Hugging a Butterfly

My nine-year-old son hugged me yesterday afternoon. Really hugged me. He wrapped his skinny arms around my waist and leaned in, resting his head peacefully against my chest. And he stayed there.

It was like - for lack of a better explanation - hugging a butterfly. Because normally, that's impossible; the butterfly flits around, touching lightly on a surface before skittering back into flight. Even when they're perched momentarily on a flower, their wings open and close, ready to flutter away in a blink.

That's how my son is. Kinetic. Ever-moving. When he talks, the words tumble out at a mile a minute, and he shifts his weight quickly from foot to foot, throwing in a random hop or raising up on his toes. His eyes flicker away, distracted. When he sits at his computer, his short periods of silence are punctuated by a series of staccato thumps as he gets up to run to his window and then back to his chair; he cannot be still. He literally bounces off the walls. LITERALLY.

And his hugs. They're stiff-armed, quick, like a cat who doesn't want to be picked up. I love them, and I'll certainly take what I can get, but they're few and far between.

He's in fourth grade this year, and every year it's been the same song and dance. Since Kindergarten. Colin has difficulty following procedures, say the notes in his daily planner. Colin is pestering others. Colin will not stay seated. The comments never change, only the handwriting, as the years and the teachers tick by. This whip-smart boy, who asked me when he was five if he could have ammonium dichromate to make a realistic erupting volcano, who was expertly programming computers by age seven, has been reduced to "that kid" in school. The one who's always out of his chair, always poking someone else's paper, disorganized, falling behind. But he's not "that kid." It's just that his inabilities have far overshadowed his potential, and it's sad.

No - sad isn't the word. "Sad" is a gross understatement. But I can't explain the way it tears at a mother's soul to know that, both at school and at home, her child is the target of more frustration and "no" than encouragement and "yes." Somebody's always getting onto him (granted, it's not without good reason). I'm sure, beyond a doubt, that it's hard to be Colin. If you'd just do what you need to do and behave, you wouldn't have this problem! Just stop fidgeting and listen! I want to plead. But I don't. Because, for whatever reason, he can't.

We've been witnesses to his decline, feeling helpless as we watch his love of school dwindle, his flame of curiosity glowing less brightly with each passing year. And though we've railed against it with all our might - changing his diet, trying multiple disciplinary tactics, using positive reinforcement - we have failed to address it adequately. And it's heartbreaking to watch him struggle.

I want his teachers to know the Colin we know, the one who emerges in the occasional calm moments. To see the sweetness, the compassion, the brilliance. I've tried to convey this a hundred times during parent-teacher meetings, frustrated at my inability to hold back my tears as I try to explain that my son is so much more than the way he acts sometimes. I know he can get on your nerves. Please don't let that make you dislike him. Please see past his difficulties to the amazing child he actually is. 

At one of these meetings about a year ago, it was suggested that he may be somewhere on the autism spectrum. We took him to a psychologist who specializes in childhood autism, learning disorders, and the like. He was tested extensively. And finally, we had a diagnosis. But it wasn't autism. I should have been relieved, but I was dismayed.

Colin has Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. ADHD.

Instead of being glad we were finally onto something, I was disappointed. I have to admit, I'm one of those people who felt like the diagnosis of ADHD was just another way of saying "your kid can't control himself." Like it was a blanket diagnosis covering all kids who were merely active, the way kids are. Like it was just an excuse to drug kids to get them to sit down and shut up and conform. I felt like medicating him for it would be taking the easy way out, and plus, I was afraid he'd turn into some sort of insensate zombie.

Not my kid.

"He may have ADHD, but we're not drugging him," I said adamantly to Colin's therapist. So we tried more things, more non-medicated approaches. She worked with him, teaching him techniques to help him focus. His teacher worked with him, letting him take small breaks and sit on a bouncy ball instead of a chair at school. And these things helped - sometimes. Always just briefly.

Despite it all, nothing really improved. He was still struggling. Still slipping. We were all exhausted, Colin most of all. So his dad and I finally opened up to the one thing we hadn't explored, the one avenue we had tried hard not to go down. Medication.

His therapist agreed. His pediatrician agreed. His teacher agreed. "I want to start him out on a really light dose," I said worriedly. "And if it impacts him negatively in even the smallest way, I'm not giving him any more."

