I was talking to my 20-year-old son yesterday in the car about what topic I should write about in my blog this week. His reply was “why don’t you talk about me?”. Anyone who knows my son will know this is an unusual thing for him to say as, whilst all my children know I do use their life experiences to help others, he is a private person and doesn’t often talk about his own challenges. He said it might help others and I agree so here we are….
There is much to say about his life so far but the part that I thought might be helpful was around his developmental trauma and ADHD diagnosis. The reason this is interesting, for parents or school staff, is that it’s taken until now to get that diagnosis and to even recognise that ADHD is part of his experience.
He came to us at age 5 with his older sister and younger brother. He was an endearing, beautiful boy looked much like the milky bar kid, for those who can remember that. He was billed as the ‘angry’ one by those who knew him, as he was prone to angry outbursts and controlling behaviour at times. In terms of Attachment styles, he had a tendency towards Ambivalence – the style that is all about needing attention and being close to adults so that he could get his needs met.
All through primary school the lovely endearing side of his maladaptive coping strategies shone through, and he was never really in trouble at school. He would contain his anxiety and frustrations until he came out of school and then the anger would be presented to us at home. He didn’t display any ADHD symptoms, at least with my little understanding at the time. We put a lot of his difficulties down to Attachment and the impact of the early trauma he had received before coming into care.
As he grew the anger outbursts changed slightly and we saw more shame responses such as hiding and punishing himself. Still, we put it down to his early experiences and nothing else. In researching ADHD now, it is likely that the trauma is closely linked to the ADHD, and which came first is hard to say.
He struggled through secondary but stayed just under the radar in terms of bad behaviour in school. He never refused to go, which I’m surprised at as he hated going to school and came out without any real exam results. He did have some good friends though who saw him through, and he showed signs of feeling secure at home most of the time. There were still anger outbursts and moments of shame related behaviour that made it hard at times.
College came and then the problems became more pronounced. He started at a mainstream college but didn’t manage to stay longer than a few months. We then tried a more specialist military college which he attended for a week. After that it became increasingly more difficult for him to overcome what we started to call his ‘anxiety’ and leave the house.
He was volunteering at a forest school with a friend of mine and, whilst he enjoyed this, he found it hard to overcome his anxiety to go every week. Then COVID hit and his fear of leaving the house grew, along with many others.
He was seeing a therapist during COVID who began to think that there might be something else at play for him, alongside the impact of his early childhood. So, we applied for funding to get a full assessment done and the outcome wasn’t an anxiety disorder (which I thought it would be) but it was unmanaged developmental trauma from his past and unmanaged ADHD.
My son has never been a child you might associate with ADHD – not a boy running around a classroom, not being able to sit still, lack of self-control and basically unmanageable. If anything, as he’s got older, he has become more sedentary, less talkative, and more withdrawn.
Now I am learning more about ADHD though, and what it can mean to people, it does make sense. Some of the traits that absolutely describe my son are:-
- Time difficulties – there is now and not now. When we talk about doing things later he can struggle with this.
- Motivation for tasks he doesn’t enjoy – he will seem to forget to do something he said he would do but can seem motivated on other things instead.
- Obsessions – gaming, collections – having hyperfocus on something that produces dopamine. He is naturally deficient in dopamine which is the chemical that affects pleasure and attention.
- Internalising his worry – overthinking constantly.
- Rejection sensitivity – more sensitive to rejection or the perception of being rejected by someone.
- Social anxiety – as above being sensitive to rejection can impact the desire to be around people and people with ADHD often have lots of anxiety generally as a result.
- Low self-esteem – this can come from the above but also feeling different to others and not being able to do seemingly easy tasks that others can. It’s not necessarily about not knowing how to do things, but the motivation to do them is lacking.
In talking this blog through with my son, I asked him how this diagnosis has made him feel. His response was – “I was relieved to know that there was something that made sense of me not being like others. I don’t fit in with others and often struggle even with close family members, because I feel different and embarrassed and ashamed at not being able to do what others can, like getting a job”.
I also asked him what helps him right now:-
“Gaming – it relaxes and keeps my brain occupied. It’s fun and I feel good at it”.
“My best friend who also has anxiety for different reasons. We have been friends for almost 15 years and I can talk to him about anything”.
“My Mum helps by encouraging me to do things, but also understanding when I can’t”.
“Cinema – this is a place I will go with my Mum and sometimes my friend. It’s a happy place that helps me relax and feel comfortable. We go to a small screen near where we live”.
“TV – helps me to calm down, relax and is another happy place”.
“Collecting things – this is like an addiction but a healthy one. Addiction is difficult for people like me I think”.
“Vaping has helped me stop smoking or doing drugs”.
“Our dog has helped me by coming to me when I’m upset, also playing with him sometimes helps”.
“My girlfriend, who I met online, and we’ve been together for 2 months now. She also has anxiety and other challenges. We talk a lot and see each other when we can. She helps with my anger”.
Finally I asked him what doesn’t help or makes things worse:-
“People who push me to do things they know are hard for me to do”.
“People who don’t understand”.
“People who think I am faking it to get attention”.
“Places with lots of people, like shopping centres”.
“Not being able to help my Mum with money for the house”.
We are still on a journey of understanding for my son’s ADHD and how we can find ways to help him. Even writing this together is part of that journey. So, think of those you live or work with who may be struggling in these areas, but it may be hidden or appear to be something else. Regardless of what it is we all need understanding and empathy. We have no idea what others may be going through.