Living With ADHD

When a child suffers from ADHD, everyone around him suffers, too. Here’s one family’s story of struggle—and ultimately hope—told in their own words.

Photo by Tierney Gearon

“Can’t you control him?” Jessica Harstead flushes with frustration, recalling the stranger on the airplane who accosted her with that question, following the tantrum thrown by her then two-year-old son, Matthew. It wasn’t an isolated incident: Because of Matthew’s frequent outbursts, the Boulder, Colorado, mom wearily contended with glares and terse asides in the grocery store, at birthday parties, and even during Sunday school at church. But for Jessica, age 34, and husband Lew, 43, the hard part wasn’t dealing with public opprobrium. It was giving an honest answer to the question “Can’t you control him?” No, we’re sorry, they would think. We can’t.

Matthew, now nine, suffers from attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a condition that afflicts up to 5 million American children. ADHD is often misunderstood: Many people deem it a simple focus problem or even a way to pathologize kids’ natural exuberance. Hardly. It’s a debilitating inability to concentrate or to control impulses and can be accompanied by a host of other symptoms and disorders—each of which can challenge a child and test the people who love him. Here, the Harsteads share their tough—but rewarding—journey.

Something Is Amiss

From the beginning, Matthew’s behavior differed strikingly from that of his older brother, Jackson, now 11. Jessica, a stay-at-home mother (pictured above, with Matthew), and Lew, an attorney, couldn’t help being concerned.

Jessica: As a baby, Matthew didn’t care if he was held or swaddled, kissed or hugged. He didn’t laugh at a silly face. It disturbed me, but our doctor said, “Give it time.”

Lew: We knew something wasn’t right.

Jessica: Once Matthew turned two and was moving around on his own, you couldn’t tell him, “Stop!” It didn’t work. He was bouncing off the walls. Some people told me I was worrying too much. “Oh, it’s just the way boys are,” they said. Their reactions made me wonder: Was I expecting too much of Matthew?

Lew: Bedtime was a huge struggle. Many nights Matthew was up until 11 p.m. or later. He was wired. He liked to hip-check me or slam his body into my legs. We would have to do that for an hour just to calm him down enough so that he could fall asleep.

Jessica: When he was three, I expressed my concerns again to our pediatrician. He told me to be a “better parent with stronger boundaries.” Meanwhile, Matthew is climbing up the exam table, ripping off the paper, and won’t stop interrupting us. At the time, I felt defeated. Later I found a new doctor.