Grief Kid Syndrome? Maybe Not

As we bump down the messy path of childhood to teen-dom, I have often found myself explaining away unexplainable kid behavior as being related to the trauma of their childhoods, the lack of a dad, their grief. Irrational eruptions over homework are explained as unexpressed grief from their tumultuous childhood. Acting out and lying I attribute to not having a dad in the house (and this behavior also runs in HIS side of the family of course, so he should have to deal with it, dammit), and perfectionism and delusions of grandeur come from being raised thinking they were somehow “special” because their dad died.

But I’ve made an interesting discovery. Not all is as it seems. This past summer, we (I will use the collective to protect the identities of the innocent) had a diagnosis of ADD, and despite my initial reluctance, began taking meds. The difference in behavior was astounding and so we went into this year thinking issues with schoolwork, particularly schoolwork that doesn’t get handed in on a regular basis would be resolved. Four months in, the problems persist. The meltdowns continue along with other troubling behavior which I immediately attributed, of course to the stress of the 10th anniversary. How very widow of me.

Not once did it occur to me that perhaps the ADD was the problem. Like many people, I was skeptical of the ADD diagnosis. I wondered if perhaps the meds’ success was attributable to a placebo effect. I assumed ADD was just a condition having to do with maintaining focus in school situations, and that my child’s behavior had more to do with laziness, or inattentiveness, which should have been resolved with the meds. I was off and running with the 10th anniversary theory.

When the school thing began to look dire, I started preaching. More tears and tantrums. There was some major acting out that resulted in a pretty severe punishment from the school. We were both horrified by what was happening, but neither one of us seemed to know how to handle it.

And then last night, I began speaking with a friend, one who has ADD herself, one who regularly had to advocate on behalf of her kids at their schools. One who knows everything there is to know about ADD and ADHD. I trudged over to her house in the snow this afternoon and started reading some of her books with my mouth hanging open.

It was all there. Behaviours I had always thought was a result of grief, or trauma, or normal childhood messiness suddenly made sense, had a name, a diagnosis, a medication. I discovered how pervasive ADD is, how it can be seen across a whole slew of behaviors. Suddenly even unusual toddler behaviors made sense and had a root.

I learned that “preaching” to ADD kids is a waste of breath. They tune you out. Pressuring them over getting good marks, getting homework done and handed in causes more stress and is often ineffective. In short, I’ve been going about things the wrong way in terms of helping my kids to be successful.

Once again, I’ve been blindsided by the “grief kid” syndrome, assuming any disruptive behavior stems from their early loss and grief and trauma. What I am finally realizing is that it actually contributes very little.

If you are dealing with a kid with ADD/ADHD, I found this list to help you interact with your child. Actually, come to think of it, it’s a pretty good list for any parent interacting with a child.

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  1. annie January 18, 2012 at 11:29 pm

    Stature of limitations for everything. ADD/ADHD labels and meds get handed out very liberally, so you were right to be suspicious, but kids who truly do have this often need a combination of approaches to get things under control. It’s baby steps and little victories. I’ve seen kids make great strides when the right set of fixes is applied. Takes time but it can be done. Don’t be hard on yourself. You’ll get it back on track.

    1. Abigail - Site Author January 19, 2012 at 12:13 am

      Yes, I’m beginning to see how tricky it is to get the right mixture of remedies. Just never easy is it?

  2. Kerry January 19, 2012 at 12:06 am

    Abby, I really liked We’ve Got Issues by Judith Warner. She starte the book thinking she would write about how over medicated American kids are and ended up thinking the complete opposite. The book has many moving stories about parents who “found” their kid again. Good luck to all of you. Sounds like another big transition ahead!

    1. Abigail - Site Author January 19, 2012 at 12:14 am

      Thanks Kerry! I’ll check out that book. Sounds just she’s had the same kind of flip-flop that I have.

  3. Lauren Roy January 19, 2012 at 10:47 am

    Abby! Thank you for posting, we are also ‘growing into’ a recent ADD/ADHD diagnosis, medication, etc. So tired by the time we discovered it and no quick fix. The principles you shared are so spot on and SO easy to forget in the chaos of teenage interaction. Keeping you all in our hearts and many thanks for sharing and helping heal other families!

    1. Abigail - Site Author January 20, 2012 at 8:40 pm

      It really is a matter of “growing into” the diagnosis, isn’t it? It is such a spectrum thing, no two diagnoses the same it seems. It was always at the fringe of our evaluations, but never something definitive. Might have saved a lot of pain if it had been.

      Thanks for your comment Lauren. Hope you guys are well.

