Older Relatives Who Deny My Child's ADHD Are Infuriating And Unhelpful
“Just give him a good spanking,” my grandmother suggested, as she watched my son—who has ADHD—melt down when I told him he couldn’t watch a movie. I tried to reason with him, explaining that dinner was being served in about five minutes. As he spiraled into an all-out tantrum, I got down on his level, made eye contact, and suggested we take a deep breath together. Meanwhile, I could feel my grandmother’s eyes burning into my back—watching my every move and listening to my every word.
This incident happened several years ago—though it wasn’t the first or last. I’m always battling someone who thinks they know better than me on the best way to raise my child with special needs. Entertaining the “suggestions” and unsolicited advice is torture. Though the judgment from my relatives is much more hurtful than what I get from strangers.
Let’s get this out of the way. “Old school” parenting doesn’t work with children with special needs—but older relatives have a very hard time understanding this. They are certain that the ways they raised their kids—which was heavy on discipline and light on empathy and connection—is the answer to an unruly, distracted, frustrated child. Sigh.
The more I tried to explain my child’s struggles to them, the less I felt heard. I get it, to a degree. My child is not easily understood. The ADHD brain is complicated and often unpredictable. However, when I attempt to explain what ADHD is, many older folks are very vocal—that ADHD, autism, anxiety, and sensory processing disorder aren’t real. Rather, the “labels” (as they call them) are excuses for bad behavior.
Meanwhile, parents like me struggle. We struggle to help our child while also avoiding—or confronting—the judgment that is often and easily heaped upon us. We’re staying up late every night reading books like The Explosive Child, researching primitive reflexes and developmental vision issues, and exploring potential treatment options like CBD oil, meditation, prescription medication, and cognitive behavioral therapy. While we’re desperately trying to find an occupational therapist for our child, our ignorant relatives are wagging their fingers and shaking their heads.
Listen. We are trying our very best, every day. Parenting a child with any special need is beyond exhausting and frustrating. The last thing we need is a naysayer or a know-it-all—one who really doesn’t know a damn thing.
One of my friends has a lovely tween daughter with a generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis. Her daughter is in therapy and recently started taking anxiety medication and the combination is working well. The mom was thrilled at their newfound success—that is, until her own dad, the child’s grandpa, said that worrying too much is normal. Everyone worries. After all, everybody has something, right? I totally know how my friend feels, the dismay that comes when we, as the parents, aren’t believed and respected.
Trust us. We’ve tried everything. A technique—like the aforementioned take-a-deep-breath—might work one time and then result in an epic fail the next. There aren’t a lot of tried-and-true methods when our kids’ brains and circumstances are always changing.
Another relative was adamant that she had the answer to my child’s ADHD. She swore to me that sticker charts were the perfect, positive motivator for any child. When I tried to explain that reward or consequence charts triggered my child’s anxiety, she was appalled. How in the world would a child not be motivated to do the right thing if he knew that after applying seven stickers to a piece of construction paper, he’d earn a new toy? I sent her an article on the subject, trying to help her see the light. She blew it off.
Stop touching, sit still, and be quiet—these are all things my child cannot do on command. It’s not a matter of effort. It’s a matter of ability. Yet older relatives, and even strangers at the store, insist that they know better than psychologists, psychiatrists, developmental pediatricians, and worse, me—his mom. It’s infuriating. As if I’m not hard enough on myself as it is, I now have a handful of critics who watch my every move like a hawk and render their verdicts on the regular.
Some have told me, with certainty, that the reason my son is so active is because he’s a boy. I’ve heard, “boys will be boys” or “that’s a boy for you” at least a dozen times. I have to remind them—though I don’t think it registers—that special needs, such as ADHD, aren’t limited to boys or girls. And no, not all boys are incapable of not touching every single cereal box on the shelf when picking up a few groceries.
Part of the older generation’s refusal to understand special needs is that there weren’t the same diagnoses available “back in the day.” So now that we do have formal diagnoses available, even though all are based on science, some are still stuck in the past. The other issue, I believe, is personal pride. There used to be a lot of shame surrounding kids (and adults) who were neurodivergent or had a mental illness. That’s slowly, and thankfully, changing with younger generations who are raising children to know their diagnosis and take an active part in their treatment and management.
I no longer tolerate the ignorance that comes from older relatives. I used to keep my mouth shut, being raised to respect my elders. However, when someone decides they know better than me and my kids’ doctors, I remember who my obligation is with. I am honored to be my child’s mom. Therefore, I won’t make others comfortable by staying silent or nodding my head to something I know to be untrue and inaccurate.
My son is a handsome, smart, affectionate, empathetic, enthusiastic child who has ADHD. ADHD is a disorder which impacts my child’s ability to control his emotions, his level of activity, and his focus. I have accepted this, I have embraced it, and we are working together to thrive. If you aren’t on board with us, older relative, then step aside. We don’t have the time or energy for you anymore.
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