Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Legos & iTunes

A Lego Space Shuttle, Legend the Beanie Baby Dragon, the “Age of Empires” computer game, an Orca whale stuffed animal, a Ferrari sports car model, an Abercrombie and Fitch camisole, iTunes songs, the Twilight DVD, an iPod, J. Crew corduroy slacks, and ribbon-tied, shortbread cookies from The Cakery bakery in downtown Burlingame, California. What do all these things have in common? Hint: This is not a holiday shopping list, as you may have guessed. All the items on this list were rewards either for my son Blake or my daughter Madison, as they were growing up. That’s right, rewards that acknowledged and celebrated their many efforts and accomplishments at home, in school, with relatives and friends, in community service, in extracurricular activities, and in sports, These were acknowledgements for doing something good -- big or small -- for something of which they were proud, at all the different stages of their childhood and teenage years.

In 5th grade, Madison completed her Harry Potter book report and created a mobile using a wizard hat as a centerpiece from which handcrafted figures from the Sorcerer’s Stone dangled. She wrote about the plot, theme and characters on construction paper squares that also dangled from the hat. She was creative and thoughtful. As a reward, I told her we would go and pick out another Beanie Baby for her collection that included iguanas, antelopes, bears, dogs and dinosaurs. Yet another colorful furry creature that would perch above her bed.

Blake practiced each day for a half hour on the piano learning one of Clementi’s Sonatinas leading up to the winter piano recital at the church. It was a complex and technically difficult piece to learn, requiring much patience. In addition, he had to wear a navy blazer and grey wool slacks to the recital and he had to take a bow in front of the audience. Our family celebrated later by going to the Cheese Cake Factory for dinner and I got him the computer game “Empire Earth” that he always wanted.

To tell you the truth, it doesn’t matter what the particular reward is. It does matter greatly that you decide to give it to your child and that the reward is something they love and want. It says simply: “I love you and I am proud of you. What you do is important to me” – all powerful words for a child with ADHD.

What are some of the other things that I rewarded? Blake organized his closet, sat politely through a long dinner party with relatives, finished the research and writing for his 8th grade English Share Project. We picked out a red model Ferrari that joined his silver Lamborghini and blue Porsche on his bookshelf.

In 9th grade, Madison organized a group of girls to help with community service work for our local greyhound rescue group. We did gift-wrapping with the greyhounds at Borders Book Store where we brought a group of former racing greyhounds into the bookstore, as part of an adoption event during the holiday season. The girls gift-wrapped books as the members of the rescue group talked to Border’s customers about greyhounds as pets and the urgent need for adoption. All tips and donations went to the rescue group, and I had Madison pick out “The Notebook” DVD she always wanted.

We all need rewards, recognition for our accomplishments, but I notice that children with ADHD need this symbolic recognition more frequently. They need something to strive for. Something to keep them going when it is hard to focus for hours on that biology or chemistry homework, studying for the SAT exam, doing the water polo drills and laps, or preparing for a part-time job interview.

Other people may chide me and say, the accomplishment itself is enough of a reward. But I politely disagree. True, an accomplishment stands on its own merit, but it seems as if our adult lives are all about results and returns on investments. What if our children’s results are not so stellar? What if your child tried really hard to do something and met with modest success – didn’t do well on a test, didn’t get selected as a starter for the team? As parents, can we take this one time in their lives and recognize their effort? Think of what that says to your child. It says I know how hard it was for you to do that, and I reward your effort – regardless of the results. That acknowledgement is crucial. Besides, there is plenty of time in the years ahead for the world to exert its influence.

Happy Thanksgiving!


P.S. Blake still wants those shortbread cookies even though he is in college.

Read more about ADHD on the CHADD website and learn more about a young person’s experience growing up with ADHD on Blake’s website

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Hothouse Flowers

Children with ADHD are like hothouse flowers, and more than anything, they need someone who will protect and incubate them and shield them from the frost. They need someone who is not going to be judgmental – but understanding. Someone who can help “translate” the rest of the world to them and teach them day by day how to live in it.

