14 years of parenting an extremely challenging individual— Ryan Wexelblatt (ADHD Dude)
I clearly remember the first ADHD-specific conference I went to in 2010. I went to a session where a parent/ADHD coach started by sharing her story about how difficult mornings were in her house because of her son’s lack of organizational skills and how he couldn’t get his lacrosse equipment together in time for her to drive him to his elite private school. I walked out of the session. I couldn’t relate to her venting about her experience of parenting a teenager with an inattentive profile of ADHD who was a student and athlete at one of the most rigorous private schools in the area. I was resentful of her because I wished my parenting experience consisted of having a child with an inattentive ADHD profile whose biggest struggle was time management and organizational skills.
In 2010 I was four years into being a parent to my son who I adopted as an older child through the foster care system when he was 8, almost 9.
A fellow adoptive parent in my Facebook group summarized my experience of parenting an older, adopted child better than I ever could. She generously let me share what she shared with me in an email:
“If you are looking to have your love acknowledged, appreciated, or reciprocated, if you are looking for companionship, if you ever want a good night’s sleep again, DO NOT ADOPT. Get a dog instead. Adoption is a lifelong ministry to a person who might never understand or reciprocate your love. And it’s not because they are bad. There has been trauma we can’t fathom, and we can help them with coping skills, but don’t expect them to be all “Thank you for saving me from the orphanage, now I will be just fine.” because that’s not going to happen.
Today, Oct 31st, 2020 is the 14th “gotcha day” for myself and my son, who I’ll refer to as “A” here. It was the day I brought him home at 8, almost 9 years old. I have an unusual story. I began the process to adopt an older child as a single guy when I was 35 years old. (I could write a book about peoples’ reaction when they learn this, it’s been very interesting.)
When I initially inquired about A I received a large pile of paperwork which included various psychological/psychiatric evaluations he had over the course of his time being involved in the foster care system. The evaluations had a litany of diagnoses: ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Intermittent Explosive Disorder, the list goes on. While these labels fit some aspects of him, none addressed the cause of his behaviors. That happened during our first visit to the psychiatrist who worked with us for 12 years. Her words to me during this first meeting: “This is attachment disorder. He has no idea how to have relationships with people. It’s going to take years before he can show any appreciation for you. Strap yourself in and get ready for a bumpy ride.” (Years later she told me that she did not think he would last two weeks with me given his multiple, failed foster placements.)
My understanding of the diagnosis Reactive Attachment Disorder was limited to thinking it only appeared in children who were adopted from orphanages in other countries. I had no idea that it was common amongst children who had spent time in the foster care system.
When children experience neglect during the critical ages of 0–5 it causes a form of brain damage. There is no clinical term to describe this. The closest description would be the effect early trauma has on brain development. The behaviors this early developmental trauma creates include (but are not limited to): a profound need for control resulting in extremely oppositional, argumentative and explosive behavior, lack of affection/difficulty expressing love, blatant lying, poor executive functioning, lack of peer relationships due to poor social skills, poor expressive language skills and extremely low frustration tolerance.
The amount of oppositional/argumentative/explosive behaviors that you deal with on a daily basis are rarely counterbalanced with periods of warmth/affection. Your expectations of having any type of a “normal” parent-child relationship must be completely thrown out, and you have to be able to fully accept the loss when you realize this parenting experience won’t look like one most people can relate to or understand. That can make for a very isolating parenting experience.
Kids with attachment issues have a propensity to charm adults whom they do not need to have a close relationship with. (This is a form of control for them.) As a result, the adults who they charm often have a negative perception of the child’s parents.
Several years ago, I decided to solely focus my practice on ADHD, after having spent years specializing in ADHD, Asperger’s and high-verbal autism. Over time, I began to realize there was a discordance between what I teach, my style of working and many parents of kids with Asperger’s/higher-verbal autism. As a result, I decided to leave the Asperger’s/autism world and focus solely on ADHD.
I think part of this decision to focus solely on ADHD stemmed from the fact I have lived the experience of so many parents of kids with ADHD. I know what it is like to have people look at your child like he has character flaws because he “looks normal” to others. I know what it’s like to have your parenting skills judged by others, and I certainly know what it’s like to live with an oppositional, explosive child. In hindsight, this was not a conscious decision at the time and it’s one that makes perfect sense to me now.
14 years into this parenting journey things are a little easier. A is 22, almost 23. He lacks many skills young adults his age have acquired, not because he is incapable of learning them but because he cannot learn them from me. Attempts to teach him things typically lead to him becoming argumentative or explosive, and with me saying things I regret later. He says he wants to go into carpentry (he went to vocational school for carpentry) yet has rejected every opportunity I have presented him with to put him on that career path. Yesterday, A was scheduled to take his driving permit test. He conveyed through screaming at me he wasn’t ready to take it thus the appointment to take the test was cancelled. Children who were adopted as older children often stay at home much longer. A says how much he wants to move out and get away from me, I don’t foresee it happening in the next few years.
When people who follow me on social media ask if my son has ADHD it’s always hard to give them a clear answer. Yes, he was diagnosed with ADHD but most kids with attachment issues get diagnosed with ADHD and ODD. Sometimes I respond with: “I wish he had ADHD, that would have made my life much easier.” I don’t mean to minimize anyone’s struggles by saying that, but it’s my truth.
I am no longer envious of the parent/ADHD coach whose presentation I walked out of ten years ago because I realized I have something to offer other parents as a result of the challenges and painful lessons I’ve learned from over the past 14 years, and miraculously I’m still standing. 🤙