ADHD, Big Emotions, and Learning to Love Unconditionally

Toddler hands playing with flour sprinkled on the floor. Os Tartarouchos/Getty Images
Written by Publishing Team

You are my problem child. I’m not saying that (that title was given to you by your grandmother when you were two) but we both know it more or less matches. With three older siblings, three younger siblings, and more energy than all of them put together, you were designed to be the problem child.

It started before you were even born. You were so big and needy that you got an eviction notice a week before your due date, and true to form my problem child got her head stuck before she could even begin her discharge. They had to open me up to get you out of trouble and it’s been more or less the life since.

When you were 18 months old, I woke up in your empty crib. Your siblings were sleeping soundly, but you were just gone.

I panicked. I walked through all the rooms on the second floor, terrified that you had pushed the baby gate up the stairs, imagining your baby skull open on the landing. But the door was not knocked down. No, not knocked over, but carefully unscrewed from the wall.

I think I probably swore at that point. My problem child, not yet my youngest, but my second youngest baby, had stolen the screwdriver. Again. After the last confiscation, I had it locked in the garage toolbox.

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I was mad, absolutely mad. I wanted to scream your name, demand that you come here, threaten (what could I threaten, you were a baby) punishment with extra peas with dinner, but I didn’t. Your sleeping siblings spared you the extra peas. But despite running into the kitchen I froze when I saw you there, above the fridge, a screwdriver sticking out of the leg hole in your diaper, pushing handfuls of sugar into your mouth from of the bag I was so sure I had placed it well above your reach.

Two days later, I came home from work on a flour-covered ground floor, your exhausted father slept on the sofa while you drew pictures in the delicious “snow” that was not melting.

You are the only child I have ever had to get off the roof at 2 (the window behind your cradle was nailed down after that one), having to look for the quarter at 4 (we replaced the deadbolt with a lock with reverse key, firefighters be damned), and reminded to wear clothes regularly, even as a child approaching double digits.

So maybe your grandmother is right. Telling all of these stories again, it portrays you as my problem child, for sure. But let me say one more:

[Read: Could My Toddler Really Have ADHD?]

When you were in first grade, we ended up alone. I got a call from school saying you were on desks throwing pencils during math. You got suspended, and I had to pretend I was sick to pick you up.

You were behind me in the car, kicking my seat, and you know that drives me crazy. I looked at you in the rearview mirror and when I asked you why you did it, you said, “Because we were doing math.” “

“Don’t you like math?” I asked.

“Not when it’s that easy,” you say. “I end up in, like, two seconds, and then I have to sit down quietly and think.”

“So what are you thinking? ” I asked.

“Things that make me want to throw pencils away,” you said.

“I understand,” I remember saying. I had my own feelings that made me want to get on all the tables and throw away all the pencils.

We have not spoken further on the subject. We did get some 99 cent ice cream cones on the way back though. I had just enough change to make sure yours had nuggets.

It was the day I realized how alike we were, my problem child. Our brains work the same way, and it’s not like neurotypical brains do. Emotions are hard for us. It’s easier to push them away and pretend they’re not there, especially when there are so many issues to be resolved. Like obnoxious baby barriers on the way to our goals, or parents blocking the great outdoors and adventure time and time again.

It’s hard to focus when your head is full of bees and the outside is so bright and full and both too much and not enough all in one. It’s hard to stand still and feel the feelings you are trying to distract from in the middle of a math class and not wanting to throw in a pencil every time the world has handled you badly.

This is called emotional deregulation, this feeling. A fancy word to say that almost all emotions seem bigger than your heart or your head can hold. A word that explains the closure, liquidation or spinning, or the rampage that comes with emotions that just don’t match.

That means you’re the only kid I’ve ever needed to train myself not to hit when he’s angry. The only one with a cursing pot. The only one without toys because they are all broken, because you got too excited or frustrated or angry and took them out on the assembly board.

When you get older I’ll teach you how to sit in your car, listen to music at full volume and scream all the things you are not allowed to say to people. I’m going to teach you how to have a cup of tea and sit alone in a room when you’re over-excited or, if that doesn’t work, find a good dark closet to rock and cry on.

But the latter, you already know him. When I’m at my worst and disappear for a few moments, none of the other kids notice. That’s the goal, after all: Mom is going to pull herself together. Mom is going to destimulate herself by sitting alone in a dark closet. Mom will give a hug to stop the sympathetic nervous system getting stuck too easily in the “On” position.

But you’re like a bloodhound in these times, my problem child, seeing the problem that no one else sees. You find me. You sit with me in the dark. You plant yourself on my knees, pull my arms around you and swing with me. You don’t ask me why I’m sad, because we both know I just can’t answer that. We both know sad isn’t even the right word anyway. And within minutes, before any of your siblings even noticed that I had escaped, we’re both back among the noise and the crowds and in the business of life.

You are the only child who says “I love you” first – every time. You are the only kid who likes to cook with me, who really likes to take out the trash because being outside is the best. You’re the only kid who notices when I’m tired after work and offers to get me a drink from the fridge. You are the kid who doesn’t notice what the rest of the world says they should, but the things you do notice you make them better, fuller, and richer.

So maybe, my go-between, you are my problem child. And maybe sometimes you create problems for others. But much more often you are solving problems that no one else can see, that no one else can. It makes you so special. And you’re still only 8 years old.

So I’ll call you my problem solver kid instead. It’s still more precise. And if your grandma can’t get on board with that, she can take advantage of the bag of flour and the screwdriver I put in your travel bag.

The problem child: next steps

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