You, as the parent, are that person. You can allow them to grow where they don’t have to be perfect, where they can make mistakes, where they don’t have to be like everyone else. The rest of the word is already so harsh, so unforgiving to their extraordinary sensibilities. You are going to give them the gift of time and nourishment – and the gift of unconditional love.

We’ve had our share of panics in our household. When Blake and Madison were younger, there were nights when I had to help them finish a math portfolio, due the next day, and mornings when I had to suddenly rifle through my clothes closet and old Halloween costumes to find an outfit for them to wear for a history report to be given that day. Blake once had to appear as Galileo and Madison, years later, as Caesar Augustus. Both had informed me only a short time before we had to leave for school that they had to deliver their report in historic costume. Talk about trying to be creative.

The panics don’t stop as they get older, either. En route to a major book signing and presentation in northern California for his book ADHD & Me, Blake lost his speech. Meanwhile, I was driving back to the San Francisco Bay Area with Madison and her close friend Margaret from a High School Band Festival in southern California when Blake called. “Please, you have to help me reconstruct my speech,” he pleaded. “Blake, I’m driving 75 miles an hour on Interstate 5,” I answered. But we brainstormed and recreated his talking points in time for him to deliver the speech.

At the time, you will feel like ranting and raving, but you shouldn’t. Remember two things:
1) Your son or daughter will not hear your lecture, because he or she is in panic mode because of not fully understanding an assignment or having lost something.
2) Lecturing is not going to solve the immediate problem.
Your best bet is to deal with the situation at hand, show them how to problem-solve, and be as effective as possible. At a later date, go through the scenario with your child and talk about what could have been done differently. How they could have planned better. Organized their things ahead of time, etc.

I have gotten a fair amount of criticism for my particular philosophy. People say, “Let them fail. Let them experience the consequences so they will learn. Don’t save them. Don’t be a safety net. They will depend too much on you. You will not always be there.”

But I am holding firm to my philosophy. Prepare them to face the outside world, while protecting them from it. Give them exposure to the world, while giving them the ability to adjust to it. I believe that children with ADHD have more than their share of criticism. I believe that it is my job as their parent to lighten the load and show them how to do things, how to navigate problems – without all the negative feedback. I don’t need to join the chorus that is already out there.

I believe – and have seen – that once they have that solid foundation, they grow and learn and take on more responsibilities. They will flourish and make choices. Things will backfire, but you will coach them through it, and next time they will know better. You can even laugh about it afterwards.

The night before he was to move into the TKE fraternity, last year, Blake said that he, ugh, forgot to mention that he needed a bed, desk, lamp and chair. “Blake, you didn’t know this before?” I was exasperated, but we ran off to IKEA the next day in Berkeley, bought what he needed and carted it back to his fraternity with the bed frames hanging out of the back of my packed SUV. Last December, Madison forgot. She forgot to tell me that she needed a particular double-barreled nerf gun and a pair of moccasins to contribute to a holiday party at school the next morning. “Where on earth do I find those things?” I asked. Soon, it was off to Toys"R"Us and Target. What can you do? They are young, and they have ADHD, and they are learning.

Oh, I forgot to mention: I used a peter pan collared blouse and a French beret for Galileo, and a gold wreath, sheet and palm frond for Caesar Augustus.

Read more about ADHD on the CHADD website and learn more about a young person’s experience growing up with ADHD on Blake’s website.


Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Back-to-School Migration

Since we are all in the midst of the annual back-to-school migration, not unlike the mass migration of thousands of gazelle across the African Serengeti Plains, I thought I would share my top three ideas to help maintain sanity in spite of the confusion -- and ask you for your ideas.

My first idea: Celebrate the new school year.

My son Blake and daughter Madison love our shopping trips to prepare for school. We comb the aisles in Staples and Office Depot for Madison’s spiral notebooks featuring photos of different breeds of dogs and soft-sided three-ring binders in fuchsia, green, and royal blue. She picks out a different color for each subject and later fills the binders with paper and dividers and decorates with stickers. Then off to the clothing stores for school clothing: laced-bordered tops and tee shirts that can be layered over jeans and empire dresses with flounces.

