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Disorderly Conduct

It took years to discover the source of my son's behavior problems—ADHD.

Ross was born by emergency C-section. He came into the world grabbing our attention, and that's how he's conducted his life thus far. Even as a baby, Ross was extremely active and never seemed to need sleep. He's my firstborn, so I didn't realize his rambunctious personality was unusual—and a sign of things to come.

As Ross became a toddler, I became aware of his stubborn nature and his inability to focus on a task or to follow simple instructions. When I compared notes with other moms, they always assured me that if Ross had an attention problem, he wouldn't be able to focus on a television program. Since he could watch an entire episode of Barney or Sesame Street, I ruled out that option. We concluded he was simply a strong-willed child in need of discipline.

In kindergarten, Ross's teacher commented once that Ross had a large vocabulary and that he seemed to be unusually bright. I was thrilled, but by the end of the year, this same teacher suggested he repeat kindergarten because of his immaturity and inability to complete his work. I respected this teacher's opinion, but after prayer and discussion with my husband, we moved Ross on to first grade.

In first grade, things got worse. It seemed Ross was in the principal's office every week for disrupting the class by wandering around the classroom and aggravating fellow students. The school counselor suggested he might have Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), a neurobiological disorder that slightly impairs regions of his brain.

After his tantrums, Ross often snuggled next to me needing love.

"How can this be?" I asked. "He's making straight As!" When she learned of his grades, she changed her mind.

"The problem must be at home," she said, and with that she and the first-grade teacher dismissed my son and me. I started praying for a better second-grade experience.

Second grade was better. With his improved conduct grades, I grew confident our troubled years were behind us. However, Ross still threw temper tantrums at home when we attempted to enforce expectations of a clean room and completed homework. But as long as things went well at school, I believed I could handle the issues at home. Then, at the end of the school year, I received a call from Ross's teacher. She wanted to test his IQ because she thought he might be bored in the classroom. The test results revealed that Ross qualified for a special program called GT (gifted and talented), and that he was eligible for specialized classrooms and teachers. Feeling as though this might be the answer to our prayers, we enrolled Ross in the third-grade GT program, believing boredom might have been the problem all along.

We were wrong.

Ross continued to disrupt the classroom, and now he started talking back to the teacher. School became a place of torture for Ross. Once, a teacher announced to the entire classroom that Ross needed medication. I called a conference with this teacher, the school counselor, and the principal, and even though the teacher apologized for the remark, her frustration with Ross dominated our meeting. I walked away without the support I'd sought. Ross was so embarrassed by the incident, I was sure he experienced irrevocable damage to his self-esteem. During fits of frustration, he began to harm himself with head banging. After school, Ross really let go and many times, out of homework frustration, would scream for up to 30 minutes. My husband (Ross's stepfather) and I were overwhelmed by his mood swings and aggression.

Friends and teachers recommended Ross see a psychologist, and we reluctantly make appointments. One counselor diagnosed Ross with bipolar disorder and suggested he take antidepressants. We tried the medications, and although Ross's temper evened out some, his problems at school never improved. Another psychologist suggested Ross suffered from the aftereffects of child abuse and suggested I investigate further. After talking with Ross, we determined that no one had abused him, and he even confessed that the problem was inside his head. Encounters with professionals left me discouraged.

We enrolled Ross in sports after a counselor suggested we get him involved in team activities. Ross had trouble adapting to the "team" idea, and his immaturity over missed balls and goals would end in public displays of uncontrollable crying. Coaches and teammates lost their respect for Ross, and soon he had a reputation. One mother told me Ross was a bad example to the rest of the team and said his emotional outbursts were affecting their game.

But Ross always was sorry after his tantrums. Through tears of disappointment and frustration, he told me he didn't know why he did the things he did. With the same level of intensity, Ross snuggled next to me needing love and affirmation.

