distractedblog

ADDvice columnist

Posted on: August 17, 2012

The following letter appeared yesterday in “Dear Prudence,” an advice column on the online newspaper Slate Magazine:

Dear Prudie,
I’m a single mother with two children, a son, age 13, and a daughter, age 16. My son has ADHD. For the past few summers, we have shared a vacation beach house with two other families, one who has a son the same age as mine and the other with a girl the same age as my daughter. This year we were not invited—the two friends pretended they weren’t going—but I found out that they were. I asked them why we weren’t included and the friend who arranged the house said that the stress of my son’s impulsive hyperactivity ruined her vacation. Instead of talking to me about it, she found it easier to just exclude us. My son and I have been in therapy to work on ways to help him with his self-control. The other friend says his behavior didn’t bother her, but she also didn’t talk with me about it. Right now I feel that these people are no longer my friends. Should continue to be friends with them and what I should say?

—Lousy Summer

Dear Summer,
Your two friends behaved badly and I understand you’re questioning your entire relationship. It’s the case that vacation traditions are sometimes written in sand, not stone, but it was cruel of your friends to exclude you this year with the pretense they weren’t going to have a beach jaunt. But you found out and confronted them, and hard as it was to hear, give one credit for spelling it out. (The other who went along with excluding you, then acted as if she wanted you to come, seems the more egregious violator.) Let me assume the blunt mother is the one with the 13-year-old son. It could be that her boy was the default companion to your son and that he found it difficult. It might have been kinder if instead of excluding your family for the entirety of the rental, they had asked all of you to join them for a long weekend. (Though if they were going to be honest about the limited schedule, maybe it wouldn’t have been any more palatable.) You’ve got a tough road, and supportive friends would make it easier. But now that you know what happened, you have to decide if there is something still to value in their friendship. If you think there is, get together with them at the end of the summer and say as painful as it was to hear, you preferred knowing the truth about their plans. Say you understand your son can be difficult, but that is something he is working hard on. Tell them you hope to stay friends, but say that means they need to open their hearts to a struggling boy.

—Prudie

This letter really hits home for me. While I understand that no one wants to have their vacation ruined by someone else’s kid, I know all too well what it’s like to be excluded by people who I thought were my friends. Throughout my middle school, high school, and college years, many of my peers bullied me, rejected me, excluded me from social activities, and generally made me feel inferior and worthless. It’s possible that they were just being immature, petty “mean girls” who were too shallow to take the time to get to know me because I was “different.” However, I wondered if I was unintentionally offending them because I was misreading social cues and acting impulsively. Before I was diagnosed at the age of eight, I often got into trouble in school. Although I was smart enough to get good grades, I had a difficult time understanding why behavior that was acceptable in one situation was not okay in others.  Other children seemed to instinctively know how to behave and why; but it wasn’t until after I was diagnosed and the school counselor worked with me one-on-one that I began to understand certain things that came naturally to everyone else.
 Perhaps something similar was happening in my social interactions as an adolescent. Because of my ADHD, I may have failed to realize that some of the things I was saying or doing were inappropriate. People thought I was deliberately tuning them out and being rude when I wasn’t paying attention to them in conversations. I would often blurt out the first thing that came to mind, later to realize that it might not have been the best choice of words. Sometimes, people thought I was lazy and slacking off because it took me longer to get everything done. I wished people would just directly come out and tell me if they had a problem with something I was doing, rather than exclude me and act like my feelings didn’t exist.