Blake has always liked mechanical pencils for math and science, magic markers, pens with thick grips, and highlighters in multiple colors. He also likes erasable pens -- all of these items help those with ADHD. Now that he is in college, we also shop for his studio apartment – everything from dishes to towels, and vases with dried flowers to framed cityscape photographs.

Next come finding backpacks with lots of pockets that we can allocate for pens, wallets, cell phones, calculators, notebooks, laptop computers, Balance Bars, and umbrellas. The fresh supplies, the colors, the thrill of shopping and a lunch, all make for a celebration, recognizing this special annual event in their lives.

My second idea: Have a staging area in your home for all their school work and school items. (This applied to Blake when he was living at home.)

In our case, it has always been the kitchen. As I mentioned last month, we always had “Homework Club” after school. So in the interests of organization, I thought I would devote a section of the kitchen for their work and for everything related to school. A table with shelves under the window holds laptops, homework and projects “in process.” A bulletin board holds school notices, announcements and permission slips.

I have book shelves -– one for Blake (the higher one because he is taller) and one for Madison so they can easily store and swap books as they are working, and grab books as they run out the door. A dictionary, reference books, school directories, and parent lists are good to keep here, too.

A drawer (or box) with hanging files is a blessing. We make a file for each subject, and as they need to file class notes or materials, they can pull the papers out of their binders and quickly pop them into the hanging files. In this manner, we keep down the paper clutter in their backpacks and preserve the class notes from getting mashed with bananas at the bottom of a backpack.

Keep a drawer (or box) with stationery supplies -– notebooks, paper, colored paper, erasers, pens, pencils, poster board -- immediately available so you don’t have to run out and buy glue at 11:00 p.m. the night before a project is due.

I also posted a checklist for Blake (when he was younger) and Madison that they can look at before leaving the house: Do you have lunch money, cell phone, books for the day, sweater, homework and projects?

Backpacks sit against the wall in an alcove, ready to go out the door in the morning, as we rushed to the train station or to the carpool.

Having a staging area helps “corral” all the school items, but it isn’t a guarantee. One time, my husband Ben (who does not have ADHD) decided to put the homework away, despite my asking him not to touch the homework. He succeeded in putting Madison’s homework into Blake’s backpack and Blake’s math project into Madison’s backpack. Blake left for high school thinking I had placed his project in his pack. I received a panic call from him when he arrived in San Francisco, saying that not only was his project missing but it was due that day. “Why is Madison’s homework in my backpack?” he asked. I made Ben leave work and drive Blake’s project up to the city. Needless to say, Ben decided to leave the homework alone after that.

My last idea: Be proactive with the school and establish a connection.

One of the first things you will want to do is set up a meeting with your son or daughter’s elementary, middle or high school teachers. “I don’t want you to have to guess,” I told them as I described Blake and Madison’s ADHD, the treatment, the medication, the routines, advice from our doctor, the IEPs, and the accommodations. Sometimes, even a simple accommodation can make a big difference. For example, when Blake was in 4th grade, just allowing him to get up from his seat and stand in the back of the classroom or leave the room for a drink of water, helped him refocus. I also warned them about Madison’s tendency to talk, and we agreed to place her in the front of the classroom.

You’ll find that teachers don’t necessarily know nor have access to the school files and they will appreciate your openness and honesty. You will also want to tell teachers how you will work with them, that you want them to call or email you if there is a problem. (Of course, you will get the calls and emails.) You want to make things consistent between home and school, and you want your child to know that you and the teachers are working together. This is always good for a child with ADHD.

This meeting is also an opportunity to talk to the teachers about your son or daughter’s strengths, their interest in space probes or Roman history or piano or swimming. The teacher will get a better picture of who your children are as individuals and may subsequently have more patience and understanding.

One of Blake’s 10th grade teachers, who is a very stern Russian lady, listened to me skeptically at first. Then she saw his talents. She was patient with his antics and even used her sense of humor to defuse situations. Finally, she admitted to me, at the end of the school year, that she really appreciated the fact that I had talked to her at the beginning of the year. “You gave me facts,” she said, “and set the tone.”

You have my three ideas, now, let’s hear yours…


Tuesday, July 28, 2009


Thank you for your many heartfelt comments -- and for your patience as I learn how to do my posts. (I still major on email.)

