not my kid.

“He may have ADHD, but we’re not drugging him,” I said adamantly to Colin’s therapist. So we tried more things, more non-medicated approaches. She worked with him, teaching him techniques to help him focus. His teacher worked with him, letting him take small breaks and sit on a bouncy ball instead of a chair at school. And these things helped – sometimes. Always just briefly.

Despite it all, nothing really improved. He was still struggling. Still slipping. We were all exhausted, Colin most of all. So his dad and I finally opened up to the one thing we hadn’t explored, the one avenue we had tried hard not to go down. Medication.

His therapist agreed. His pediatrician agreed. His teacher agreed. “I want to start him out on a really light dose,” I said worriedly. “And if it impacts him negatively in even the smallest way, I’m not giving him any more.”

So we did it. We “went there.” And Colin took his first dose, and I watched him like a hawk while he got ready for school, ready to chuck the bottle of pills at the first sign of anything bad. I didn’t know what to expect, but I called the school and told them that he’d started his meds, and asked them to please keep that in mind if he came to the nurse’s office for any reason.

When he came out of school that afternoon, he walked straight to the car – no dawdling, as is usually his custom. He was smiling. Not zinging around like a pinball. When we got home, he hung up his coat and backpack. He did his homework, finishing in about ten minutes with zero arguments, and zero nagging on my part. There was a good note from his teacher in his planner. He didn’t antagonize his brothers like usual. We had a conversation – probably the longest conversation we’ve had in years, and probably the first ever where he wasn’t bouncing from place to place the whole time he talked.

And that hug. It was amazing.

For the first time in … well, maybe his entire life, Colin seemed truly relaxed. But not in a stoned, disconnected way; more like a relieved way. Like someone who has finally been unburdened from the baggage that has unfairly saddled them for so long.

“I feel so much better, Mom,” he told me. “Why couldn’t we have done this from the start?”

Why, indeed? Because we didn’t want to be the parents who drugged their kid to get him to sit down and shut up. That’s why. We didn’t want to take what we thought was the “lazy route.”

But that was our misconception. We didn’t know how much of a help medication can actually be. How it calms the noise in his brain, the jitters in his body, so he can be who he really is. I was so worried about being a bad parent that I closed off the one thing that truly could have helped him years ago.

I found a paper he wrote a little while back that truly sums up the way his mind jumped around. The brain!, it says. Did you know that you can survive without part of your brain?! Answer this: 1+6=? You just used your cortex!

Then it says, The Loch Ness Monster! I think the Loch Ness Monster is a dinosaur still alive. And by dinosaur, I mean water dino. Then it says, Question: What makes salt? Now he is able to focus on brains. Or dinosaurs. Or what makes salt. INDIVIDUALLY. He can give his tasks the attention they deserve. I can’t wait to see what kind of improvements he makes at school. He goes each morning with a renewed sense of hope and optimism, and it’s refreshing.

If nothing else, those hugs speak volumes. I look into his blue eyes – calm now – and he looks into mine, and stays put long enough for me to feel his warmth. Like he never has before.

And that’s validation enough.

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