All week, Jasmine has been talking about her upcoming, season-opening dance performance. Her dance team is to perform mid-court in between each quarter at a youth basketball game. They’ve also been working on some sideline cheers. In every conversation this week, Jasmine has said the following:
“When is Saturday?”
“How many more day until Saturday?”
“I can’t wait for Saturday!”
Then on game day: “It’s Saturday! What time does the game start?”
Her dance performances were freaking adorable. As soon as the game ended, she transferred her fixation to photos and videos of the performances. We hadn’t got to the car yet, and she was already asking Laurie about posting them to Facebook. She spent the rest of that day and the next few days asking for our phones so she could read and reread peoples’ comments. Until it was time to plan for the next game — and the clock reset.
Parents always say things about their kids like, “They’ve been talking about [fill-in-the-blank] for days.” But in our house this is, quite literally, the truth. It’s amusing to see how “into” things they get, and how much joy it brings them to think and talk about them non-stop. That is, until they can’t shut off their brains from thinking about those things.
A while back, Isaac was preoccupied with a game he wanted to download to his phone. He asked my permission, but I declined. I told him I wanted his phone to be used as a phone. Regardless, it became a days-long obsession. He bargained, pleaded, asked Mom, and tried to convince siblings to ask me. It reached a boiling point when one day he texted me from school, “How’s your day?” I thought he was genuinely asking, so I responded and we had a good dialogue. But then he got to the point and asked, “Just wondering… have you given any more thought to the game?”
When he got home that night, I finally got firm. “If you don’t stop asking me for this game, especially in the middle of the school day, I’m gonna take your phone.”
He grunted, “Yes, sir,” and then avoided me for a few hours. I let him cool down, then I got firm with him for ghosting me.
He apologized and gave me a hug.
“You’ve got to know when to take no for an answer and move on,” I said.
A few months later, I got more relaxed about the kids having games on their phones. So I told him he could download the game. “Really?!” he said. “Cause I have some other games I’ve been wanting to ask you about.”
I get a text from Laurie asking me to set a nightly reminder on my phone for Jayden to put water in his C-PAP machine before bed, and for some reason this sets me off and I decide I’m taking a break from life. I’m not having an especially rotten or exhausting day, but when I open my calendar app and scroll through countless reminders, I think, That’s it! I’m done!
We have a busy house with four school-age kids, each one enrolled in sports, theater, choir, dance, cheer, and more. Also, each child has at least one daily medication. Then there are Laurie’s and my medications. Oh, and both dogs are on medication. I set each of these reminders on my phone to different songs, but now I associate my favorite songs with time for homework, time for bed, and time to pay the water bill. It’s kind of a buzz kill.
“I’m tired of keeping track of all of this,” I tell Laurie.
“You do a really good job keeping this family organized and on schedule,” she says. “You deserve every break you get. The kids are getting old enough now to be responsible and take care of their own business.”
The problem: This particular break impacted my son, who has sleep apnea. I go to wake him up every morning, and he’s a slug. “Why is it taking you a half hour to put a shirt on?” I call to him across the house.
I wish I could say his daily grogginess eventually brought me to my senses and made me realize either he wasn’t old enough or just wasn’t ready to be responsible for keeping up with the sleep machine. But instead it was the notification I got on my phone for the follow-up appointment with the sleep clinic that finally made me think, Oh crap.
So I call the clinic and push the appointment back a few weeks. Then I set a reminder on my phone every night. Within just a few days, we notice a remarkable improvement in his mood. He even says, “I feel better in the mornings.” He starts remembering to fill the water tank before my timer goes off.
One morning, he gives me a hug and says, “Thanks for taking good care of me.”
“Well, there was that time I wasn’t on you about your sleep machine.”
“That’s ok,” he says. “I’m getting old enough to remember.”
I hug him a little tighter, and take comfort in knowing that, while he might not be as responsible as I am, at least he’s more patient.