So we did it. We "went there." And Colin took his first dose, and I watched him like a hawk while he got ready for school, ready to chuck the bottle of pills at the first sign of anything bad. I didn't know what to expect, but I called the school and told them that he'd started his meds, and asked them to please keep that in mind if he came to the nurse's office for any reason.

When he came out of school that afternoon, he walked straight to the car - no dawdling, as is usually his custom. He was smiling. Not zinging around like a pinball. When we got home, he hung up his coat and backpack. He did his homework, finishing in about ten minutes with zero arguments, and zero nagging on my part. There was a good note from his teacher in his planner. He didn't antagonize his brothers like usual. We had a conversation - probably the longest conversation we've had in years, and probably the first ever where he wasn't bouncing from place to place the whole time he talked.

And that hug. It was amazing.

For the first time in ... well, maybe his entire life, Colin seemed truly relaxed. But not in a stoned, disconnected way; more like a relieved way. Like someone who has finally been unburdened from the baggage that has unfairly saddled them for so long.

"I feel so much better, Mom," he told me. "Why couldn't we have done this from the start?"

Why, indeed? Because we didn't want to be the parents who drugged their kid to get him to sit down and shut up. That's why. We didn't want to take what we thought was the "lazy route."

But that was our misconception. We didn't know how much of a help medication can actually be. How it calms the noise in his brain, the jitters in his body, so he can be who he really is. I was so worried about being a bad parent that I closed off the one thing that truly could have helped him years ago.

I found a paper he wrote a little while back that truly sums up the way his mind jumped around. The brain!, it says. Did you know that you can survive without part of your brain?! Answer this: 1+6=? You just used your cortex!

Then it says, The Loch Ness Monster! I think the Loch Ness Monster is a dinosaur still alive. And by dinosaur, I mean water dino.

Then it says, Question: What makes salt?

Now he is able to focus on brains. Or dinosaurs. Or what makes salt. INDIVIDUALLY. He can give his tasks the attention they deserve. I can't wait to see what kind of improvements he makes at school. He goes each morning with a renewed sense of hope and optimism, and it's refreshing.

If nothing else, those hugs speak volumes. I look into his blue eyes - calm now - and he looks into mine, and stays put long enough for me to feel his warmth. Like he never has before.

And that's validation enough.


  1. I am also That mom. That mom with a child of ADHD. Not to your extent. I was disappointed with the Dx as well. Also has SPD and that makes hugs even more rare.
    Good luck to you all!

  2. This made me cry because it could have been written by me about my son who is now in grade 2 and we just started meds a few months ago and it's been amazing. like you said, now everyone can see the amazing kid he really is.

  3. Great article, and great perspective from so many parents who struggle with the stigma of medicating their children.

  4. What a wonderful post, thank you for writing it! We hear so many negative things about ADHD and medications, that it's not wonder we all have those same thoughts you did in the beginning.

    I'm so happy for you and your son that this works for you and that he's able to be his real self without all the extra "noise"

    Enjoy those hugs!

  5. I think you handled it exactly the right way. I agree that ADHD is an overused blanket diagnosis for children whose behavior doesn't conform to certain "standards." But that doesn't mean it isn't a real problem for some children. And as wonderful as the medication may be, and as much as you may regret not starting it sooner, I think you did the right thing by exhausting all other possibilities first. I'm so glad to hear that you have finally found something that helps your amazing son!!

  6. I could have written this same post about my 9 year old who is in 4th grade as well. This made me get very emotional. People who have not gone down this road with their kids sometimes cannot understand. But the ones we have, we get it. We def get it.

  7. I just cried. What an amazing and heartbreaking story. Prayers for all of you! And way to go, Colin!!

  8. Smiling through my tears as I read this. I think so many parents feel this way, regardless of the disorder. Thank you for sharing your very personal and emotional struggle with others who are going through something similar!

  9. I rarely comment on blogs, but your post made me tear up. I'm so happy for you and your son and that the medication worked. That hug must have been amazing. :)

  10. I could have written this 30 years ago, every single word of it. For those of you nodding your heads, thinking "OMG, me too!", awash in relief that you are not daughter is now a happy wife, mother, businesswoman, gifted musician...did I say happy? I am in awe when I remember a time I couldn't imagine her driving a car, let alone thriving in college and succeeding in her chosen profession. Medicating her was the hardest, best decision I made as her parent. She only needed it through puberty, but it gave her the ability to show the world...and herself...the amazing person she is.

