I watch my son pick at his lunch. It’s his favorite. “I’m not hungry, mama,” he says, again.
This is a common side effect when you begin ADHD medication. I know. I had it when I started mine; my husband had it when he started his. But this is my son, my small, thin six year old. I feel guilty again — guilty that I put him on medication — like it’s for my own convenience, because it makes him easier to teach, easier to parent. I am a terrible person, drugging a small child into submission to make my own life more comfortable.
It’s the dreaded medication guilt, and so many ADHD parents have it.
You think I’d be immune to this heavy feeling. I know how much medication helped me, how I’d gone from the scattered mom who couldn’t remember to bring diapers to a mostly organized adult human with matching socks and folded laundry. I know how much medication helped my husband, who was so much less stressed now that he could finish necessary tasks without becoming overwhelmed. I wanted that kind of help for my beleaguered boy.
I saw how much my son struggled. All three of my sons have attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) to some degree, but my middle son suffers more significant impairment than the others so far. He rages. His emotional response is always over the top; a mispronounced word can leave him in tears. Homeschool has become a battleground. He’s so distractible that I’ve taught him to read three separate times. The skills slipped through his fingers; he forgot.
I knew that he needed more help than I could give him, despite the one-on-one learning he got every day. The distractions in our living room alone — dogs, brothers —were too much for him. Yet, he could differentiate between nearly identical species of local toads and catch them like a miniature Steve Irwin. He needed something more.
But still, I felt medication guilt.
Why do we feel bad about treating our children? We’ve internalized the wrongful ideas society has about ADHD: that it’s all in our heads, that it’s made-up. That if kids just got a good spanking, that if they just developed some discipline, they wouldn’t need medicine. That Ritalin is overprescribed, that children are overmedicated, that parents medicate for their own benefit rather than for the good of their child. I remember an old punk song to that effect: “She says I need to take a pill/ So I can learn to sit real still … Ritalin will make me smart, at least that’s what my teacher says.”
All of this is a lie.
Our children with ADHD deal with serious issues that need to be addressed, whether or not we choose to medicate them. They need support systems in place; they need adaptive learning; they need help to fit into a world designed for neurotypical children. For my oldest, that means a lot of moving around, a lot of choice in his curriculum to capture his interest, and a lot of hands-on work. For my youngest, it means a lot of learning on the computer, because he’s addicted to screens and learns best that way. For my middle son, it means medication, at least right now. He’s too distractible to learn without the help that Ritalin can give him, the same way I can’t manage to run an efficient, clean household without Mydayis, the same way Ritalin keeps my husband’s head above the chaos of a normal school day.
So as I watch my son pick at his chicken nuggets, I remind myself that the side effects will pass. I remind myself of his triumphs lately: days without tantrums, books read without meltdowns, math assignments finished without protest or tears, and handwriting started without prompting. It hasn’t changed his interest in toads. It hasn’t made him less creative. If anything, it’s helped, because he has, for the first time in his life, the attention span to finish coloring a dinosaur he’s drawn.
So I tell him that it’s OK if he’s done eating. I remind him that it’s a side effect of the medication, and that it will go away soon. I say it aloud to myself as much as to him. I tell him to go play. He will be fine, my small son, with pharmaceutical help. Just like me.