It’s 6 am on a school morning, and I’m deep scrubbing the tub so Jasmine can take a bath. If she sees any speck of dirt, grime, or even her own hair, all heck is gonna break loose. As I’m scrubbing, I make a mental note to set out both a body towel and a head towel for when she gets out of the tub. This is because if her wet hair drips on her bare shoulders, all heck is gonna break loose. Then while she’s getting dressed, I’m gonna fix her waffles and make darn sure the maple syrup is in a little bowl on the side for dipping. Because if I pour the syrup on top of the waffles… well, you get the idea.
Jasmine is picky, and always has been. We’ve got photos of her as a toddler crying for what we thought was no reason, or defiance. Perhaps she was fine at lunch, but when we changed her outfit, she would burst into tears. Once she learned to talk, she could articulate, “This sweater is itchy.” She didn’t pitch any fewer fits, but rather she added words. Once she’s triggered, her hyperactivity kicks in and an otherwise good day quickly derails.
Laurie and I have tried to parent some of this behavior out of her. Sometimes we play hardball with her. We tell her, “Get over it.” And more often than not she responds with, “I can’t!”
Other times Laurie and I trade off, in a kind of “good cop/bad cop” tactic. This might mean Laurie picks out Jasmine’s clothes for the day and diplomatically tries to explain to Jasmine her choices. When that doesn’t work, Laurie will tag me in, and I’ll either tell Jasmine to get dressed or I will dress her myself.
Often times Laurie and I trade off because we have only so much patience — a finite number of calm attempts in our system before one of us storms over to the other one, hands over the hairbrush, and shouts, “I’m done! She’s all yours.”
To this day, we use any one of these scenarios to de-escalate. We don’t want to send the message to her that losing composure over a pair of shoes is OK. We will die on that hill, but we also know it’s important to recognize her discomfort and that she can’t help a lot of it. Our ultimate goal is to avoid as many stand-offs as possible, and keep our composure calm and kind when we do butt heads.
Our family still speaks of the infamous Soup Incident. I came home one evening just after dinner time and found Jasmine had already been put to bed, by which I mean she was put IN her bed, where she was loudly sobbing.
“Uh oh,” I said to Laurie. “What happened?”
“She wouldn’t eat her dinner.”
“I thought she was having her favorite soup,” I said.
“Right. And she refused to eat it out of a bowl.”
I immediately knew where this went south. “Yeah,” I said, “She eats her soup out of a coffee mug.”
“Well, she didn’t tell me that. She just flipped out. Why couldn’t she just ask nicely instead of spazzing out?!”
This is a common question in our house. Ultimately, we know there’s no answer. The only solution is to set her up for success when we can, and try to keep our cool when she loses hers.
So tonight I’ll tuck her in bed with two pillows arranged exactly how she likes them. I’ll find her favorite Pandora lullaby channel on the tablet. I’ll close her closet doors, leave the bathroom light on, and check on her a few minutes later. And if I forget any of these things, I’ll take a deep breath and keep my cool. Because otherwise, all heck is might break loose.
“Oh, she is just so sweet,” a mom says to me as we watch my five-year-old daughter playing on the floor with another child about her age.
She is? I think to myself shamefully. She is—I know she is—but it’s easy to forget sometimes, thanks to her ADHD.
Just that morning she punched me in the head while I was trying to help her get her shoes on. I’m not sure if the punch was intentional or if my face was just too close to her flailing arms. It stung, either way. After the shoe episode, I had to inform her that her tablet wasn’t charged overnight and she wouldn’t have anything to play with in the car.
She went boneless onto the floor and kicked the ground to emphasize her unhappiness with that news. Once in the car, she declared she wanted a snack. I pulled a pack of crackers out of my purse, but I stopped when she kicked the back of my seat with those tiny sparkly shoes I worked so hard to put on her.
So I put them back. That wasn’t the right move either; the kicking intensified.
She finally ate the crackers begrudgingly and tried to talk to me about something she saw on television. It was a nice conversation…for about eight minutes.
