Coming to Grips with your Child’s Differences: When Dreams and Realities Collide

Terry Matlen, ACSW Health Guide
  • This weekend- Groundhog's Day- my youngest daughter will be turning 20 years old. For many parents, 20 is seen as a milestone in their child's life. The decade of the twenties is a time for exciting new opportunities: college, dating, marriage, career, starting families, even. It's a time when the adult child truly begins to separate from parents and home and forges their way into the world as an individual searching for their identity and independence.


    In our case, these goals are light years away, and may not even be a reality, for my almost 20 year old still lives at home. In fact, she still sleeps with stuffed animals, occasionally hugs her doll and tries to hide the fact that she still believes in Santa Claus.

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    My daughter Mackenzie has ADHD, yes. But she also has a long list of disabilities due to a brain injury she incurred as a baby as the result of a vaccine reaction. I wrote more about her story in one of my earlier posts .


    Each milestone - turning 16, 18, 20...graduating high school, etc. are triggers for me because it reminds me of my daughter's differences and the struggles she will face her entire life. Each Groundhog's Day brings up the combination of joy and heartache; the latter because I become more acutely aware that she will never lead a totally normal life.


    But it also reminds me of my own loss; the loss of having a "normal" child.


    In talking with hundreds and hundreds of parents who have children with ADHD, rarely does the topic of parental grief come up. We focus on getting our child academic, medical and psychological help. We compare names of local OTs, speech therapists and tutors. We share medication tips. We nod solemnly when we hear the familiar stories of children lacking meaningful friendships, being bullied, not getting appropriate services at school and more.


    But what about our hearts? Why is it so hard to share the deep sense of loss we feel? What of the idealized child we pictured when our babies were born (or adopted), imagining ourselves some day snuggling with our compliant children at bedtime, reading bedtime stories, when in reality, we instead find ourselves needing to practically rope them down to get them to stop moving so they can settle down long enough to fall sleep.


    I think it's important to recognize these heart stabbing moments that we feel when our children reach various milestones in life. For most parents, high school graduations are bitter sweet. We are thrilled to see our children move on to the next chapter of their lives but sad to see them grow up. But for those of us with children who are struggling, we have additional and very complex feelings; from the sadness in remembering their 12 years of school challenges to the horrifying fear of what their academic and/or vocational futures hold, as they walk off the stage with diploma in hand.


    These strong feelings are natural. But they become distorted or more painful if we don't recognize these within ourselves. We need to embrace the hurt, understand that our children *are* different and that watching them grow up can often be painful. Of course, let's not forget to enjoy the wonderful moments, either. Or to forget the skills, gifts and charms our children posses. But too often, we push the sadness as far back as possible, denying ourselves the deep, true but sad feelings we have, too.


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    Only in embracing and acknowledging the loss and the hurt, can we move on to total acceptance of who our child is and what his strengths and limitations are. That is part of the healing process.


    It might be helpful to retrace your steps and remember the feelings you had when you first recognized that your child had differences. Was it early on? Some mothers describe hyperactive behaviors when their babies were in utero. How did you feel if/when your child exhibited behavioral problems in those early years? How did you handle the phone calls from school? Or maybe even pre-school? Most parents intuitively knew very early on that something was "off."


    Do you remember the day you got the definitive answer to your questions when the professional told you your child has ADHD? What were your thoughts? Relief? Anger? Depression? Fear? Guilt?


    Know that even though you may have gotten to the point of total acceptance of your child's ADHD, these sad feelings in you may erupt from time to time as your child achieves various milestones in his life. And know that you aren't alone. We all feel them from time to time; we just don't seem to be able to easily express them.


Published On: January 30, 2008