When China closed its borders to foreigners, I happened to be in the U.S. visiting friends and family, leaving me alone with my two children, whose school campuses had closed – my wife, Shari, had been traveling with me, but made it back to China in time. Because my children both live on campus, and because I haven’t had a home in the U.S. since 2003, we hurriedly moved into a vacation rental without much of a plan. Although working remotely has been busier than ever, living in confinement also means I have more time to spend with my kids, now young adults. This has left me with much time to reflect on what I’ve learned as a father.

The last time I lived with either of my children was in 2017, though my oldest has been in America since 2015. Back then, life had been stressful and chaotic. I was constantly stressed about their missing homework assignments, messy rooms, and incomplete chores. Discussions over these frustrations would inevitably end in blowups – my older child would hide in their room and refuse to talk to my wife and me while my son would throw tantrums and scream at us. When both of my children moved to the United States for boarding school, and now university, I couldn’t shake my anxiety over their futures:
  • How would they cope with their responsibilities?

  • Would they be able to communicate with their teachers and staff effectively, or even at all?

We later learned that both of my children have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. The above scene may sound normal to many parents, but it’s especially familiar for parents of children with learning disabilities like ADHD.

When COVID-19 disrupted my travel plans and forced me to move in with three young adults (my eldest’s boyfriend, who also has ADHD, is staying with us), I dreaded returning to my family’s pandemonium and strife. Even though my oldest child had become an accomplished student thanks to their experience at a supportive therapeutic boarding school, they were uncertain about how online classes would impact their learning. Similarly, my son’s senior year of high school had brought on a bad case of senioritis, which was only compounded by our new circumstances. 

As it turns out, lockdown has been one of the largest challenges my children have faced. Online learning is particularly difficult for my children, where they must fight the urge to not skip classes or endlessly scroll through social media. Without frequent face-to-face interactions with their friends, emotional difficulties have become much more challenging to cope with, especially in the wake of a worldwide pandemic. Additionally, people with ADHD have an endless thirst for stimulation – boredom can be catastrophic. Without the ability to go outside and explore, my children have become restless. 

For people with ADHD, developing the right coping strategies can take years of effort and a strong support system. 

My eldest had struggled during their first year of college, and after taking a year-long gap year, had finally learned to maintain a regular schedule and build trusting relationships with their peers and professors. Similarly, my youngest’s school had provided him with regular study halls and supportive faculty. All of these are critical for any young person, but especially those with ADHD. Under the right conditions, my children are excellent, intelligent students. I grieved as I watched them struggle, and mixed with my own challenges of keeping up with work in a different time zone, my family returned to the same pattern as before – we fought and yelled, I was constantly stressed, and I couldn’t fathom the pigsty my children were seemingly fine with living in.
I often find it difficult to comprehend their struggles.
What seem like relatively simple challenges to neurotypicals can be monumental for those with ADHD. 

For example, in the case of motivation, most neurotypical people are able to see that things simply need to get done. This isn’t the case for people with ADHD. Video blogger Jessica McCabe of How to ADHD uses the analogy of a bridge. Whereas neurotypical people may have to cross a slightly rickety bridge to complete tasks, ADHDers’ bridges are full of holes. Because of their executive functioning struggles, they can’t just walk across. Instead, they have to create coping strategies to get across safely and effectively. These take time and effort to learn. I’m often tempted to tell my children to just “get things done”, but this doesn’t work for them. My oldest child, for example, has to make their projects engaging and challenging. In other words, they have to invent reasons to leap across their missing bridge. Simply seeing the other side isn’t enough of a motivator to meet deadlines.
In addition to impacting their motivation, COVID-19 has also brought a new wave of emotional struggles, which may be especially painful for people with ADHD. Although emotional symptoms aren’t included in the diagnostic criteria for ADHD in either the DSM-IV or ICD-10, recent research has shown that
In many cases, ADHD is not so much a deficit of attention so much as it is an abundance of it. 

When my children rapidly move from hobby to hobby, I see it as them giving up and possibly wasting money on another abandoned hobby – my children, on the other hand, see this as a way to develop new and varied interests. People with ADHD are naturally curious – from my oldest, I’ve learned about sustainable agriculture, Chinese literature, the (confusing) world of video games, and social justice. My youngest has helped me better understand my genealogy and is also a passionate artist and scientist. Their own love of learning has challenged and inspired me to expand my own interests, turning me into a fan of MarioKart, 70’s sci-fi films, and Hatsune Miku. 

Learning to cooperate with my ADHD family has turned me into a better problem solver and communicator

The productivity strategies that work for neurotypical folks often fail for those with ADHD, which means that I’ve learned new strategies and tools for how to get things done. This is especially relevant to my own work and has helped me become a better boss. I now have new ways to encourage my employees and great resources to give to families. Instead of punishing my son for failing to complete his chores, I’ve learned to be encouraging when he does do them – praise can be one of the best motivators for ADHDers, who may disproportionately feel the repercussions of perceived rejection or criticism. I’ve developed new approaches to conflict resolution, which has even improved my 25-year marriage. 

Supporting three young adults with ADHD while in confinement has been challenging, to say the least. But I’m excited that for the first time in years, I actually get to spend Father’s Day with my children. Some dads might see Father’s Day as a chance for relief from their hectic families, but I view it as day for reflection.

For me, being a father means committing to meeting my children’s needs and approaching them with curiosity. 

I’ll probably celebrate Father’s Day by barbequing a few steaks – my favorite hobby – but I’ll also be reminding myself that it’s a privilege to love, grow, study, and live alongside my neurodivergent children. 

Sources:

Hallowell, E., Ratey, J. (2020, January 31). ADHD Needs a Better Name. We Have One. ADDitudeMag. https://www.additudemag.com/attention-deficit-disorder-vast/?fbclid=IwAR0n1RPwnCHSKR-SX4vcQGPt3C6-XnxFMX7ffUvK0JmDKQUDZbWJuIylQy4 

McCabe, J. (n.d.). How to ADHD. https://howtoadhd.com/

Reimherr, F.W., Roesler, M., Marchant, B.K., et al. (2020.) Types of adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: a replication analysis. J Clin Psychiatry, 81(2), e129-135. https://doi.org/10.4088/JCP.19m13077

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