“Where are we going?” She asked me, even though we were headed for the same place we go every Wednesday morning, at the same time, for the past four months.
“We’re going to your art class.”
“Oh, and then what? Can we go to Dunkin’ Donuts?”
“No, we have…”
The kicking starts again. “This is why we’re not going,” I tell her. I keep my voice calm and steady like I’ve been told to do. I don’t reward the behavior or give in, which is easier to control than the urge to scream back.
I let her cry it out as we pull up to her class. We sit in the car for a few minutes, and she tells me she is ready now. “I’ve calmed down,” she says. I want to believe her. I want desperately to believe her.
We walk into her class, and she immediately sits next to another little girl. They start chatting away about the Stick Bot the other girl is holding. The little girl was playing alone and my daughter took to her right away. She told her she liked her dress and her headband. She smiled big at her.
Over the holiday break, Laurie takes the kids to the movies while I am at work. And she sends me a text message before the movie starts, saying she asked the boys to go to the concession stand and refill sodas for their sisters and for her. They stand up to obey, but are groaning and griping about missing the previews. At this point, Laurie sits them back down and explains to them they need to be gentlemen.
Laurie and I take great pride in raising our two boys, and we don’t make too many apologies for having a high standard. We try to find grace when it comes to grades and athletics, especially when their various diagnoses have an impact. But there are some things that we will rarely let go. And serving their mother and sisters with a good attitude is at the top of that list.
“You have to rein in boys quickly,” I heard a pastor say in a sermon about raising sons. “Because most of them are gonna be bigger than their mother real quick.” Isaac is 14 years old, about five pounds heavier than me, and at least two inches taller. Jayden is almost 11, and is tracking in the same direction. So I’m glad we started on them early, because our window closed quickly.
Ever since they were young, Laurie and I have had high expectations. Our boys are to hold every door for their mom and sisters. Every second helping at the dinner table will be offered to the ladies first. The boys will patiently wait every morning for the ladies to be ready for school or church. They will make no jokes about how long the hair, nails, and make-up are taking. And when the ladies announce they’re ready to go, the boys are to make a big deal about how good they look. The only alternative is they’re gonna hear about it from me.
So after the boys head off to the concession stand, Laurie texts me and tells me when the boys started complaining she took out her phone and said, “Let’s just give Dad a call and see what he has to say about your attitude.”
“Woah!” they say as they jump out of their chairs. “Let’s just put that away!” Then they push each other and race to exit the theater, the same way the Three Stooges stumble over each other when they’re in a hurry.
“That’s some sound mothering,” I say. Then I send a group text to Isaac, Vivi, and Laurie, “Isaac, be a gentleman. Or you and I will have words. Actually you will have no words. I will have all the words.”
This might sound harsh, but as I said I don’t make many apologies for riding the boys, and I want the ladies to see I’m addressing it. Plus, the boys clearly aren’t intimidated because Isaac messages back, “Yes, sir” and adds some smiling emojis. Later, Laurie tells me they all got a good laugh out of my text. “You boys are in for it now,” one of the girls said. “You guys better straighten up,” the other one said.
“I love it!” I said. “What happened then?”
“We kept at them throughout the movie. We asked if we could have a piece of their candy or if they’d walk us to the restroom.”
More than two years ago, I bookmarked a recipe for Dragon Noodles. Recently, I decided yet again I wanted to attempt the recipe. The lo mein noodles I had originally purchased for the recipe were, of course, very expired. I then had to buy a new package of lo mein noodles, which until recently were sitting alongside an entire island of old, misfit ingredients.
These ingredients all belong to fantasy recipes that may or may not been realized in what my spouse and I jokingly refer to as The Book of Dreams. This is isn’t a physical place; it’s not even a virtual one. Rather, it’s a placeholder for all of the recipes I may or may not try someday. Some are pinned in Pinterest, others I have emailed to myself. Some make it to real life, others don’t. Some are dog-eared in cookbooks bought either on impulse or after hours of obsessive research.