I asked my daughter Madison to help me with my blog since she has learned all there is to know about websites going back to 3rd grade (We live in Silicon Valley, after all, where all children are weaned on laptops). She concedes to help me a little bit by doing a post for me, carefully hiding exactly how she does it. Then suddenly she scampers out of my office giggling. “Madison, how did you do that?” I ask running after her. “I’m not telling,” she answers mischievously. “It’s for me to know and you to find out!” She disappears into the house. She has one on her mother. So, you see, I’m not learning about blogs as quickly as I’d like. Ah, the delights of a child with ADHD.

Since the topic of high maintenance has stirred up a lot of discussion, I think we should stay on it longer. Also, many stories bubbled up in my mind as I read your comments that I can share with you. What you are going through is incredibly typical; don’t forget, I’ve seen it from both sides of the equation – from having a son and a daughter with ADHD. And this doesn’t include me and my ADHD in the balance. (Now, I know why I’ve always talked so much – it’s hyperactivity, adult style.)

To those of you who asked, “How will I survive the next 15 years?” I answer, “You will!” I am living proof. When Blake was three years old and I noticed his inordinate hyperactivity, I asked his pediatrician, Dr. Lieberman, for advice. Dr. Lieberman understood fully what I was talking about, since every time I brought Blake in for a doctor appointment, Blake would run around startling the doctor’s ten pet birds in their cages in his rural Connecticut office. “You don’t have to worry, he will turn out fine,” Dr. Lieberman said watching the birds fluttering around; their antique cages swinging on their stands. “I have another patient just like Blake, and he is at Dartmouth right now.” I was sitting there with a three-year-old and Dr. Lieberman was talking about an 18-year-old college freshman. I said to Dr. Lieberman, “So, what do I do for the next 15 years?”

Now, I am writing to you, hopefully going to help you to survive the next five, ten or 15 years.

It is a lot of work and it is exhausting, but you will learn how to parent. Understand from the beginning that you will just be much more involved than other parents. Children with ADHD can excel intellectually, artistically or athletically, but lag two to three years behind in maturity. You will not take things for granted, you will be tenacious in how you structure things for your child, question them about what needs to be done, and follow-up. You will get used to it, and it will become automatic. You need to say to yourself, “It just comes with the program, and this is going to be my job.”

I did color-coded daily behavior charts for Blake and Madison, awarding 10 cents for each occasion of brushed teeth, made beds, dog walked, table set, clothes put away. It was a bit laborious, but it was easy to add up all the 10-cent entries. Both Blake and Madison looked on anxiously as I tallied up their totals at the end of each week. It became a competition to see who had earned the most, even though they had agreed to pool their money to buy a Hobie Cat someday for sailing.

In middle school, I had Madison and Blake sit down each evening for “Homework Club” on the kitchen table, and we would go through assignments, organize papers, prepare notes for exams, do outlines, and discuss how to approach an essay assignment. I tested them before quizzes, checked their math problems and had them edit their essays. My husband Ben was watching all of this from the family room and said, “My mother didn’t do anything like this for me when I was growing up, and my mother was a teacher. I turned out all right, and I considered her a good mother.” “You don’t have ADHD, you have dyslexia,” I responded. “You can’t really compare the situations. Besides, you still can’t spell!”

What does parenting a child with ADHD require? As a number of you have said: Patience, sense of humor, discipline and consistency, not taking their attitude to heart, finding ways to motivate them, choosing your battles and understanding that your child, and not the painting with the hole your child put in it, is the most important thing.

Recently, I took Blake to the airport for his flight. He had overstuffed his carry-on luggage with his size-13 shoes. “I don’t think the bag is going to fit on the plane,” I said, looking at the bulge in the red suitcase. Blake assured me he had packed like this before, and it wasn’t going to be a problem. As he was ready to go through security at San Francisco airport, the agent stopped him because his bag did not fit in the metal container and therefore would not fit in the plane’s overhead rack. Blake started protesting that he was going to miss his plane, and he asked to speak to the manager, but the TSA agents stood firm. Luckily, I was there and intervened quickly: “Blake, this is not the time to be asking to speak to a manager. You have to listen to the agents.” I didn’t want him to end up behind the shaded glass. “Let’s get someone to help us from the airline. With the help of an American Airlines agent who thought of re-shuffling the contents of his bag by putting his shoes into his laptop computer satchel and his laptop into the carry-on so it wouldn’t bulge, the luggage got through. Blake made his flight and learned a lesson about stopping to listen for what the issue is, what the agents were concerned about, and how to find a solution that would please everyone.

