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As children’s ADHD diagnoses rise, parents discover they have it, too

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When her son Jake was diagnosed with ADHD at age 11, it didn’t occur to Cary Colleran that she may have the condition as well. It didn’t occur to her that the appointments she forgot, the permission slips left on the kitchen table, the misremembered dates of field trips might be anything other than a symptom of her personality. She’s disorganized. That’s all.

It still didn’t occur to her when Jake began taking medication to manage his ADHD — and she noticed that he wasn’t getting stuck in the ways he used to. It didn’t click when Colleran remembered how stuck and incapable she felt when she was young. She was simply relieved her son was succeeding in ways she hadn’t.

It only occurred to her eight years after Jake was diagnosed.

Colleran, then 45, was on the phone with her son’s doctor. Jake wasn’t doing well in college; he stopped taking his medication, forgot to attend mandatory events and sat in the wrong class for six weeks. Colleran began to joke that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The doctor didn’t miss a beat: “He was like, ‘Well, you know, sometimes when the parent has ADHD, the kid does, too,’ ” Colleran said. “That’s when the aha moment hit.”

With an increase in children being diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder in recent years, parents who grew up in a time when receiving such a diagnosis was rare are starting to understand that perhaps they, too, have it. That years of struggling to focus on schoolwork, being told they weren’t living up to their potential, getting bored at jobs or losing track of things might be more than a personality trait.

They were feeling inadequate because, despite their best efforts, they didn’t get the results they wanted.

“When you start to talk about this and symptoms of ADHD with parents, you can see it in their faces sometimes: ‘You’re talking about me. I didn’t know what that was. I didn’t know what to call it,’ ” said William Stixrud, founder of the Stixrud Group, which specializes in the evaluation of learning, attention, social and emotional difficulties. “They think about ADHD like we did 50 years ago: that it’s being hyperactive, impulsive, all the time. And some people think it’s over-diagnosed.”

For many parents, their own ADHD diagnosis journey begins when they bring their children to the pediatrician, because things aren’t adding up. They think: My child is smart, but he can’t complete his work. She keeps getting in trouble for daydreaming instead of working. He speaks out in the middle of class and says he doesn’t know why. She studies for hours and hours and still fails.

And another thought takes root: Could this be me, too?

“That’s how it typically happens,” Stixrud said. “ADHD is really very strongly genetic, so it’s extremely common for parents to say, ‘I was just like this as a kid,’ or, ‘I see him. I see myself in him.’ ”

Not long after Jake’s pediatrician provided Colleran with clarity, she forgot to drop her middle son off at the airport on time for a school field trip. She laughed about it to her friends, cried about it alone and finally booked an appointment to get tested.

“That’s when I realized: ‘I can’t be this person anymore. I’m failing my kids,’ ” Colleran said. “And so that’s when I started coming to terms with my own ADHD. That’s when I came to terms with the fact that [ADHD] is what’s actually holding me back.”

After a lifetime of feeling less than, of thinking they were a disorganized mess or incapable, parents recognized that they have a neurological difference, just like their child. And many parents realize that, if their child isn’t less than, which they obviously are not, then maybe they can lend themselves the same grace.

“I was really focused on getting the best information out there and the best parent training and trying to advocate for him,” said Jane Indergaard, whose son was diagnosed with ADHD at 8 years old. “I was trying to do a lot of research, and a lot of the research points to the importance of the mental health of the parent. If moms get treated, whether it’s for depression or anxiety or ADHD, our kids do better. That’s when I went in and got tested.”

There are several ways a child can be tested for ADHD, including expensive, detailed testing with questionnaires and computer tests with analyses. There is a 55-question “Vanderbilt Assessment” that is often given by a doctor. Children can also talk to a certified counselor through their school district, although wait times for this are often long.

Indergaard herself was referred for testing by her child’s pediatrician and did a less intensive version of the in-depth ADHD screening at a testing center. She was diagnosed — and was happy about it.

“Honestly? Hearing that diagnosis was such a relief,” said the 62-year-old nurse. “Because finally, it all made sense.”

The American Psychiatric Association first recognized ADHD as a mental disorder in the 1960s. Twenty years later, the diagnosis became attention-deficit disorder “with or without hyperactivity.” ADHD diagnoses in U.S. children ages 4 to 17 increased from 6.1 percent in 1997-1998 to 10.2 percent in 2015-2016. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a 42 percent jump in ADHD diagnoses between 2003 and 2011. ADHD is typically diagnosed in children and is twice as prevalent in boys as in girls — although experts point to a lack of proper diagnoses rather than fewer girls actually having the disorder.

ADHD diagnoses are harder to come by as an adult, Stixrud said. Undiagnosed adults have spent their lives adapting. When parents are diagnosed, some choose to go to therapy, some take medication and some do nothing. Indergaard took medication and started to see a therapist; Colleran never took medication because of her high blood pressure, although she’s “sure it would have helped when I was younger.”

“They just figure out how to live with it,” Stixrud said.

The knowledge of the diagnosis was enough to change everything for Colleran, who went to an ADHD training academy, so she could become a coach to help other parents navigate the school system and the organizational needs of their children. The training helped her learn skills herself. For Indergaard, her depression and anxiety finally started to abate, her mind felt more focused and she felt better about herself.

Jeremy Didier, a 51-year-old ADHD counselor, said her symptoms presented as spontaneity. It wasn’t until her third child, Isaac, seemed different, that things began making sense. “I was reading the symptoms, and I was like, ‘Oh, wow, okay, that’s me,’ ” Didier said. “Talking to my husband, he was like, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s you.’ I went into our doctor and he was like, ‘Oh, yeah. That’s you.’ ”

“She’s always been very spontaneous,” said Bryan Didier, Jeremy’s husband and one of just two members of the Didier clan without ADHD. “Her having ADHD is probably something I always kind of knew. She’s been in sales and before that broadcast journalism. I think she found ways to survive and thrive and used her competitive advantage from ADHD.”

Getting an ADHD diagnosis meant Jeremy finally had an answer. “I look forward to the day when it’s standard practice that when the kid is diagnosed with ADHD, the whole family is just evaluated,” she said.

She now understands why she would forget her children’s friends’ names, and why she had to have an emergency pack of Lunchables to drive to school, just in case she forgot about a field trip. ADHD may also be why she was in high-pressure jobs that provided a lot of stimulation.

“I’m embarrassed and ashamed to admit that I didn’t believe that ADHD was real until I had a child with ADHD, and then it was so obvious,” she said. “I just couldn’t deny it. … I was able to do my own research and say, ‘Oh my gosh, not only is this real, I might have it, too.’ ”