Something about a new school or an ongoing deployment makes you suddenly aware your child can’t sit still. He has trouble focusing and is easily distracted. He can’t wait his turn and talks nonstop. You find yourself wondering if your child has ADHD. And you have no idea what to do next.
Military families who have children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) face unique challenges. But knowing a few simple tips can help make those challenges a little bit easier.
Here are 5 things every military family with ADHD should know:
1. Self-diagnosis solves nothing.
If you suspect your child has ADHD, the first step is seeing a doctor. “There are a lot of imposters that can be confused with ADHD,” explained Cmdr. Scott Akins, a developmental-behavioral pediatrician and head of Neurodevelopmental Pediatrics at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in Portsmouth, Va.
“The most important things we like to do up front are make sure their vision and hearing are fine, the kids have adequate sleep, that they eat breakfast in the morning, and that they don’t have any other concomitant problems that could complicate things,” said Akins.
2. Do NOT Hesitate about EFMP.
Any military child with special needs, including ADHD, must be registered in the Exceptional Family Member Program (EFMP). This program helps ensure that servicemembers are assigned to duty stations where their child’s special needs can be addressed.
According to Merri Bair, lead EFMP coordinator at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, many military families aren’t aware of the program. “A lot of families aren’t privy to the information that they need to be enrolled in the EFMP because they’re seeing a civilian provider.”
On the other hand, servicemembers are also concerned that having a child in the EFMP program will affect their careers. “Some people try to avoid it because they think it’s going to kill their career or keep them from going to a place they want to go,” Bair said.
But this is rarely the case. “If your child has ADHD, they have to be enrolled,” Akins said. “But PCS orders are rarely affected, unless your child sees a specialist, like a child psychiatrist who may not be available in certain duty stations.”
3. Go Beyond Google.
Professionals also stress the importance of getting to know your child’s condition. “If a family leaves the office with a diagnosis,” Akins said, "the keys things are doing some reading about ADHD so that you have an understanding about the importance of things like schedules for your children, some different parenting tactics that you can use that are less oriented toward punishment and more oriented toward rewards, ensuring that sleep and breakfast are taken care of, and that you get some familiarity with medication you might be using.”
Learning about your child’s ADHD is particularly important for military families. Because of the frequency of PCS moves, military children are inevitably seen and treated by a variety of doctors.
“With transitions and transfers high on the list of items that military families face, educating yourself about your child’s condition is a must,” said Dr. Charles Parker, a neuroscientist, child and adult psychiatrist and author of New ADHD Medication Rules. “Make sure that when you decide on a treatment you are satisfied with, you educate yourself and make sure that each doctor you see is aware of where you’ve been, what you’re doing and how you would like to go forward. No one knows your child as well as you do.”
4. Become a records fanatic.
“As a military family in constant transition, make sure that you keep a record of everything,” advised Tiffany Isaacson, Navy spouse and mother of a child with ADHD. “From what medications you have tried to what behavior management skills you have sought. All of these characters will change as you move around, and the only character you can manage is the one you know: your child. So keep records and be your child’s best advocate.”
Updated records are important as children change schools as well. According to Erin Carpenter, a special education teacher who has taught primarily at schools near military installations, the more information a parent can communicate with teachers, the better the child’s outcome will be in a new school.
“Keep copies of the most current Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 plan and current evaluation in your important docs folder when you’re going to a new school. Keep documentation from teachers and/or doctors of strategies (including accommodations) or medications that worked well for your child,” Carpenter advises.
Carpenter also stresses the importance of informing teachers of any changes in medication or strategies and encouraging teachers to communicate any behavioral changes they’re seeing at school.
5. You now have permission to lean.
Caring for a child with ADHD, combined with the stressors of military life, can take its toll on the best of military families. To help ease the stress, seek out support groups, talk to a counselor and lean on friends.
Tracey, an Air National Guard spouse whose daughter has ADHD, found solace in both support programs on base and her friends while her husband was deployed.
“The programs really helped our survival,” Tracey said. “And the support from our military friends, who understand what it’s like to parent alone -- these things allowed for our survival during an extremely difficult time.”
Army spouse Leyka Williams turned to counseling to help her cope with the combination of her husband’s deployments and her son’s ADHD. “Counseling has been very helpful in finding ways to communicate and de-stress.”
Having a child with ADHD as a military family will never be easy. But having the proper tools and using available resources will help lessen the strain on the child and the family as a whole, making life a little bit easier on everyone.