  11. I am almost that mom except that I am also that teacher who writes those notes. So when it was my child I didn't hesitate to try the medication. It doesn't fix everything, but he is much happier! We medicate on the weekends too and during the summer, but only use a 1/4 of the script. Just to tone down the butterfly not kill it! Stay strong!

  12. I love this post. Tommy has medication and he says it helps calm his brain down.

  13. Excellent.
    I work for the school district & this will be shared.
    Absolutely brilliant.

  14. I'm so proud of you as a mama. It's so hard to take that step and you are incredibly brave. Colin thanks you.

  15. After reading about all Colin's struggles at school, this post made me so incredibly happy for you both. I hope things keep getting better for him!

  16. This is a powerful post. You are so honest about your journey. I am glad you have reached this point.

  17. This could have been written by me. We are at the point of beginning medication and I am just as anxious and was just as determined not to go there. This helped. Thank you.

  18. I love your writing, Rita, but this is my favorite so far. Thanks for sharing.

  19. This is beautiful. I love how you compared hugging your son to hugging a butterfly. You are such a great mom!

  20. Thank you so much. I have an almost nine year old kid of the same type. If only the father of my child, who left us four years ago, could see that I am not "drugging" my 8 year old for my benefit, but for his own.

  21. Thank you so much for sharing your journey. Our daughter is 7 and we are in the middle of exhausting all other possibilities before moving to meds. Like you, I long for a real hug. I get the "jaws of life" hug, the "jungle gym" hug, and the "break the neck" hug- never a calm, sweet, pain-free hug. Please continue chronicling your experience. You give me hope!

  22. Rita!
    This is the second time you have made me cry -with relief!
    The first time is when I read you post on the 10 things boy moms must know. I criedsobbed because this mom of 2 boys - who came from a family of girls - girl cousins and second cousins- girl siblings - nieces -pink and glitter everywhere - was completely perplexed by these BOYS! Your hilarious post made me CRY because I finally realized that they are doing what boys do and that I should just relax and shut up about it.
    Now, you could be writing about my oldest, he is also BRILLIANT but busy - twitchy - 1000 of questions out of his mouth all at once. Only in 1st grade but already two PRESCHOOL teachers, one Kindergarten teacher and now his first grade teacher all say the same thing your Colin's teachers said. We are getting him assessed next week. Your post here has made me more open to possible options that I otherwise would have wrote off.
    And once again you have assured me that I am not going through this alone.
    Thank you.

  23. Jessica Armstrong LasaJanuary 21, 2015 at 12:29 AM

    I am so happy for you and Colin!!!

  24. Way to go! I found the same relief for both my son and me. We call the meds his brain vitamins and he is grateful for the focus.

  25. Oh Rita, You are such a wonderful mom. I think you did a great thing in exhausting all other options before medication. I am so happy that your butterfly hugs you... long... now. You made me cry. So happy for you! I've been worried about Colin (<---- stalker material!!!) No, but really. As a mother of a son, I've followed your between the lines worries about your oldest. Hugs!

  26. I am pretty sure I was nodding through this entire post. This is exactly what I went through with my now 17 year old when he was in 2nd grade. I was terrified to put him on medication because I didn't want a zombie kid but nothing else would work. Every year he was "that kid" and it broke my heart. Once he was on medication (which needed some adjustments at first), he was on track. It was an amazing transformation.

    This past summer he decided he wanted to stop taking the medicine. That scared me almost as much as him starting it. I was terrified he'd revert back to old 'habits' and his senior year would be a disaster. I was wrong. He has been doing so awesome and I couldn't be prouder.

  27. I just came across your article and your five year old Colin is my now 5 almost six year old son Michael. As an elementary teacher for many years and a former mental health worker for 10 years prior to that I've known for a long time Mikey has ADHD/ODD but even though I've told countless parents medication is great I couldn't bring myself to consider this for my own child who is struggling so much. This summer before kindergarten has really been an eye opener for me and I meet in a week with the child psychlogist, prepping myself to hear those words I know she is going to say: he needs meds. I'm so hopeful that medication will help others see all the potential Mikey has and help him be a happy child again, as the sad days are far outcoming the happy ones at this point. Thank you for sharing your very honest story, it truly does hep to read about other moms who are struggling and making it through.


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