I recently cleaned out my pantry. Do you know how I knew my lo mein noodles were more than two years old? Because I haven’t dreamed about recipes since my toddler was born. The pantry was a tomb of all sorts of dreams never realized, like copycat Kodiak Cakes batter I once loved then got bored with. And multiple bags of flour because I never knew how much I had in the house when I randomly decided, mid-grocery trip, to bake something.
I’m sure this is a neurotypical thing as well, but I have a hunch the extremes take new heights in the ADHD brain. Pre-baby, I used to manically select recipes, sometimes getting my husband involved. I experienced the same I-have-stumbled-n-gold euphoria every time, eventually followed by the shame of never following through. Of course, once the baby got here I bought an Instant Pot and stuck to practical meals over dreamy ones. The baby ended the madness.
The more I’ve learned since my diagnosis, the less shame I feel about stuff like the Book of Dreams. The Book of Dreams was something I did because I have a brain that’s predisposed to stuff like that. It’s a thing, so what?
I recently started watching the Netflix TV show “Atypical,” about a teen boy with autism. The way the showrunners handle his propensities, normalizing them and weaving them into the fabric of general society (while still paying due attention to the challenges) is the same way I handle my Dragon Noodles.
In one example, the main character in “Atypical” starts dating a girl who has read up on autism and its various interventions. They have developed a system for him to stop talking so much about his obsession, Antarctica. He gets three cards a day, and each time he brings up Antarctica, he has to give up one of his cards. Once he’s out of cards, he’s gotta lay off of Antarctica. The way the show (and the couple) navigate this is so relatable and normalizing.
I’ve made up my own rules to get through the Book of Dreams chaos. I no longer go on recipe binges. If I see something I want to make, I save one recipe at a time and I’m not allowed to save any other recipes until I’ve at least tried the one I’ve already saved… or I relinquish the original recipe for the newly discovered one.
We all devise work-arounds like this to get past our symptoms, and it’s magical when you see these techniques at work, making real changes in you. Suddenly it feels less hopeless and more like a finite thing that can be addressed.
I may never make Dragon Noodles. Or, someday I may make them and love them so much that I make them every day until I burn out on them. Either outcome no longer carries some larger, shameful meaning that ends in me being the buffoon.
Lately, I keep seeing this commercial on TV. An on-the-go mom keeps getting phone alerts — text messages and reminders about a meeting or something to buy at the grocery store. I don’t know if it’s advertising a car or a smart phone, because I always lose interest around when she gets a text message from her son, “Forgot my tuba.” In the next scene, she’s at the school handing him the instrument. Then they hug, smile at each other, and wave goodbye. It’s at this point that I change the channel.
Clearly this mystery product is not meant for me, because this doesn’t happen in my family. I mean, the “I forgot my crap” part happens all the time. But the happy little exchange between the patient parent and the grateful child? That’s just fantasy.
It’s only Wednesday, and this week Laurie and I have received the following text messages:
“Remember I have a track meet after school.” This one came from a child who did not inform us he was on the track team, or that his school had a track team.
“I didn’t pack my clothes for cheer practice tonight.”
“I forgot black socks.” …Again, for yet another choir performance.
“I need $5 for dodgeball because all my friends forgot to bring their $1.”
Laurie and I try to be amused when these messages are followed up with, “Sorry. It won’t happen again.” But, it makes for a long week when the mishaps and forgetfulness begin first thing Monday morning.
We used to treat each incident like a character flaw, and discuss ways we could teach our kids to get their acts together and stop being so forgetful. Clearly, that didn’t work.
Instead, we’ve been trying to accept the inevitable and let natural consequences take their toll. We don’t bail them out every single time. And we try not to blow up over every overlooked appointment or forgotten item.
Maybe that’s how the commercial might have hooked me. Not with a drawn-out list of every text the mom received, but with a more relatable scene. The mom hands her son his tuba while shaking her head. The son smiles and says, “Sorry, I promise I’ll get better.” And then the mom knowingly responds, “Yeah right. I’ll see you again tomorrow with whatever you forgot.”
