ADHD and the Foreign Service Part One: The Teenager in Question

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.


  1. I sympathize with the not a enough sleep. as ‘night’ person and one who likes/needs 8+ hours, I have often felt that the normal workday dooms me life long feeling of not being on top of my game.


    • I need my sleep too, though I am more or less a morning person. My mother is a night person, and I can tell you, people are born that way and do not change! I don’t expect Bryant will, either. It’s not realistic for him to sleep until 10 every day, but jeez, 6 AM is ridiculous. What’s the hurry–there are no cows to milk around here!


  2. Having a kid with ADHD, depression, and dyslexia, and having had to navigate the FS school situation through Middle School with this kid, I so get what you are going through. I still believe that there is a place out there for your son. (And this coming from a mom who just learned that her 20-year-old son never really learned how to alphabetize…. Now how do you graduate form High School without that skill?)


  3. I think what is most bothersome is that the most pro-active parents seem to have the most difficult time. Those who don’t research schools, ignore advice and show up at post knowing their kids have issues are the ones who are then spoon-fed. It’s almost as if State wants parents to just do what they say, rather than what is best for the kids.
    I also know of schools that bent over backwards to help kids with special needs and were then railed for not doing more. Turns out State had labeled the school(s) as being capable of supporting kids with many special needs after the schools had said they couldn’t (they could do a certain amount, but not everything). It’s very frustrating and I just don’t know why State has to make things even more difficult for those who are trying to help their kids vs. those who just want someone else to make everything better!


  4. Hey Kelly,

    A few miles down the road in Ashburn, our high schoolers start school at 9:00 am. They get that teenagers need more sleep…..


    • Ha, yes that’s exactly what my kid’s history teacher tells me. She has to teach history at 7:20 AM while her kids are still snoozing out in Loudon!


  5. My husband has clinically severe ADHD, and is a biochemist and a science teacher. One of the things he’s learned about his condition is that adequate sleep is so, so important. This has something to do with dopamine synthesis (which is the neurochemical basis for ADHD) and that ADHD by it’s self has a similar affect to being epicly sleep deprived, so not getting enough sleep is extra stressful on his brain. I’d be able to explain it better if I was in any way a scientific person myself, but alas… I’m totally not. I remember starting school at 7:15 in high school and how terrible it was for me, and how our district spend millions of dollars to study the negative effects of early start times on teenagers when really, they could have asked any kid or parent and we would have told them for free. 😦 It sucks that they don’t seem to have learned much in the 15 years I’ve been out of high school.


  6. Ok, so I saw that you commented on my blog and I clicked over to see who you were and oh happy day! I can’t believe I found someone else who is dealing with ADHD and the Foreign Service! And I’ve been reading your posts about this and I almost wanted to cry just because it reminded me of how difficult High School was for me.

    Anyway, can I make a suggestion?
    You are 100% right in that sleep is MEGA important. We didn’t know that I had ADHD in High School, but my parents did notice that I did much better when I got more sleep, so they pulled me out of all of my morning classes. They worked with the school to shuffle my schedule around and I did my most interesting classes by independent study/online classes. That way I got more sleep and I actually did the online classes (because I liked them).
    I never had to go to school before ten in the morning. And I really think that’s the only way I graduated. Oh, AND my mom made special arrangements (that I didn’t find out about until later) to have the school call her cell during each class if I was marked absent for a class…because I would get bored and decide that I didn’t feel like sitting through my next class. And she would hunt me down and make me go back to school. I had a class ditching problem, to say the least.
    I also managed to get through college by starting all of my classes late and exercising in the (mid) morning. Exercise MASSIVELY helps with concentration, I have no idea why.

    Anyway, it may or may not help – but it worked for me. And your son sounds a lot like me. Something to think about.

    Also, we met with our CDO the other day and when we brought up concerns about going to overcrowded, noisy cities because I don’t do well in places like that because of my ADHD he laughed at us and said “Well, that’s every city”. Jerk.
    And they gave me a class 2 even though all I need is access to a doctor every three months and a mailbox. Double Jerks. I swear, it feels like I’m being punished for something I have no control over.


    • Well, so far, we haven’t had a problem with my son ditching classes–he just sleeps through them instead! And I really can’t believe the school just lets kids sleep through classes, but if school starts at the freakin’ crack of dawn, I guess there just isn’t much anyone can do. I am SO GLAD we are getting away from this schedule. His school in Vienna starts about 8:30, which should be helpful. Middle school started at 8, and he did much better with that.

      I will keep in mind that it would be better for him to have his more difficult classes later in the day. My mom is also a major night person, and so I know, you can’t change people like that, you can only work with them. She is a completely different person now she is retired and can sleep as late as she wants every day.

      This school just sent me information about their learning support program. I almost cried I was so happy to read it. They have a PROGRAM!!

      About the class 2–a lot of people are very resistant to that, and consider it a “punishment” but you know, it’s really not usually a big deal. It just means that MED needs to clear whatever posts you bid on, which should be a simple matter in your case. I mean, you were going to make sure you could see a doctor every three months, anyway, right? So you get that in writing, and you are good to go. Don’t worry about it. And there are plenty of small-town posts out there–not to mention, in most big third world capitals you’ll probably be living out in some expat ghetto on the edge of town, and not even have to go into the city unless you just want to.


  7. I wanted to comment again that it is not just an FS thing, and sometimes it is not the school to blame. Having been a “civilian” for almost eight years now, I can see that public schools can have a lot of trouble dealing with ADHD too. And sometimes the school system even tries to help, but the parents (of normal children) get in the way.

    My kids attended a smallish high school of about 400 students. Of course classes began at 7:30 a.m. At one point, the school board voted to reverse the starting times of the elementary and middle/high schools, but within a week the superintendent reversed that decision. Why? because the older students needed daylight to train for their sports after school (hard in the winter when school lets out at 4 p.m. and the sun sets around 4:30 or 5. Also parents found the idea of picking up their elementary kids at 2:30 and would have had to make child care arrangements for them, instead of having older sibs at home to watch them.

    This year, the school board considered a more balanced academic calendar that does not revolve around the agricultural needs (non-existant) of the community. They ended up nixing that big time, even though it has been shown to increase retention of what is learned through shorter breaks.

    Finally, it is a Small school, but big enough for AP classes. Both of my boy’s senior year schedules started something like this: AP Physics, AP Calculus, College Chemistry. Now this wasn’t a problem for these boys, because these were their subjects, but I could see it being a problem for other kids. The fact is, we were lucky the school offered even one of each AP course. One of my sons was a basket case by the end of the day, when his meds had run out, and he had to do English, his least favorite subject. Really, who needs to know how to write a poem, when one is clearly headed to the sciences.


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