In the midst of boyhood chaos, a prayer of thanks

March 07, 1994|By SUSAN REIMER

There is not one of us who has a son -- a busy, noisy, clumsy, chaotic, messy son -- who has not looked at the boy while he slept, when he was finally, thankfully at rest, and thought: I wonder if he has ADD?

Attention deficit disorder. It is a diagnosis so common these days that each of us knows a child who has been labeled ADD. We hear from their mothers the hallmarks of ADD, and the hair on the backs of our necks stands on end. The symptoms are so familiar -- the inattentiveness, the impulsiveness and sometimes the hyperactivity -- that we wonder and worry if our own busy, messy sons have the same jumbled brain chemistry that is thought to cause ADD.

I say sons, because it is almost always boys. They are six to 10 times more likely to be identified as having ADD than little girls. And it seems to us mothers that our sons behave -- or misbehave -- very much like an ADD child behaves.

Until you talk to the mother of an ADD child, that is. Until you hear about him and her life with him. About how something was different even while she was carrying him. How he tumbled around inside of her without resting. How when he was born, he didn't want to be held, didn't want to cuddle, didn't want to sleep. How when he was a toddler, nothing seemed to hold his attention, not puzzles, not books, not cartoons. How any change in his daily life would cause him to explode into tantrums or melt down in a mix of tears and rage. How he was not welcome in play groups because at worst he was aggressive, at best he could not conform, could not participate, could not fit in.

And the mother of an ADD child will tell you about first grade, when at last a teacher came to her and said something was wrong. And about how she knew before the teacher spoke what she would say and about how she dissolved into tears. Tears of relief, tears of grief.

Dealing with ADD is more than dealing with a child who can't sit still to do his homework or finish his dinner. A child who doesn't close the dresser drawer or the car door behind him. A child who forgets what you asked him to do the minute he goes to do it. A child whose school desk looks as cluttered as the inside of his head. All our children are like that. We create a structure for them until they learn to do it for themselves.

Life for a mother, and a father, too, of an ADD child is much tougher. The labyrinth of tasks, timetables and rewards she describes is exhausting. And it is unending. ADD is not something a child outgrows, though medication helps and children find ways to compensate for the things their brains do not do for them.

ADD children are "consistently inconsistent," as one mother says. He can do it one day, he can't the next. And so his behavior looks willfully disobedient, it looks calculated, it looks as if he is testing her resolve. She gets angry, she wants to punish. She does punish, and then she regrets. The remorse is overwhelming. She is a bad parent. If only she were more consistent, more tolerant, he would learn. For an ADD parent, there is this horrible pendulum swing -- angry at the child, angry at herself.

The ADD child is very often bright to the point of gifted. His parents see flashes of that brilliance every day. Only flashes, though. He can't control it, he can't summon it, he can't apply it. And so they grieve for the bright, achieving, conforming child lost inside a brain full of missed synapses.

And the ADD child "doesn't get it," another parent says. He doesn't seem to learn from consequences; he doesn't even think of consequences. He doesn't seem to make the connection between expected behavior and rewards and inappropriate behavior and punishments. And even if he does, he might not retain it. Combine that with the oppositional behavior, the contrariness that also marks ADD, and discipline is a disaster. Right now, he can't keep from whacking his sister when he gets mad. What will it be when he is a teen-ager with a driver's license and surging hormones?

Add to this mix a skeptical spouse, a judgmental grandparent, or an already overburdened teacher. It would be easier if the child were in a wheelchair, his disability undeniable. There would be caring and sympathy. They would not be weak parents; he would not be a bad seed.

I watch my son sleep. At rest, at last. His dresser drawer is open still, clothes everywhere. His backpack in the hall, stuffed chaotically. I sigh at the end of another busy, noisy day. And it is with relief.

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