  4. diane January 19, 2012 at 12:56 pm

    Sorry to read about the issues you’ve been having. I’m glad it sounds like you are at least a little closer to getting things nailed down. I just wanted to mention a couple of things that intuitively hit me. First, diet. Really check out the information about food, behavior, ADD/ADHD…and you may even want to have some blood work run on, “those who shall be nameless”, to identity their food sensitivities and triggers. So much of it is connected, as you know. And food is so important to all of this. Also – I just couldn’t help wondering, if you would have stayed back here in this school system, if this condition would have been diagnosed WAY earlier. As you know, they work with so many kids like that here..the services and programs are so good. Private schools – education may be good, but they sorely, sorely lack in other areas. Oh well…woulda, coulda, shoulda…right? 🙂 And finally, the grief/widow component to this -I’ve seen it over and over – it’s such a trap to blame problems on a past traumatic events or widowhood. So much so, that people are often blind themselves to so many other things going on around them. The elephant in the room is usually something else, not you/them at all. Another reason to step out from under that umbrella of loss…maybe the rain isn’t falling where you think it is at all. Live and learn…we all do ~ as always, xxx

    1. Abigail - Site Author January 20, 2012 at 8:48 pm

      Yes, I am waiting for the books to arrive (stupid snow storm) so I can read about the diet aspect. As for the NJ thing, there were many opportunities for the NJ school system to identify this but didn’t. Perhaps because of our history, it was always too easy to pass it off as trauma or whatever. We had some of the best in the business doing evaluations and it never came up and yet as I read more about ADD/ADHD, I realize this has been going on a long time. I’ve had so many “aha!” moments where the puzzle pieces are coming together. I think it is more a matter of the elusive quality of the condition that makes it difficult to identify and not so much about where one lives or the quality of the school system.

      I have realized too that it wasn’t just me assuming it was trauma or grief, it was all of our support systems making the same assumptions as well. Sometimes, as much as you try to escape the elephant, it follows you anyway.

      Thanks for your comments Diane.

  5. Kristine January 20, 2012 at 7:58 pm

    Abby, thanks for another insightful blog post. As a parent with two kids with ADHD, neither of whom were diagnosed until middle school, and who has had experience with public school as well as several different private schools here in Seattle, my take-away is, pretty much the ONLY teacher who knew much at all about AD/HD is one whose own son was recently diagnosed. The same is true in the medical community, I’ve found– only those who themselves have AD/HD or whose own family members do, have put in the research time to learn about it. They don’t teach it in med school, and they don’t teach about it in education schools either. We are left at the mercy of the cultural myths. And, to dismiss the actions of a kid as being lazy or willfull when in fact they are trying as hard as they can, but their chemistry is in the way, is so damaging to the self-esteem of these kids who already feel like something is wrong with them. There is nothing wrong with them; there are just teachers who haven’t learned to teach them properly, or who haven’t been exposed to anyone capable of properly diagnosing them or treating them. People with AD/HD can be tremendously successful in the right environments and with a little adjustment to the brain chemistry…. much like a diabetic needs insulin… I don’t get why it is seen as so different than that. OK, off my soapbox! Thanks for this, Abby.

    1. Abigail - Site Author January 20, 2012 at 9:26 pm

      Thanks for your soapbox Kristine. I think its very true that we are at the mercy of those in our support community of teachers and clinicians who either “get it” or don’t. It’s really so true what they say: that as a parent, we are really the only ones who can truly advocate for our kids. You are an amazing advocate, and boy it sure ain’t easy is it, especially when you’re trying to do it on your own.

      I found this Seattle Times article interesting. Have you heard of this HANDLE program? Might check it out:

      Thanks for your comment Kristine.

  6. Diane January 21, 2012 at 4:55 pm

    I think you make a good point. You guys got lumped in with a lot of assumptions that everything that went on with you had to do with 911…and to some extent I guess that attitude probably followed you. I don’t know if that’s because the professionals here were overly sensitized to the issue…or if that was what was focused on as the being the problem from which everything else stemmed – so nothing else ever crosses their minds or anyone else’s.
    Whatever. Anyway, just make sure that it all doesn’t stop with this diagnosis/assumption either, if problems still persist. Keep looking.

  7. Kendra Wagner March 16, 2012 at 2:30 am

    Abby, your transparency and gut level revelations, and exactitude about responding to every comment shoots a hole through every other blogger’s style.
    I am coming to your blog (I know, passive voice) via a friend here in Seattle who met you at a Writing Workshop I believe, and she thought you might be doing some Artist Way or Writing groups for Women,since I took many in another decade, and want to get back to it… I then started reading your blog and fell upon this one, which is my particular area of interest and fervor. I grew up completely undiagnosed ADHD, and got called “manic” and “daring” most of the time, yet I have learned since about female ADD, and and the accompanying anxiety of it that actually helped me do well in school and harvest 3 college degrees. I work with kids one-on-one now, in reading and writing, and most of them have attention issues. I thought of Gabor Mate, a Canadian author, who wrote SCATTERED, when I read your post. He theorizes that we can be born with a propensity towards ADD, yet be highly influenced by environment, in the first several years, and become thus very mild or very severe, depending on how our brain chemistry develops. I have come to believe that each kid needs many different things, with diet and movement front burner, and meds. and many small systems next in line of importance. Hope to be in touch.

    1. Abigail - Site Author March 20, 2012 at 7:03 pm


      Thank you so much for your comment. I am so glad you found my blog. I am so going to look up the book Scattered. I would love to learn more. I NEED to learn more. There is so much! I have checked out your website and it looks great. Full of info!
      Thanks so much for commenting on my commenting 😉

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