As I look back now, I realize that many of these misunderstandings could have been avoided if I had simply been open with others about my diagnosis, but I foolishly thought that people would think less of me for having ADHD. When I finally became comfortable enough to disclose my ADHD diagnosis to my friends and peers, not one person thought less of me. Instead, they were all very understanding and supportive of me. Many people apologized for the way they had treated me before, as they now understood that I wasn’t tuning them out or slacking off on purpose. I wished I had been open about my diagnosis sooner.
 That being said, I wonder if the other two moms know that the letter writer’s son has ADHD. If they don’t, I can understand their reluctance to say something to her, because it would seem like they were accusing her of being a bad parent who couldn’t control her child. Given the context of the letter, it appears that the two moms, do, in fact, know about his ADHD. Still, it wouldn’t surprise me if they didn’t feel comfortable bringing up his ADHD and his behavior. Often, people feel awkward about mentioning things like ADHD and other disabilities, so they just brush it aside and avoid talking about it. If this was the case with the two moms, it seems that their attempts not to offend the letter writer backfired. By excluding her and her kids from the beach vacation, they wound up offending her much worse than they would have if they had addressed his behavior in a more mature, appropriate way. The letter writer knows her son has ADHD, and she is actively seeking out treatment for him. I doubt that she would have been offended by her two friends directly addressing her about his behavior; as it certainly would not have been her first time hearing that her son’s behavior was problematic.
 How, then, were the two moms to approach the subject in a tactful way? Part of it depends on what specific behaviors of his “ruined their vacation.” Was he going through the others’ belongings, stealing them, or deliberately breaking them? Was he getting into physical fights with the others, hitting them, punching them, or pulling their hair? Did he pull down the 15 year old girl’s bikini bottom at the beach and then giggle (or do anything else sexually inappropriate)? Did he do drugs, drink alcohol, or smoke cigarettes? If he did any of the above, they should have sat down and had a talk with their friend and his son and told them right then and there that they were no longer welcome on any more vacations, and to pack up and go home immediately.
 Since he wasn’t kicked out of their vacation house last summer, it’s safe to assume that he did nothing illegal and did no serious or lasting harm to any of the people or their property. I suspect that he was just a little too rambunctious and loud for them. If this was the case, it would have been better for the other two moms to directly confront the letter writer, rather than acting like the adult versions of the girls who bullied me in middle school.
 The letter writer said they’ve been vacationing for years together, so clearly they are no strangers to the son and his hyperactivity. What did he do last summer that made them finally draw the line, when they tolerated him the previous years? Regardless of what it was, it would have been better to talk to his mom (and possibly him) and say something like, “We understand your son has ADHD, and we’ve been putting up with him for years on our annual beach vacation, but it’s getting to the point that his behavior is too much. Please try to monitor him better/get him in therapy/address whatever problem behavior needs to be addressed.” They could have even said something like, “We’ll give you and him one more chance, and if he’s still out of control next year, it will be the last time your family is welcome on our vacation. We don’t want to have another vacation ruined because of him.” 
 I also wonder if he is on medication, and if not, I wonder why. Perhaps he tried several medications and they didn’t help, or they caused negative side effects. Perhaps the mom is one of those new age hippie types who doesn’t “believe” in medicating her kids, despite several doctors insisting that medication is exactly what he needs and clearly explaining how ADHD medications work and that they are safe. If that is the case, I have a hard time sympathizing with her; but I sure feel bad for the boy. (If you want to be a new age hippie, then wear tie-dye and batik clothes and big dangling earrings, listen to Enya, burn incense, read books on astrology, and greet everyone with “Namaste,” but please, please, leave decisions about your child’s medical needs to those who have the letters M.D. after their names! They are more qualified to make those decisions than you are.)
 There is also the possibility that he is on medication, but that he doesn’t take it during the summer. Until I was about 16 or so, my parents took me off Ritalin for vacations, weekends, and other days that I didn’t go to school. I seem to remember the doctors telling them that Ritalin can stunt your growth if you take it every day. Perhaps, if the two moms had sat down and talked to their friend about her son’s behavior, she could have made the decision to put him back on his medication for the week or two that they all went to the beach (as I doubt they were there for the entire summer vacation). This would have made it a more pleasant vacation for all of them.
 After reading this letter to “Prudence” and reflecting on it, I am reminded once again of the importance of communicating about ADHD and similar disorders. Don’t be afraid to tell your friends about your diagnosis. If your child has ADHD, be sure to disclose his or her diagnosis to all adults who will interacting with him or her- including teachers, babysitters, nannies, camp counselors, and your friends or relatives who you will be vacationing with for an extended period of time. If your friends have children with ADHD, and their behavior is problematic, don’t be afraid to speak up. It will not be an easy conversation, but remember: they are aware of their children’s diagnosis. If you think it is stressful to spend a few hours or days with these children, remember that their parents have to deal with them every day and so they are constantly under that much more stress. (Just an aside: if you think parenting a child with ADHD is stressful, imagine being a child, and later an adult, with ADHD!) As Prudence said in her reply, they need your friendship and support through the challenging job of raising a kid with ADHD. Excluding them and lying behind their backs is only going to add insult to injury. Sure, the two moms and their families don’t deserve to have their vacation ruined; but then again, neither do the letter writer and her son. 

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