What with all the stuff that’s been going down with our next posting this week, I got to thinking about things. About where we are with our teenager and the combination of factors that got us here. Today I’m going to write about the personal side of the situation. Later this week I’ll write about our long (and as-yet unfinished) journey to getting posted overseas with an ADHD high-schooler.
The teenager is now 15, and has already three diagnoses. He is ADHD, although not severely, and not “hyperactive type.” He is also gifted, by the usual academic definition of the term. And he has issues with mild depression accompanied by a dash of oppositional defiant disorder–which is another term, according to our therapist, for “being a major butthead sometimes.”
I say “mild” because every time I answer questions about him–and this is quite often in the FS context, as you can imagine–I have to assure people that he is not the next Dylan Klebold. In fact, he is a big sweetheart who loves animals.
So, that is one of the problems with these labels. There’s depression and there’s depression. Unfortunately, as soon as the D-word enters the discussion, especially with a teenage boy, people (and schools) start to back off. Which is stupid, because the very fact that he HAS a diagnosis and has been seeing a therapist for years means that he has parents that care about him and are addressing his issues. What you need to look out for are the UNdiagnosed depressed teenage boys. Those are the ones with the weapons collections under their beds. Got that?
About the gifted thing. He’s just smart, that’s all. Not rocket-scientist smart, not freakishly smart,but just about as smart as you might expect the child of an FSO (and his wife) to be. And a pretty good artist, too, but he comes by that naturally as well. There are several amateur artists on both sides of the family. And the reading and writing thing, too. His parents are both published writers and editors. So, yes, a kid with above-average intelligence and real talents, but not Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates. Not a prodigy. Not uneducable in a normal school system.
As for the ADHD, that is a real condition. His brain definitely does work in an unusual way. But he is also, like a square peg in a round hole, in an environment that exacerbates the situation.
Yes he is distractible. And disorganized. So are a lot of adults. But do they have to deal with seven different bosses, each with a different system of assigning work, and some of whom are pretty disorganized themselves? Not likely.
I have to say, I went to an excellent college preparatory high school, and we didn’t get half the homework these kids get now. Yeah, we had to write research papers and essays, but there weren’t anything like the number of worksheets, posters and dumb crafts projects going on. He gets worksheet homework in P.E., for heaven’s sakes. There are a few crazed parents out there who actually want MORE homework for their kids, and they seem to be dominating the conversation. All the normal, sane people I know think the homework situation is our schools is out of control.
One teacher’s aide that I talked to told me that the reason for the zillions of worksheets is “to give the kids who aren’t as bright as your son a way to earn points and catch up.” So, great. My kid gets As on the tests because he knows the content, but Cs in the class because he didn’t turn in the worksheets. Are kids being graded on what they know, or on how well they organize paperwork? I put that question to her, and she did not have an answer.
In his math class, there is a system that you can turn in three homework assignments late per quarter. If there are more than that, you get a zero–there is no chance to turn in the worksheet later. It doesn’t matter if you had no clue how to complete it, or if you lost it and had to get another copy. There is no way to catch up if you are running behind. There is no incentive to catch up on homework and derive the supposed benefits of doing the worksheets. So, my kid, who has a terrible time keeping track of worksheets, much less figuring out how to do algebra, simply gave up.
I don’t mean to excuse that behavior, and it’s something we need to change. But the deck was stacked against him from the beginning, that’s for sure. Is this class designed to teach kids algebra or to weed out the ones who have trouble with math and can’t keep track of the worksheets?
And does your workday start at 7:20 AM? Probably not. If it did, would you do your most demanding work–say algebra–first thing, before the coffee has even kicked in? Probably not.
Oh, and did you grow several inches in the last year? That’s tiring, you know. You might actually NEED a little more sleep to get that done. And it’s not like you have a choice about it, either.
Our school district insists on starting high schools at the crack of dawn because (they say) there aren’t enough buses to go around. Bizarrely enough–see crazed parents, above–there are many people who prefer this schedule because it gives little Johnny or Deepak a chance to do six different after-school activities and get into M.I.T. But think about it: in order to get the 9 hours of sleep that a teenager needs on this schedule, they have to go to bed by 9 PM. Right, like that is going to happen.
At this point, when teachers email me saying that my kid is sleeping in class, I reply that yeah, it is impossible for him to get enough sleep because the school starts too early, so it’s pretty much inevitable that he’s going to fall asleep in class sometimes. There is nothing I can do about it. Is there something YOU can do about it? During school vacations, when he has three or four days to catch up on sleep, he is a different person: much more pleasant and alert.
As Doctor Mom, I am convinced that a significant component of his ADHD and depression is simple sleep deprivation.
Now about the part of the kid that really is ADHD. Many years ago, we saw a Czech psychologist whose English was somewhat limited. This led to a refreshingly succinct outlook on things. He summed up ADHD not as being unable to pay attention, but as being unwilling to pay attention to things that are boring.
I have to say, when the teenager says something is “boring,” it usually is. Algebra is really pretty boring. Quite honestly, I’d be concerned if my kid thought it was exciting. To my mind, the fact that he finds his friends, girls, movies, and online news more interesting than math homework makes perfect sense, and well, frankly reassures me that he’s not going to end up as some weird dude living in our basement and playing online Sudoku all day.
Which is not to say that sometimes you just have to do the boring stuff. That’s life. But I do kind of get it. With so much more interesting stuff going on, it can be hard to buckle down to doing something that seem totally irrelevant to anything and that you could a lot faster with a $3 calculator.
Our challenge, therefore, is not to get the kid interested in math, or in organizing worksheets. It is to get him to understand that life is not always interesting. Sometimes you have to do the sh**work to get what you want. Or even just to get past the sh**work and move on. It’s just life, that’s all. It’s not a big deal. Just do it already.
For some reason—presumably ADHD, because his older sister “got it” right away— this kid just hasn’t grasped that yet. Another word for this is immaturity. I have always suspected that ADHD was a fancy word for immaturity, anyway.
The Czech psychologist had a theory that more Americans are ADHD than other nationalities because we are largely the descendants of the ones who got bored and up and left. Well, OK. So, let’s see, Foreign Service people are the ones who found even the new place boring and so signed up to move to a different country every two-three years. Gee, do you think they might have a few ADHD kids?
Finally, as a postscript, we’ve got hormones going on. Oh boy, do we ever. The kid is 15. He is almost the size of his dad. He’s been shaving for over a year now. Strangers always think he is older than he is. There is a Lot Going On. It’s got to be distracting. And then there are the girls. Who are, frankly, quite forward, nowadays. You remember freshman year. Some guys look 17, and some look 12. But most of the girls look and act at least their age. The math is not difficult. It’s been a long year.
So, that’s what I’ve been thinking about, as my kid becomes a pariah in the international schools community before even getting to post.
And, as we face the possibility that we might not be leaving for post as planned (but yet we have to move because we’ve already sold our house!) we’ve been talking about how we might be able to take this as an opportunity to improve our son’s environment in order to give him a better shot at success. All options are on the table, from moving to a different school district with a saner schedule and possibly better special ed services, to using the money we’re saving by dumping our big mortgage to pay for private school.
The one thing that is not on the table is packing him off to a “therapeutic” boarding school. Vienna is simply not worth that to us. We are absolutely on the same page about that. Frankly, the Foreign Service isn’t worth it to us. Family comes first. Because, in general, we are adept at running our own lives and making good decisions. It’s only when other people start running our lives (as in: big, impersonal, stupid bureaucracies) that things seem to go all pear-shaped.
More on that later.