As a parent of child with ADHD, you likely feel a lot of different emotions on a daily (and sometimes hourly!) basis: from frustration, and anger to guilt and hopelessness, it can feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster ride from hell. What you may not realize though is that a lot of these emotions are due to the fact you are grieving and may actually be in mourning!
Many of us think of grief or mourning only in relation to a death, but grieving and mourning can happen with any loss, and it’s actually very common when there’s an illness or disability like ADHD.
When your child is diagnosed with ADHD, the “losses” you experience as a parent are many. For example:
Loss of the dreams you had for how it would be to have a “normal” son or a daughter
Loss of your hopes for your child’s future
Loss of your expectations for how you would feel as a parent
It’s important to realize that it might be grief you’re feeling for two reasons:
It’s important that you grieve the loss of the child you wish or thought you’d have so you can effectively raise the one you DO have
Maybe you’ve heard of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross—she literally wrote the book on how humans tend to deal with loss and grief.
Kübler-Ross’s five stages of loss—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—are a part of the framework for the process we all go through as we try to cope and eventually learning to live with any great loss we are experiencing.
There is no question that the stages of loss/grief she developed apply to parents of kids with ADHD (or any medical or mental health challenge for that matter). So understanding these 5 stages is very useful—at the very least, it’ll help you understand what to expect and help you see that what you are feeling is normal! And, it’ll also enable you to see what areas you may need help with so you can move forward toward healing and coping with your “new normal” after loss.
It’s important to keep in mind that the stages are not linear, i.e., not everyone goes through all of them or goes through them in a prescribed order or on a certain timeframe. Everyone’s grieving experience is different and since the stages are responses to feelings and feelings can change in an instant, it makes sense that you can stay in one of the stages for minutes or hours and that you can jump in and out of one and then another very quickly.
Denial. Denial is the first of the five stages of loss (but remember, these stages are not linear; they don’t necessarily happen in order. So you can pop right back into denial even after you’ve “moved” to a different stage.) Denial is a kind of defense mechanism– it is nature’s way of letting in only as much as you can handle mentally/emotionally. In this stage, you are in a state of shock and denial and sometimes you’ll even feel numb. You will move out of this stage as you accept the reality of the loss; when you finally allow yourself to realize, “Okay, this is really happening. Now what?!”
Anger. Anger is a normal and necessary stage of the healing process but what you may not realize is that anger is actually considered a secondary emotion. (That’s because we tend to resort to anger in order to protect ourselves from or cover up other vulnerable feelings, i.e., the primary emotions that are beneath the anger like sadness and hopelessness.) Anger is often the surface emotion that is most obvious and one we are most used to expressing and managing. It’s important in this stage to be willing to feel and express your anger, even though it may seem endless; otherwise you risk getting stuck in this stage. The more you truly feel it (and feel all the other emotions that are buried beneath the anger), the more it will begin to dissipate.
Bargaining. Bargaining takes place within the mind and you can tell you’re in this stage because you are focused on what I call the ‘shoulda/woulda/couldas’: you dwell on all of the things you could have or should have done differently or better in order to change what is happening now. When you are in the bargaining stage, you are in a way trying to regain control over the situation either by thinking about how you could have changed the past to change your outcomes in the present, or by trying to make “deals” or bargains with yourself (or your higher power) in an effort to change your outcome (the loss). You are in the bargaining stage when you find yourself lost in a maze of, “If only…” or “What if…” statements like, “If only we had gotten a diagnosis sooner,” “If only I talked to his teachers sooner, ” “If only I had treated her better…then ___(fill in the blank) wouldn’t have happened.” Or, if you are religious or spiritual, the bargaining may actually take place with your higher power, for example in the form of a prayer like, “If you will help make things better, I will repay you by ____(fill in the blank: being more faithful, giving more to those in need, quitting my bad habit, etc. etc.)” Guilt is often bargaining’s companion—the “if onlys” end up causing you to find fault in yourself and blame yourself for not doing something differently. You move out of this stage when you realize (and accept) that you can’t change the past; you can only do your best moving forward—and when you begin to forgive yourself for your past choices and decisions and allow yourself to focus on the present and the future instead of dwelling on the past.
Depression. In the depression stage, you feel empty and sad and grief enters your life on a very deep level. It’s important to understand that this depression is not a sign of mental illness; it’s a normal (and appropriate) response to a great loss. In the depression stage, it’s normal (and common) to want to withdraw from everyday life, to feel like you are walking around in a fog of intense sadness, and to feel hopeless (sometimes even wondering, “What’s the point of going on?”) Even though it can feel like this stage will last forever, if you allow yourself to feel the feelings, they eventually will dissipate and/or lessen in intensity with time. You do have to be careful (as with the other stages too) to not get stuck in the depression stage. In order to move out of this stage, you have to move through it: feel your feelings instead of trying to numb them or distract yourself from them, talk about them or at the very least write them down; listen to and meet your needs; and most importantly, get help to process your thoughts and feelings if necessary.
Acceptance. Acceptance doesn’t mean you’re “OK” with your situation or liking your situation. This stage is about accepting the fact that as a result of your loss, you now have a “new normal”—and although you can’t this fix or change this new reality, you CAN find a way to be happy and content regardless, and learn to deal with your loss and the resulting challenges in an effective way. (Although in the beginning, finding acceptance may be just having more good days than bad ones.) To get to this stage, you need to accept (and allow yourself to feel) your wide range of feelings, you need to listen to your needs and take care of yourself; you need to look for ways to grow and evolve and find ways to cope in a proactive, constructive way (seeking help if/when you need it).
It’s normal to feel like you’re on an emotional roller coaster ride when your child is diagnosed with ADHD and you start to feel the effects on his/her behavior as well as on the whole family. All of the sudden, all your hopes and dreams for your child (as well as for yourself as a parent) go out the window. It can feel like a huge, overwhelming loss. Very often, when this happens, you will enter a grieving period and wind up experiencing one, a few or even all of the 5 stages of loss.
The only way to effectively deal with grief is not to side step it–the only way out of it is THROUGH it: understand where you are in the stages and why, listen to your needs and take care of yourself and get some help if you feel like you are getting stuck in a particular stage.
Remember: the number one way to keep from getting stuck is “feel your feelings”—if you’re angry, be angry! If you’re feeling depressed, don’t shove it down or try to numb it; you’re feeling those feelings for a reason–Feel them, learn from them (every feeling has a thought behind it; once you understand and know you can change the thought, then you have the power to feel better!) and allow yourself to feel better on the other side of it. And if you need help, get help! You can hire a coach like me, or see a therapist, or reach out to support groups. You do not have to deal with your grief–or any of your challenges as a parent of a child with ADHD–all alone!
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