Eight-year-old Jonathan screams out driving directions. He screams about fake strawberries in the Special K. He runs around and screams that his brother is not listening to his mom. And every scream is louder than the last.
Jonathan is not a brat with a bad mother. He is a military kid with a good mother and father. Jonathan has a diagnosis of ADHD.
Most military children are born into a lifestyle of change. PCS moves, new schools and deployments are all difficult for any child to cope with. But for a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), military life makes existing struggles even more challenging.
Lack of routine
“The main struggle we face with a child with ADHD is the constant changes and disruptions to the family, such as TDY trips, training exercises and deployments,” said Army wife Leyka Williams. “He had regular meltdowns at school and at home, which is why I decided to seek help and the diagnosis was given.”
Military spouse Tracey, whose husband is currently in the Air National Guard and previously active-duty Air Force, agreed that the lack of routine inherent in military life has been an issue for her daughter, who has ADHD. Tracey’s husband deployed four times in his last two years of active-duty service, and her daughter has moved four times by age nine.
“These large changes in routine or setting are extremely difficult for many children with mental illness,” Tracey said. “It throws their entire world out of whack.”
Tracey’s daughter particularly struggled with the rapid turnaround of her father’s deployments. “She was unable to get used to a new schedule of daddy being home before it was time to get used to him being gone again,” explained Tracey. “It felt like constant upheaval to her.”
The servicemember’s frequent absences at home also affect the spouse left behind and her ability to care for a child with special needs.
“It is hard enough parenting on your own, but to add a child with mental illness into the picture, the parent left at home quickly becomes overwhelmed,” Tracey said. “My daughter’s issues took so much of my time and energy, and I had very little back-up. I had no one to take turns with during her ‘episodes.’ ”
Military spouses also find themselves with the responsibility of making important decisions alone.
“I was faced with choices such as pulling her out of school, putting her in ‘in-school suspension,’ medication, choosing a counselor,” Tracey explained. “It was very difficult not being able to have my husband’s input, and it was hard for him to give proper input over the phone because he couldn’t see what she was going through.”
This struggle to keep the servicemember involved continues even after the deployment ends.
“It is very hard for me to get my spouse on board with all of this and understand my son’s ADHD,” Williams said. “Dealing with your spouse after a stressful deployment and your ADHD child and trying to keep both of them balanced is quite the mission.”
Navy wife Tiffany Isaacson, whose son Jonathan was diagnosed with ADHD at age 5, agreed.
“When the husband arrives home, the rules and the decisions you made while he was gone may come into question, which can cause strife and stress in the marriage,” Isaacson said. “Also, the rules and parenting techniques that the spouse at home is learning may be confusing to the military member, which leads to inconsistency.”
Even if these military spouses have the support they need at home, they may not be getting enough support from their child’s school. Army National Guard wife Kris Lingenfelter, whose son was diagnosed with ADD when he was 7 years old, recently experienced the challenges of enrolling her son in a new school, something most military families must do on a regularly basis as a result of frequent PCS moves.
“His old teachers were very aware of his needs and knew how to help him, both with the ADD and being a military kid,” Lingenfelter said. “Starting in the new school we had to start all over from the beginning with informing the teachers and getting them on board with what helps him most. Some of the teachers have been great; others have been a little more difficult.”
Army wife Brea watched her son, who “thrives on a strict routine,” struggle through a lack of consistency in his school.
“During his first semester of kindergarten, he had four different teachers because they were PCSing in and out,” Brea says. “By the time the final teacher came to his class, he was a wreck. He was very skittish, he wouldn’t really talk to her, and he was getting in trouble for acting out.”
Some military families have to overcome the obstacle of getting the proper treatment for their child’s ADHD.
“Our last base was in the middle of nowhere, and there were very few specialists to be found,” said Air National Guard wife Tracey. “My daughter ended up simply getting ADHD meds from her primary care doctor and going to a family counselor. What she really needed was a child psychiatrist, and there weren’t any within 100 miles. So my daughter was unable to get the care she needed because of our location, and we were unable to move to where she could.”
And some military families even find themselves sacrificing possible career-enhancing orders for the servicemember because of their child’s special needs.
“My husband could gets orders to a duty station that doesn’t offer the support my son needs for his ADHD,” Isaacson explains. “Turning down the orders could negatively affect his career. But if he decides to take the orders to the duty station or must go unaccompanied, then that will have a profound effect on our family as well.”
Having a child with ADHD isn’t easy. But for military families, those struggles are even more pronounced when combined with the unpredictability of military life.
“Consistency is one of the best prescriptions for ADHD,” Isaacson said. “Unfortunately, that is not the reality of the military lifestyle.”