My brave hyperactive son

23rd February 2007 at 00:00
'Boisterous behaviour' or a case for medication? ADHD needn't be a barrier against success. Cathy Woods, a teacher, tells her son's story

Hyperactivity runs in my family. One of my sons was on Ritalin for five years after he was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Looking back, I can't say I am glad that he was on it - he became very thin and suffered from sleeplessness - but I don't know how we would have got through the years from 12 to 17 otherwise, or how he would have got any GCSEs.

He decided not to take Ritalin when he was 17. We then had some turbulent years, involving criminal records in two countries, lots of alcohol and the smoking of weed to psychotic levels, but finally, aged 22, he started to straighten himself out. Now he has had a girlfriend for a year, he can cope with her five-year-old daughter, and at last he wants a career.

He has had a series of jobs, and walked out of many, but he did manage to complete a two-year national diploma in music technology. He plans to join the fire service or do a degree in web design. He is clever - his IQ is in the 130s and the educational psychologist said it would have been higher if he'd been able to concentrate pre-Ritalin - and he has many talents.

How do I know hyperactivity runs in my family? I always wondered why I was different; although thought to be clever, I seemed unable to succeed and was frequently treated as stupid. And, if I look at my family, I can see that three of my many male cousins have had very troubled lives. (ADHD is more commonly diagnosed in males.) Two died a couple of years ago, both aged 58, in circumstances far from successful.

One was in and out of trouble all his life: a petty criminal who spent some time in jail and never held down a job or relationship. He died in dependent housing, labelled at various times in his life schizophrenic or psychopathic. His parents went to their graves thinking they were to blame for their son's behaviour. They gave up on him and kicked him out of the family when he was 21.

Then there was my other cousin: he never held down a job and died still dependent on his parents. I heard all the stories there, too. Like the time he bought himself a Porsche but couldn't meet the payments, so the bailiffs came knocking on his parents' door. Gambling, overblown projects and alcoholism were all features of his life. He took every penny his parents had, so they died destitute. Once they had gone he seemed unable to continue. He finished himself off with copious amounts of alcohol within six months of their demise.

On my mother's side of the family is another male cousin who has been in and out of jail and has been a heroin addict. Younger than me (he is 50), he is destined to spend the rest of his days on methadone, estranged from his wife and daughter.

ADHD has its plus side. It's hard to grow old when you are mischievous, easily bored and impulsive. My mother and her brother have shown the signs of hyperactivity all their lives, not least the inability to hold down a job and difficulties with relationships. But at 80 and 78, they remain youthful in their fun-loving, joke-telling approach to life. That doesn't mean they are happy; my uncle especially suffers from serious bouts of depression.

So hyperactivity was no more attractive before treatment with Ritalin came along than it is now. Our prisons must be full of men, and maybe women, suffering from this condition. But modern life undoubtedly makes suffering from ADHD even worse. Indoor technological pursuits have grown more popular with the young as personal freedom, space and a sense of community have diminished. Children can no longer roam the streets or fields day after day with their friends, unaccompanied, and education has become increasingly desk-bound and academic.

My son has found exercise to be a wonderful means of controlling his condition. If he suffers an injury and is unable to exercise for a few weeks then his old ways return. Kickboxing, ju-jitsu, running and weight training, plus maturation, have worked their magic on him and, at times, he is perfectly reasonable.

When families are struggling to cope, it is cruel to suggest that medication is over-used or unnecessary, or that parenting is bad. I was always strong enough not to blame myself for my son's behaviour, and always felt that at some level he was unable to control himself. I thankfully ignored my mother's exhortations to give him a good kick up the arse. As a 23, nearly 24-year-old, he looks back and says he was a c*** and berates himself for not having done much with his life, despite being clever. I say he has made amazing progress and I am very proud of him


Boredom and dissatisfaction are the stock in trade of the ADHD child.

Restlessness and impulsivity characterise the condition, and many other conditions co exist with ADHD, such as dyslexia. It is something of a miracle that children with ADHD ever make it through the education system.

Sitting on the carpet, listening to the teacher, behaving during a long-winded assembly, doing as you're told - what a nightmare.

For a young child such as my son, unmoved by party entertainers, puppetry or story books, there couldn't have been much chance of motivating or interesting him in anything in the classroom. His life took a nosedive and continued on its descent until, by the age of 12, the educational psychologist reported that he was living in a negative world of his own creation.

This unwelcome description of my son's mindset would have come as no surprise if I had stopped to consider the relentless disapproval and criticism to which he was subjected. His self-esteem, which appeared to be high due to his over-exuberance and apparent lack of respect for adults, was in fact at rock-bottom.


* Lashings of praise and approval will go a long way, even if it appears to bounce off and is sometimes thrown back in your face. There is a tendency to assume that if someone is behaving badly and getting all the fall-out day after day, then that is the way they want things to be. I say show them a different way to be, and help them out of the dark, nasty place they find themselves in.

* Make sure that plenty of water is available throughout the day. It has been shown to aid brain function and concentration. Perhaps it is no coincidence that ADHD children can seem abnormally thirsty.

* Be kind. There's nothing like a really old-fashioned disciplinarian to send an ADHD child in completely the opposite direction to the one intended.

* Be firm. The child might be on Ritalin but has to learn that he (or she) is the only one in the driving seat.

Cathy Woods is a primary teacher

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