The holidays are a minefield of challenges for our big-loving, strong-emotioned kiddos. Family gatherings, gifts, overwhelmed parents, deviations from routine — these all overstimulate the senses just when your family supports are most stressed. So when the kids are getting cranky before dinner, coming down from a candy cane sugar high, or stuck inside while a blizzard passes, how can you ease tension and actually encourage family bonding? Games.
If you’re over a certain age, you may have fond memories of piecing together a huge puzzle or playing a cut-throat game of Monopoly with your siblings and cousins. The good news is, kids still love this stuff — if we engage with them. For the more tech-inclined among us, there are plenty of family-friendly multiplayer video games that emphasize fun over winning. If the goal is family bonding, the game you choose should be accessible and enjoyable for everyone, including kids who have a hard time with emotional regulation.
Kids with ADHD often struggle with low self-esteem — thanks in no small part to the messages they receive about being the “bad” one. Playing games with family members can help combat these feelings of shame and isolation. Through games, our kids can practice staying on task, playing by the rules, and dealing with both frustration and excitement. Games also encourage family unity since you’re working together to achieve a goal.
The following is a mix of board, card, and digital games that bring families closer together during the most memorable — and stressful — time of the year.
Taboo – This is a fun game for kids and adults alike. Players have one minute (!) to help their teammates guess as many hidden words as possible. The trick is not using one of the “taboo” clues noted on each card. Try describing the word “sea” without using “blue,” “water,” or “ocean.” Not easy, huh? Taboo challenges kids to be creative and keep their cool as the clock ticks away.
Fibbage – Few things get kids giggling like trying to keep a straight face while telling a (harmless) lie. Fibbage, which you can download on your computer, smart TV, or XBox, gives each player the chance to guess the missing word or phrase in an obscure fact (“Anatidaephobia is the fear that somewhere in the world a ____ is watching you.”) You score points by guessing the correct answer and fooling your opponents into believing your fake answer. Players enter their answers on a phone or tablet.
The Settlers of Catan — If a snowstorm just landed and you’re looking at a long day indoors, it’s time to bust out The Settlers of Catan. As the title of this world-famous board game suggests, each player is a settler trying to grow a colony on the fictional island of Catan. Players start with a settlement that they try to expand to a city. To win, you have to be patient and strategic. Who doesn’t love the idea of creating your own world?
Puzzles — Set up a table with a 1,000-piece puzzle and the whole family will get sucked into the vortex. These oldies but goodies are great conversation starters and can engage anyone aged 3 to 100. Have you ever found yourself distracted by the puzzle at a family gathering? Next thing you know, you’ve spent an hour immersed in a conversation you never would have had otherwise.
No Stress Chess— Playing chess is a proven way to help kids with ADHD enhance their ability to concentrate. If you’ve forgotten how to play but want to introduce chess to your kids, No Stress Chess comes with a chess board and cards telling you how each piece can move. Once you both feel comfortable with the rules and strategies, flip the board over and start playing the real thing.
Mario Kart 8 for Nintendo Switch— Mario Kart bridges the generational gap between elementary-school kids and parents who might remember the original Mario Kart, released on Super Nintendo in the early ‘90s. Mario Kart 8, which came out a few years ago, features many of the same well-known Nintendo characters racing around in a good-natured competition wherein no one player can ever get out too far in front. Like other racing video games, Mario Kart helps kids with ADHD work on their self-control and fine-motor skills. Of course, make sure your kids aren’t parked in front of the TV for hours on end.
Overcooked 2– Inspired by the cooking competition show craze, Overcooked 2 takes players on an adventure through the zaniest kitchens imaginable. Ever tried cooking while standing on top of a hot air balloon? Here’s your chance! The more players, the better. This video game will force your family members to work together in the most fun and silly way possible (and might give your kids a sense of what it’s like to cook a big holiday dinner in a house full of hungry relatives).
