ADHD and the Abused Child

by Tina Blue
March 18, 2001

          Sometime during the early 1970s I read an article in a women's magazine by a woman confessing to having abused her second child. She had three children, two sons and a daughter, and yet, she explained, she had never screamed at or hit her other two children.

          But for some reason, that second little boy got on her nerves from the moment he was born. Even when he was less than a year old, she found herself either hitting him or desperately trying to keep herself from hitting him. Although she didn't beat him, she often slapped him, spanked him, yanked him by the arm, shoved him, or otherwise resorted to inappropriate violence or force when dealing with him.

          Even when she wasn't hitting him, she was verbally and emotionally abusing him, either by refusing to respond to him or by yelling at him and constantly criticizing him.

          Naturally, her other two children learned from her how their brother was to be treated, how he "deserved" to be treated, and so they also tormented the little boy throughout his childhood.

          What prompted the woman to write her article was the fact that her middle son had become so completely estranged from the family that they had virtually no contact with him at all. As old age approached, this woman longed to heal the relationship with her alienated son, to draw him back into the family, and she had finally faced up to her own role in driving the young man away.

          Although her article focused primarily on her own guilt and shame over the way she had treated her son, and her longing to forge a bond with him, to become a part of his life before it was too late, I kept looking for what she was telling us about the boy himself--because I felt quite sure that I knew why she had abused him, and only him.

          The fact that she did not abuse her other two children suggests that she was not by nature an abusive parent. There was something different about that little boy, something that provoked her in ways that the other children did not.

          What many people don't realize about dealing with children is that the way a child behaves, his innate temperament, his response to his parents' efforts to manage him, and the degree of "fit" between the child's temperament and his environment all have a great deal to do with how a child is treated by other people, including his parents.

          Children with the ADHD personality type often do not fit in well with their environment, especially in our society.

          We have created an anomalous childrearing pattern that requires a woman--either a mother or a daycare provider--to care for one or more children under almost impossible conditions. The woman is isolated from contact with other adults and from activities that are not entirely child-centered, while the children are prevented from engaging directly in the life of the community or from exploring the natural world on their own--usually because of safety concerns.

      Thus the children become bored and incredibly demanding, while the woman goes maybe a little bit nuts. Unless you have spent twelve hours or so in the company of bored, demanding children, you can't begin to understand how much of a strain it can be.

          In more traditional societies, childrearing is not so isolated. Women hang together and do their work, while the community's children, if they are old enough, help them and learn from them, or else help take care of the younger children. The younger children play together under the watchful eye not of one lone woman, but of the entire community of women.  And much of their play is outdoors, so it involves many activities that serve to burn off excess energy.

          But in this society, a woman is usually all by herself with her own children, or with someone else's. She can't let them just run around by themselves outside while she does her own chores, because her chores must be done either in the house itself or outside the home altogether--shopping, going to the dry-cleaners, etc. Besides, she doesn't have the "backup eyes" of other women or older children to make sure nothing terrible happens to the little ones if she isn't monitoring them herself every minute.

          So she either keeps them inside with her while she tries to get her own work done, or she has to stop what she needs or wants to do in order to take them outside while she watches their play (not something you want to spend most of your waking hours doing), or to take them on "outings" to relieve their boredom and hers.

          If she keeps them inside, she either lets them watch too much TV, just so she can have a moment to herself to get other things done or to think a thought or two, or else she struggles to find more wholesome indoor activities to keep them occupied. She is essentially a slave to the children's moment by moment needs and demands.

       Now, add to this set-up a particularly rambunctious child, the kind who can't sit still for a minute, who chatters incessantly, who has little impulse control and acts without considering possible consequences, and who is so distractible that he never finishes what he starts or follows through on what he is supposed to do, unless you ride herd on him all the time.

       If you don't think a kid like that could drive you up the wall, you have very little experience with children.

       I am willing to bet that the son the woman in the article abused was just such a child.

       I was just such a child.

       There were six children in my family. I have an older sister, two older brothers, and two younger sisters. My second brother also quite evidently has the ADHD personality type, but in our family rambunctiousness in boys was considered normal, and besides, boys had more freedom to get out of the house on their own and run around like maniacs.

       But girls were supposed to behave more calmly and to be far more submissive to rules and restrictions than boys were, so the fact that I was a chandelier-swinger seemed a serious character flaw, though in my brother it was merely a personality quirk: That one is all boy, that's for sure!

       I understand now how hard it must have been for my poor mother to handle six young children at once, especially when two of us were so wild. But as I was growing up, I could not fathom why my parents were always so angry at me, why everything I did made them want to yell at me or hit me. It is hard on a small child to believe, as I did, that her parents hate her.

       Nor could I understand why my siblings thought it was okay to treat me as if I were the family scapegoat. They seemed to have carte blanche from my parents to beat up on me and to say any sort of hurtful things they could come up with.

          Of course, other children can be as annoyed as adults by the fidgety, impulsive ADHD chatterbox, and they take their cues from adults about how to treat those children.

      In school the ADHD child also becomes a target--both of the teacher's wrath and of the other children's bullying. Sitting still and keeping quiet for hours at a time throughout an entire day is simply not the ADHD child's strong suit. Even if he is an unusually good student, as I certainly was, the ADHD child is often in trouble for talking in class, not staying on task, or not sitting still or remaining in his seat.

          And as at home, other children take their cues from the adult--at school the often overwhelmed teacher--about how to treat the ADHD child. Thus the teacher's constant exasperation with the child indicates to the other students that the ADHD child is a pain in the neck and deserves to be criticized all the time.

          I tutor people of all ages with learning disabilities, and I ran a home daycare for eighteen years. In addition to my own experience as a child and adult with ADHD, I have had a lot of experience working with others who have that personality type.

          One thing I have found in all of my tutoring students and daycare kids with ADHD is that they also have a low self-image. Many of them also suffer from depression and social isolation. After a lifetime of being treated so badly, such feelings are almost inevitable.

          I feel very fortunate that I somehow escaped the emotional baggage that so many people with ADHD must carry, but I certainly do understand where those emotional problems come from, and I feel a great deal of sympathy for those who are so burdened.

          I just know that woman's second son had ADHD. If the condition had been better understood in the 1950s when she was raising him (it's not even all that well understood today, of course), then perhaps she could have found some sort of help in dealing with her difficult child. Certainly she was wrong to abuse him as she did, but I am quite certain she did not mean to and would have avoided it she had known how.

          Many children who do not have ADHD personality types are abused, often horrifically so. But I believe that ADHD children are at greater risk of both physical and emotional abuse than most other children, and that we could prevent at least some of that abuse if people understood more about the personality type and about ways of dealing with children who have those characteristics.