Our struggles with Ross affected the whole family. Our other two children developed the ability to disappear into their rooms during battles with Ross. Even my stable marriage to a wonderful Christian man grew shaky, as we disagreed on ways to handle Ross's trauma. Sometimes, I felt forced to choose between attending to Ross's needs and giving the rest of my family the attention they deserved. I was in a no-win situation.

I began to question God. How could he let this innocent child suffer such unhappiness? How could he let our family hurt so, when we really wanted to serve him? Sometimes at night while Ross was sleeping, I went into his room and prayed that God would deliver him from all his troubles and would help our family. I begged God to show me what I was doing wrong. God's answer was consistent, but not always what I wanted to hear: "Just love him, Laurie. Just love him." Sometimes this was difficult to accept. I wanted God to heal my son of whatever plagued him, and I felt disappointed over every incident that led me to cry for long periods of time. Many times I felt as though God had abandoned my family and me.

Then, I met Dr. Tess at the local crisis pregnancy center I directed. She was a pediatrician, and we bonded instantly. I started taking my younger children to her for childhood ailments, and I mentioned Ross's problems during one visit. Dr. Tess listened intently, then asked to sit in on a parent-teacher conference at Ross's school. As Dr. Tess heard story after story of Ross's inability to focus and follow directions and about his lack of respect for authority, she nodded confidently.

"The problem is very simple," she announced. "Ross has ADHD."

I protested. I'd heard ADHD was overdiagnosed, so I'd discounted it in the past. Besides, what about Ross's high IQ and his ability to focus on TV programs? Dr. Tess assured me an ADHD child could focus on television because it has changing pictures and rapid dialogue. She also assured me that ADHD has nothing to do with intellect, and that my child was suffering from an inability to "shift gears." She immediately suggested Ritalin (a drug commonly used to control ADHD) and gave us resources for parenting an ADHD child.

I was uncomfortable with the idea of medication. I'd heard Ritalin was overused in schools for behavior control. I also was concerned about side effects. Dr. Tess and I prayed together. She persuaded me that going through 12 years of school frustrated and constantly in trouble could have severe social side effects—repercussions far more serious than slight side effects experienced by a small percentage of Ritalin users. I began to realize Dr. Tess and her advice were the answer to all my years of desperate prayers.

Ross was on medication throughout his middle- and junior-high school years, and we saw vast improvement. It's as though the real person who had been locked inside had been released. His teachers genuinely seemed to like Ross, and the phone calls about unfinished homework were few. Ross experienced achievements in athletics, and his confidence grew daily. We still had challenges with disorganization and impulsive behavior, but God equipped us with the strength to face these challenges.

It's difficult to receive empathy and understanding when ADHD is so misunderstood. Society has been exposed to so many ill-conceived ideas about ADHD that it's hard to discuss it with teachers, coaches, and youth leaders. Often, they believe ADHD is an excuse we use for bad behavior, and they believe ADHD children somehow are mentally inferior. But we pray for strength, and we try to help others understand for Ross's sake.

Ross is now 17 years old. Over the past year my husband and I have been serving as missionaries in Africa, and Ross stayed in the U.S. to finish high school. When he first entered high school, we changed his medication to Adderall XS, a slow-release drug that allows Ross to take only one dose in the morning before school.

We still face many challenges with Ross. While medication has been a valuable tool in helping Ross at school, it's not the solution. God is the solution. I understand that the years of wrestling with God over the question "why" and crying out in desperation have brought me into a deeper relationship with him. I'm thankful we have Christ; I can't imagine going through these trials without his perspective and hope. He never disappoints us.

I believe God will use Ross's affliction to his glory. I've stopped asking God to change him; I've started asking him to use him. Romans 5:3-4 says we are to "rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom he has given us."

I don't know the details of Ross's future, but I know God loves him and has a purpose in all our trials. And this brings joy to my heart that only Christ can supply!

Laurie Westlake is a missionary on furlough with her family in Texas.


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