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ADHD and Visiting Relatives
Q: We are having lots of relatives over to our new house for the holidays. I am really worried since we have a little boy (age nine) who has ADHD and who can be a real terror. Unfortunately, he's earned the reputation of being a "bad boy" among his younger cousins, and in truth, a lot of the adults feel this way. My older sister has always been on my case about how I should have done this or that, or how my husband and I make excuses for him. It's the first time that the family will be in our new home, and if we hadn't built it, I don't think some of them would ever visit us. Our boy is taking medication and is really much better, but nobody in the family (except for an adult cousin, who has ADHD himself) understands (or believes in) ADHD. Please help.
A: As if having an active son with ADHD weren't enough, eh? You also have to deal with opinionated, judgmental relatives! This is a very difficult situation to live with. These people are family -- people you love and who love you (and on some level, your son, too). But they just can't believe that he's got a neurologically based disorder that makes it very hard for him to do what other kids do naturally. If he's like a lot of other children I know with ADHD, he probably does things without thinking, has a hard time taking or using feedback or criticism, avoids taking responsibility for his actions, and doesn't "read" people's reactions well enough to realize he's way off base with them. These behaviors tend to push other kids and adults away -- just the opposite of what your son needs and wants. If relatives and friends don't understand ADHD, they are likely to think, "This kid looks just like other kids. There's nothing wrong with him that some strict parenting wouldn't cure." This is the message they are sending to you (and probably to their own kids).
Here's what I'd suggest: If your soon-to-be holiday houseguests live close by, ask them individually to meet you for tea or coffee before the big event. If distance prevents this, ask them if they can talk with you by phone at a time when they won't be rushed. Let them know that you are anxious about the upcoming holiday housewarming, and you need their help and understanding. Tell them that you know that they (or other family members) may not believe that your son has ADHD, or that they may believe it, but they may feel that you and your husband aren't doing what your son needs. Let them know that you want them to have a better understanding of not only ADHD, but of the kinds of things you and your family have done to try to create the best environment for your son. Tell them about the program that he's in at school. Tell them about the behavioral strategies that you and your husband have learned to help you work with your son at home. If you think it's appropriate, tell them about medication he may be taking or the other treatments he's involved in.
Let them know that the hardest times for your son are transitions and big exciting events, like the one you're having. Tell them you are going to need their help in calming things down from time to time. Ask them to spend some individual time with him while they are there, so that they can appreciate his talents and see his positive side. If they need help coming up with an idea, you can help them plan an activity that will help him be more successful and in control when he is with them. Something as simple as a short walk or making a snow-angel will work well.
Your relatives need to understand that the ADHD provides an explanation for some of his behavior, but that neither you nor his teachers ever allow it to be an excuse for inappropriate behavior. Suggest that your relatives read a good book on ADHD, such as A Parent's Guide: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Children by Sam Goldstein, Ph.D. and Michael Goldstein, Ph.D. You may also want to give or send them a copy of the excellent new videotape by Russell A. Barkley, Ph.D.entitled A New Look at ADHD -- Inhibition, Time, and Self-Control, parent's edition. To help your relatives help their kids understand your son better, you might want to suggest books such as these: Shelley, the Hyperactive Turtle by Deborah Moss (ages 3-7); Jumpin' Johnny Get Back to Work! A Child's Guild to ADHD by Michael Gordon, Ph.D. (ages 5-10); or Zipper, the kid with ADHD by Caroline Janover (ages 8-13).
If you like to write, consider a holiday or New Year's letter to your family (or to certain members of your family). Tell them some of the things that were mentioned above. Do not use this letter to tell them how mad you are, or how disappointed you are. Words, especially in print, have a way of hanging around and showing up later. Focus on what you need from them. Tell them that your wish for the beginning of the next millennium is that they all will have a better understanding of your son, his condition, and it's impact on him, and the entire family. Tell them also that you want them to come to know his gifts and talents, and be able to enjoy him as you do. Ask your family for their love and help. If they can give it, you and your son are fortunate. If they can't or don't know how to respond to you, at least you know you have given them the opportunity.
I wish you well. Let us know how it goes. May your holiday be very special. Enjoy the new house and your son in the new century.
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Jerome (Jerry) Schultz is the founding clinical director of the Learning Lab @ Lesley University, a program that provides assessment, tutoring, and case management services for children with learning challenges. Schultz holds a Ph.D. from Boston College, and has completed postdoctoral fellowships in both clinical psychology and pediatric neuropsychology.