“God, you guys -- I’ll do my homework after I eat, okay? Stop bugging me about every stupid thing every stupid second! You make my life a nightmare!” With that, my fourteen-year-old ADHD daughter, Coco, storms into her room with her bowl of mac and cheese, and slams her door so hard it sounds like a gunshot, which sets the dog on a barking jag. Between barks, I can hear Coco kicking the wall. I stand in the kitchen still holding the pot and spoon I made her dinner with, close my eyes, and keep my mouth shut.My grip on the wooden spoon is tightening. I’m pressing it against the edge of the pot so hard it’s about to snap in half. But I am not going to respond to her in kind. I can physically feel the dark red pulsing rage expanding from my head to my chest, pushing desperately to be released in a Samuel JacksonPulp Fiction firestorm of righteous badass parental justice. “You want a nightmare, young lady?” is aching to get out, followed in a flaming rush with me waving the broken spoon in the air, “I’ll give you a freaking nightmare! How about you get no dinner for a week and I take all your electronic game, video, and music crap that’s turning the bright, funny, inquisitive little girl I used to know into a mindless pop-culture zombie, and burn it all on the front yard!”
No blowing my top for me. This dad has been working on his issues. So, I am going to breathe. Slow even breath in, slow even breath out. I learned this from my last therapist . The therapist, who after years of working with me on my own ADHD, alcoholism, and hypomania - slowly building mutual trust and rapport, deserted me to face being a mentally erratic, reality challenged, and let’s not forget unemployed, middle aged man still ill-equipped to take the daily emotional pummeling of parenting alone. So this nightmare is all his fault - the selfish creep. I should hunt that bastard down and beat his head in with this mac and cheese spoon. But he’s not a selfish creep. He set me up with another therapist before he closed his practice. Besides, you couldn’t blame him for hanging it up after a few years of dealing with me. Also, I’m not facing this parenting stuff alone. My wife, Margaret, is right here, sitting at the kitchen table.
“Your cheese is dripping,” she says. Margaret has a less extreme approach to life. She sees the humor in both of our kids’ dramas. She watches as I put the spoon in the sink and wipe up the cheese sauce from the floor. Breathe in, breathe out. Stop growling.
“Are you okay?”
“Mmm -- hmm,” I nod, between slow even breaths.
“Your problem is, you take things too much to heart,” Margaret says and smiles.
That’s a phrase Margaret and I picked up from Richard Russo’s novel, Bridge of Sighs, describing Lucy, a man prone to occasional blackout spells who’s nearly immobilized by love, family, guilt and obligation - and who I identified with quite a bit. It’s become a gentle joke between us, because I do; I take everything too much to heart. It’s not that I get my feelings hurt; it’s that I get disoriented by my identification with others’ emotional lives. Through their eyes I often see myself as the villain, and then my defenses go up but I see that from the others’ eyes too and back and forth until I have to fight the impulse to either flee the area or destroy everything within a fifty foot radius just to get some peace. So lately, like Russo’s Lucy, I can find myself stuck, mired in confusion – the dark red rage not dealt with but just chained to the mast. But that wasn’t always the case. I used to just damn the torpedoes and go with destruction.
So, when Coco yells and explodes out of frustration, I identify with her, too. I can see the overload crowding into her head pushing all rational thoughts into an airless corner where the only way out is to react and react big or you’re sure you’ll suffocate.
No matter how gently requests or questions are put to you -- and sometimes that’s worse because then it sounds like condescending “careful of the mental patient” talk -- but however it comes at you in a short amount of time or just the wrong time for you -- you lash out to stop it, but you’re also lashing out at yourself inside your head looking to break apart this wall holding in the overload and let air in -- just one second of quiet air -- that’s all you want, and in the moment, bright red rage is the only hope for release and you don’t give a damn about anyone else. A second later, you apologize and add that new bag of guilt onto the huge pile you carry around your whole life. And of course, the pressure of that guilt adds to the next overload.
So I’m always telling Coco, “No sorries, it’s all okay,” whenever she apologizes over small things, or even medium things. I think we need to forgive others their slights and slips as much as possible. But more importantly, we have to learn to forgive ourselves and, maybe with some help from others, work on adjusting how we handle things.
Coco and I both have been working on managing our tempers and doing pretty well at it. She told me what she does is slow things down and not talk. “It’s not that I’m not listening, Dad,” she says “I just don’t want to lose my temper and mess things up.” The more pressured she feels in her head, the slower she takes it -- whether it’s getting ready for school in the morning , doing homework , or getting ready for bed at night.
I don’t know what I can do about taking everything too much to heart, especially when it comes to those I love and value, but I can probably do better at shaking off the anxiety. I’ll work on adjusting that. I might try a little of Coco’s “go slow” approach myself.
This was two and a half years ago, before we moved to Georgia from Hawaii, and both Coco and I have kept making progress with our tempers even as the stress on all of us in the family has increased in some ways. We’re all working on forgiving or ignoring each other’s human errors - which frees up more time for jokes and goofing off together.
“I’ve always known that there’s more going on inside me than finds its way into the world, but this is probably true of everyone. Who doesn’t regret that he isn’t more fully understood?” – Lucy, in Richard Russo’s Bridge of Sighs
For more resources and solutions for child and parental stress, you might want to check my friend Lori Lite’s web page, Stress Free Kids . She’s got tons of stuff from blogs and articles to soothing cd’s to help teens relax and maybe, you know, sleep. One more thing; the photo at the top of the post is of my daughter Coco and me dancing when she was in 5th Grade. It doesn't have a lot to do with ADHD rage or the stress of being a teenage girl, but I think it illustrates something about our relationship that I hope will always be there underneath all the other drama of growing and living.