The scary laundry list of possible side effects from ADHD medication is well documented, but you don’t often hear about the collateral damage that the vast number of diagnoses in this country is having—on parents.
Dozens of people wrote to me this past summer after my Op Ed piece, "Raising the Ritalin Generation", ran in The New York Times, telling me stories about the pressure they were getting to put their children on medication. If 5.2 million children have been diagnosed with ADHD, as the 2010 National Health Interview Survey reports, there is a huge number of parents—approximately ten-and-a-half million—who have also been affected by that diagnosis.
As soon as you have two parents making a decision as emotionally charged as medicating a child, you’re bound to have disagreements. It appears that, in many cases, these disagreements are straining marriages to the breaking point.
My research on the subject was anecdotal and limited and absolutely unscientific, but an interesting trend surfaced from the correspondence that poured in: When couples fight, it seems to almost always be the men who are against medication. Not that there aren’t many women who wrote to me expressing a deep discomfort and refusal to medicate, but in icy spousal standoffs, the roles were pretty clear.
In email after email, the stories were the same. Husbands and wives played the same roles my ex-husband and I played as we navigated the tricky waters of deciding whether to trust our gut, which told us our son was not ADHD, or the experts who said he was. Over time, I was the one who became convinced that the school and the doctors knew more than we did. My husband didn’t budge.
I hadn’t thought of my response as particularly female—in fact the idea infuriated me—but now I had to wonder.
So I asked Daniel Rothstein, a clinical psychologist who works with couples, about the gender dynamics he’d seen. I ran my theory by him, and while he said he couldn’t generalize—his research pool was too small—he outlined some traditionally “male” feelings that could be at play, including the feeling of medication being a “crutch” or the idea that everything would be fine with a little willpower and discipline. “Or it may come from a stereotypically ‘male’ feeling about independence,” Rothstein says, “about solving problems on your own that extends to asking for help in general.” I thought about the (almost always accurate) cliché about men refusing to stop for directions on the road. Maybe he had a point.
I also thought about the fact that boys are diagnosed with ADHD 2.8 times more frequently than girls. Whether or not a young boy does actually have attention problems, it makes sense that fathers might have an immediate reaction that’s different from a mother’s. “A father may feel he was just like his son and he turned out fine without help.” On the other hand, Rothstein points out, that identification can cut both ways. “He may feel he was just like his son and wishes there were something that could have helped him back when he was little.”
When it comes to the health of a child, Rothstein says, the stakes become exceedingly high and parents too often find themselves in polarized positions, digging in their heels and refusing to even try to see things from their spouse’s perspective. In my own case, I was scared of voicing my many doubts about medication, for fear it would weaken my “position.” My ex-husband stood his ground, insisting that our son didn’t need medication.
“It’s a terribly difficult moment for any parent when someone tells them something is wrong with their child. With a disorder like ADHD, many parents feel like they’re being blamed,” says Rothstein. “There can be embarrassment, humiliation. There are many ways of coping with those feelings—it could be compliance with the ‘authorities’ to demonstrate that you’re a good parent. Or it could be the opposite—rejecting a school’s concerns completely and not investigating further.”
I had to wonder about our reactions. Had I been “compliant?” I hated that idea, and the thought that this was somehow female made it worse. Was my husband’s tough-guy reaction typically male? And were these reasonable positions to take when faced with an impossible decision? I’d like to know about how couples come back from the standoff, and taking the conversation to its natural conclusion, how might the child suffer as a result? I’m looking forward to hearing a lot more stories.
Bronwen Hruska is the author of the novel, Accelerated.