If your kids are anything like mine, they are begging you right now for a Nintendo Switch or an iPad or a new phone or an XBox or any number of other digital distractions. I’m not against devices totally, but I have learned that the best gifts are usually the ones we can enjoy together. Here are a few of my kids’ favorites.
My family stumbled upon audiobooks when one day Laurie got one from the Hank, the Cowdog series from the library. Isaac loved it immediately, and he has since inspired his three younger siblings, who all go to sleep listening to an audiobook. They swap and trade, and use allowance money for new stories. This is ideal for kids with ADHD, who often struggle with settling down at night.
This gift is also ideal for kids with ADHD who have trouble settling down at bedtime. Weighted blankets have a calming effect on the nervous system, which then releases serotonin. We used one with all of our kids, and now that they’re older they all like sleeping under multiple blankets. If you’re like me, this also means you can keep the house temperature lower in the winter, which will mean lower heating bills!
Note: It is wise to get an easily washable weighted blanket if there are bed-wetting issues.
Quad roller skates are so old school that parents may not even think of them as gift ideas. A play therapist once advised us that giving kids with ADHD physically grueling activities can be an ideal outlet for their high energy, thus improving overall behavior. We learned that it really does work: Strap on some skates, send them around in circles at the rink or an empty parking lot, and your kids will end up too tired to act wild, or at least AS wild.
Many kids with ADHD are highly creative, so activity books for making paper dolls or paper airplanes make great gifts. We bought Jasmine a small craft table that sits in our kitchen, and she spends hours every day creating dolls and doll outfits, Christmas ornaments, and key chains.
Studies show a direct correlation between ADHD and creative thinking. What’s more, people with ADHD tend to excel at things that interest them. And music is a great melding of these two phenomena for my kids. After teaching guitar for more than 20 years, I’ve learned just about everyone picks up the guitar for the same reason I did when I was 13 years old: It’s cool! The holidays are a great time to find deals on brand new instruments. In recent years many manufacturers have found ways to sell instruments that are both good quality and affordable.
Today, before my son’s first basketball game, I can’t find his jersey. It was just worn at basketball practice two days earlier, but we all know that doesn’t mean much.
I do a quick check of the hamper — nope, not there. Heart pumping, ears ringing, and now here comes the anger. My mouth just starts blurting out the hot lava in my mind. A volcano of the week’s ADHD frustrations begins erupting.
“Ugh, why do you have to be so disorganized? What is this mess? Why are there pencils in your LEGO bin?” Bins get dumped as hoards of paper shoved in between marbles and knick knacks fall to the floor. Treasures kept on his ADHD island fall into further disarray. “You are going to pick up this mess when we get home!”
I perform another check of the hamper, tears starting to form in my eyes. Self doubt and negative self-talk stream through my mind. Why is this always so hard? Why can’t I have it together? Ah! We are going to be late. What do I do?
Suddenly, I remember. I did laundry. I run downstairs, open the dryer full of still-damp clothes and there, staring back at me, is a fluorescent green basketball jersey. Yay! I found the jersey! “Here throw this on. Sorry it’s wet. Go go go… get in the car.” Heart slowing down. Mind clearing and relaxing — and then suddenly I realize… I lost it.
From the driver’s seat I see those big brown eyes looking back at mine in the rearview mirror. I swallow the lump in my throat and say, “I am so sorry.” I recognize an immediate softening in those eyes. We pull up to the game and a smile crosses his face. He jumps out of the car, his fluorescent green jersey still damp, and he plays his heart out.
On the way home, getting back into the car, he turns to me and says, “I am sorry I am so disorganized. I will do better. You are the best mom.”
My heart both glows and sinks. I say to him, “No, buddy, you are best kid. I’ll help you get organized when we get home. I made the mess, too.”
In that moment of feeling defeated, I forgive myself and absorb the lesson learned. We move on. We go forward and we learn our lesson for next time. Not only to check the dryer first, but to forgive ourselves and say we are sorry.