Ava* and Matthew* knew their son Sam’s* disruptive and violent behavior wasn’t like the other children his age, but they didn’t understand what was causing it or how to discipline him each time it occurred. These parents, like many others, felt helpless because they didn’t know the signs of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
* All names have been changed to protect this family’s privacy.
Sam’s behavioral struggles were as much a part of his preschool years as time spent building with colorful blocks. Looking back, Ava recalls how visibly upset Sam became with any changes in routine or structure. He mostly played by himself as problems would arise when playing with his peers. He disrupted class with his violent out bursts and became uncontrollable.
“We want to help him,” the preschool director told Ava and Matthew at a conference. Her actions didn’t match her words when an hour later she called Ava at work, demanding Sam be picked up.
The early signs of ADHD were present but not affirmed when the private counselor they sought out attributed Sam’s behaviors to “Boys will be boys” and “He’ll grow out of it.”
Ava vividly remembers how she and Matthew felt during those years: “We were embarrassed. I felt like we were bad parents – as though we were doing something wrong. We couldn’t find any answers.”
Kindergarten was an equally challenging year. Ava proactively told Sam’s teacher about his behavioral struggles and asked her to offer more challenging assignments, which seemed to reduce his inappropriate behaviors.
Even though he was assigned a talented teacher, her class that year had several students with similar behavioral issues. This only made things worse for Sam – he continued to be disruptive, uncooperative, and frequently did not follow the teacher’s directions. The class behavior management system of moving colors didn’t offer Sam opportunities to redeem himself, causing him to become even more disruptive.
The school counselor promised to offer Sam and the other poorly behaved students in his class a bimonthly anger management group, but according to Ava it only happened once.
A bright light came near the end of the year when Sam was given a part in the Kindergarten performance. He could not have been more excited. However, Sam became irrational and uncooperative one day at practice. The music teacher gave his part to another student without notifying Ava or Sam.
Unable to control his emotions when his replacement took his place on stage, Sam pushed the student against the wall. This resulted in a one day out of school suspension. The once bright light was abruptly extinguished.
Ava and Matthew once again sought the help of the private counselor. “The public schools are tough,” was all she said.
In the fall of Sam’s 1st grade year, he began playing rec league football. It offered him a physical challenge and helped reduce his aggression. In addition to football, Ava signed him up for piano lessons to help increase his focus.
Sam’s fall achievement test scores revealed very high scores, which started the ball rolling for Sam to be considered for the accelerated classes at his school.
With this positive information in hand, Ava and Matthew had Sam evaluated by a private psychologist to validate Sam’s intelligence and determine the cause of his ongoing behavioral issues. The test results confirmed Sam’s high intelligence and suggested diagnoses of ADHD combined type and Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD).
Ava and Matthew cried. As happy as they were that their son was highly intelligent, they were equally as upset about the two behavioral diagnoses. “It was a low point for us. Once again, we felt like failures as parents,” she remembers. The idea of treating these issues with medicines was daunting. They were apprehensive and hesitant about the side effects of the medicine: possible suppression of appetite, not sleeping well, and losing his quirkiness.
Sometimes finally finding answers is as hard as not knowing. After some consideration, Ava and Matthew decided to have Sam try the medicine. It was a bumpy road at first. Even though Sam still had some behavioral struggles at school and at home, they noticed Sam wasn’t nearly as loud, was more responsible, and started exhibiting more confidence.
After Christmas of his 1st grade year, Sam was accepted into the accelerated program at school. The academic challenge encouraged him to be more engaged in academic activities and less disruptive.
That summer, upon the recommendation of Sam’s psychologist, Sam began participating in an art therapy group. It provided opportunities for Sam to practice the social skills he’d been taught with peers while enjoying creative activities.
Sam will be in the 5th grade in the fall of this year. The combination of medication, therapies, activities, and the accelerated classes continue to help him be successful.
His ADHD and ODD won’t go away; instead, Sam has learned strategies to help him face his struggles and deal with them appropriately. He still has bad days, but they occur much less often now.
I asked Ava about how Sam’s diagnoses impact his life. “He knows he has anger management issues, but the medicine helps him control himself. He is still hesitant to try things he is unsure of. Because he’s big for his age, his peers still make fun of him sometimes, but he has made a lot of progress with not getting angry when they do it. He has begun to make friends,” she said.
Ava and Matthew have seen much progress with Sam’s behavior in the last four years. Football provides the perfect connecting point for father and son. “Matthew helps coach Sam’s football team, giving him numerous opportunities to see the hurdles Sam has overcome since his diagnosis. He’s learned to embrace the child he’s been given,” Ava shares.
Ava has learned so much about parenting a child with behavioral struggles. I asked her to share her advice.
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