More than anything else, children with ADHD need someone who is not going to be judgmental – but understanding. Someone who can help “translate” the rest of the world to them and teach them – slowly but surely -- how to live in it.

Read more about ADHD at the CHADD website. If you want to learn more about a young person's experience, go to Blake's website.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Children with ADHD Bring New Meaning to the Term “High Maintenance”

Welcome to my blog!

I am, like you, a parent of children with ADHD, and I am learning as I go. Of course, as parents, we are always learning, but it seems as if there is just more to learn with children affected by ADHD and less we can take for granted. It is trial and error and still uncharted territory.

The term “high maintenance” has taken on new meaning for me. Before, I thought the term applied to marriages and specifically to young trophy wives who had to be pampered by older husbands. Now, as the mother of two teenage children with ADHD—my son Blake, who just turned 20 and my daughter Madison who is 17, I realize that “high maintenance” means being a life support system for them, ready to guide, advise, step in, advocate for and play interference for them, as they need you—or, as they will also tell you, when they “don’t need” you. I realize too this may be going on for well after they are launched into their adulthood.

My daughter Madison spent hours on her high school English project analyzing the main character in J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Her four-part assignment was to do a psychological analysis by answering a number of essay questions followed up by a letter to a psychologist of her findings. “Go through all the assignment instructions,” I coached her, “and underline what the teacher wants. After you finish, go back and check that you have satisfied all the requirements of the assignment.” “I will, I will,” she answered in her teenage-exasperated voice. “You don’t have to tell me,” she pleaded. “I can check it for you, after you finish, if you want,” I offered. “No, that won’t be necessary,” she said.

A week later, when the assignment came back, her teacher, Mr. Holderman, complimented Madison, saying that her thorough and perceptive analysis was the best in the class, but then indicated that she had missed the entire last part of the assignment—the writing of the letter to summarize findings. And for this reason, she only earned a “B.” I talked with Madison about slowing down, focusing, not taking things for granted and the importance of checking and follow-up. I explained that you can do a very good job on something but if it does not meet all the requirements, if it is not completed, the work—and the grade—can be compromised.

Being a parent of children with ADHD means having broader responsibility. Whereas parents of other children can easily let their children assume responsibilities, parents of children with ADHD have to do it more slowly, and in a more calculated manner. Sometimes, it is two steps forward and one back. You always have to be on the ready to step in. As one father, whose son Jeremy is in his late twenties, told me, “I need to guide Jeremy in everything. I need to be his safety net,” he said. “Get used to it; it will be like this.”

My son Blake was registering for his sophomore year college courses at UC Berkeley. “Be careful not to overload yourself,” I warned. “You are taking Organic Chemistry, which is a killer course. It will be an enormous amount of work.” Again, I heard the “I know; I know.” Around mid-semester, when Blake was complaining about the inordinate workload, I asked him if I could help him plan to reduce the workload. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I’m taking 19 credits.” “What do you mean you are taking 19 credits?” I was shocked. “I thought you were going to take a lighter course load.” “I didn’t look at the number of credits for each course,” Blake admitted, somewhat sheepishly. “Blake, before you sign up for a course, there are two things you need to do: Learn about the professor and look at the number of credits!” Another longer discussion and another lesson learned.

Is it a lack of common sense? We assume our child will know something because it is obvious, but, of course, to a child affected by ADHD it is not obvious. Another mother told me, “It is like you have to share the pre-frontal cortex of your brain (the part that controls executive function such as planning and understanding consequences) with your child.”

I think once we accept this fact about our children, our reactions will be tempered, our expectations will be adjusted, and the rest will become easier.

Join me, Blake and Madison as we all try to figure things out.