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Diving Into My Son’s ADHD Diagnosis Allowed Me To See My Own Struggles

Laura Yuen Star Tribune

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Dr. Lidia Zylowska, a psychiatrist with the University of Minnesota Medical School says that it's common for parents to realize they might have ADHD when navigating the diagnosis for their children.

Star Tribune

It was one of those books so engrossing that I didn't see the twist coming.

The neuropsychologist who diagnosed my first-born son with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) recommended it so I could better understand how my oldest was wired. The title, "Smart But Scattered," seemed like a brilliant description for my creative, distracted second-grader.

Filling out a questionnaire in the book, I showed no mercy while judging his ability to remember where he put his hat and gloves, or whether he could stick to a morning routine before school. No surprises here.

But a few pages later, I had to evaluate myself as a parent. On a scale from 1 to 7, the book implored, how would I rate myself on the following statements?

No matter what the task, I believe in getting started as soon as possible. Procrastination is usually not a problem for me. I have a good memory for facts, dates and details. It is natural for me to keep my work area neat and organized. Welp! Who wrote this book, and how do they have a window into my disheveled, free-spirited soul?

When COVID-19 shut down classrooms last year, I watched my son struggle with distance learning. It was heartbreaking to see him drag out a simple exercise — write five sentences about a favorite memory — from what should have been 15 minutes into several hours, then melt down in frustration. He started to resent school and lose confidence in himself.

The pandemic forced me to get my son the help he needed. And it was only through learning about my child's ADHD that I realized I probably have some version of it, too.

As a 44-year-old mom coming to terms with my own ADHD-like symptoms — including disorganization, problems completing tasks and difficulties with focusing — I am experiencing a kind of clarity I wish I'd had decades earlier.

It's common for parents to realize they might have ADHD when navigating the diagnosis for their children, said Dr. Lidia Zylowska, a psychiatrist with the University of Minnesota Medical School.

"Initially, there may be excitement, you know — this really explains my life," she said. She knows of many adults who seek out diagnosis and benefit from treatment, including therapy and medication. But after a period of reflection and learning about themselves, some have a sense of regret, especially if they dropped out of school or struggled with substance abuse. "There may be a sense of sadness and even anger, that if I had the right support, my life would be different," she said.

ADHD runs in families and has significant geneticpredisposition. If you have it, there is a 40% or better chance that your child will have ADHD. The condition exists on a spectrum and sometimes escapes notice in childhood, said Zylowska, who wrote the book "The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD."

And it's especially overlooked in girls. Among children, the boy-to-girl ratio of diagnosis is about 4 to 1. But among adults, the ratio edges closer to 1:1, Zylowska said.

One reason that ADHD can go undetected is that girls tend to have symptoms of inattentiveness, rather than overt hyperactivity. Think of the boy who is interrupting his classmates, playing too rough or doing cartwheels in the classroom. That kind of impulsive behavior is more likely to be flagged by a teacher than a girl quietly spacing out during social studies.

Growing up I was a model student; a B-plus in high school would have disappointed my parents and me. I'm sure none of my teachers would have ever guessed I was neurodivergent in any way. I also was a pleaser, so my parents' expectations for straight A's pushed me to near the top of my high school class.

But in college, I was surrounded by fellow high-achieving nerds. The coursework, especially the crush of required reading, overwhelmed me.

For the first time in my life, I dealt with depression, anxiety and overpowering feelings of self-doubt. To this day, I still have that recurring dream in which it dawns on me that I won't graduate on time because I forgot to attend a 20th-century British lit class all semester. I know it's a common nightmare, but the scenario was something I could actually see myself doing. Zylowska says college can be a vulnerable time for people with ADHD. Other stressful transitions may include starting one's first real job, getting promoted, moving to a new city, and becoming a parent.

In her practice, Zylowska has seen adults successfully manage their ADHD by adopting tricks that have worked for them. Maybe it's scheduling breaks throughout the day, finding time to exercise, or turning to hobbies that replenish them — on their time.

"But once you're a parent, your ability to do that is compromised," she said. "At the end of the day, you have to not just get yourself ready for the evening, but you have to get your children ready for bath and ready for bed. And that requires a lot of executive functions to direct them, because children will often not want to do what you ask them to do. It's hard to then stay calm, effective and consistent when you're depleted yourself."

She added that mothers with ADHD often have to face gendered expectations and an emotional burden about who is responsible for organizing the house and planning their kids' schedules. Even putting dinner on the table can be a struggle.

I told her that for more than 20 years, I was able to mask my symptoms by throwing myself into journalism. I thrive on deadlines, learning something new every day, and working with others who, like me, are plungers rather than planners. I was lucky to land in a career where my adaptability and spontaneity were considered strengths.

My strategies for getting things done (like this column!) include life hacks like the Pomodoro Technique — setting a timer for 25 minutes to do a single task. Once I get going, I usually find I can do 25 minutes more.

But I wish my old college self would have known that I wasn't dumb or lazy. I wish my newly married self knew how to stop when I was getting hyperfocused at work, letting everything else fall away. I wish the parent in me could be gentler on herself for not being that mom who planned perfect birthday parties.

"Sometimes you get in your own way, even with the best intentions with already receiving treatment, so there is a need for acceptance and self-compassion," Zylowska told me.

When life gets more complex for my son, I want him to know I share his brain-based struggles. I'll also remind him that there are gifts associated with ADHD, such as his limitless energy and imagination.

As for myself, I'm not sure where I go from here. Other ADHD women in my life say therapy and medication have made a world of difference, but I haven't sought an official diagnosis yet. I'll make sure to do that — tomorrow. ____ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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