By Michelle Seitzer
There’s nothing like parenthood to teach you more about yourself than you ever expected. But when you become a parent — and specifically, when you see your kids struggling — you’re likely to end up on a journey of self-awareness and discovery.
And for these four parents (in some cases, their partners too), that journey led to an ADHD diagnosis. It was a turning point that put their own past struggles into perspective — and changed the present for themselves and their children. Here are some of their stories.
When Help For a Child Led To a Diagnosis for the Parent
A surprising statement: Melissa and Molly’s diagnosis discovery story
It started in the pediatrician’s office for New Jersey-based mom of two, Melissa Bigelli. It was 2021, and she was seeking help for her older daughter, Molly, who was seven at the time and in second grade. “Anxiety and lack of focus were slowly taking over her life, and thanks to her amazing teachers, we turned to her doctor for help. Through forms and tests and appointments, she was diagnosed with ADHD and anxiety,” remembers Bigelli.
“The anxiety was no surprise to us because I had anxiety,” Bigelli says. “But what the pediatrician said next pulled the rug out from under me and threw me down a rabbit hole of self-discovery that had been buried deep for 40-plus years. The pediatrician turned to me and said: ‘Well, ADHD is hereditary, so it’s common when a parent has ADHD that their child will have it too.'”
Bigelli, who was 42 at the time, laughed and informed the doctor that neither she nor her spouse had ADHD.
“She was almost as taken aback by my statement as I was by hers,” Bigelli says. “She continued by apologizing to me because she thought ‘for sure’ I had ADHD after getting to know me over the past seven years. She suggested that I talk it over with my doctor.” A diagnosis soon followed.
Mothers and sons: the “aha” moments that led to a later-in-life diagnosis
For New Englander Rae Hickey, whose teenage son Michael has ADHD and autism, the “aha” moment came around age 39 when she read a book about the different types of ADHD. She went for an ADHD assessment at the suggestion of her husband, who had also been assessed.
“I didn’t know the term for it as a kid, but once I found out more about it as an adult, I knew this is what I struggled with as a kid,” says Hickey. “I did well in school, so my parents never pursued getting answers.”
After California-based Siv Ricketts’ older son had his third concussion in less than a year’s time, an ADHD diagnosis was finally established.
“My younger son, an entirely different kiddo, had been diagnosed in seventh grade. And that’s when we realized that my tendencies to disorganization and overwhelm are symptoms of ADHD, too,” says Ricketts.
When a lifetime of struggles became clear: Leanne and Ella’s diagnosis story
As a toddler, Leanne Peacey’s daughter, Ella, was often caught staring into space or wandering off. In kindergarten, the challenges became more pronounced.
“Diagnoses were being thrown around,” recalls Peacey, who lives with her family in Pennsylvania. “She’d have these major meltdowns and was extremely inflexible.”
The Peacey family started a process of assessment and review with a local behavioral health group, which led to more support at school through behavioral therapy and a classroom aide.
When Ella was in second grade, Peacey felt so overwhelmed by parenting her. (She also has an older son and a younger daughter.) “I was constantly wondering if I was doing enough, or doing too much, or doing things wrong,” Peacey says. “And I wanted to know: Is this my natural state, or is it something more?”
To find answers, Peacey started seeing a therapist at the behavioral health group where her daughter was receiving services. It was there where, while working with a therapist who herself has ADHD, Peacey got an ADHD diagnosis and eventually started medications. That was a total game-changer for the mom and working artist. Everything she had struggled with as a child and in her early years of motherhood started to make sense in light of the diagnosis.
The challenges of ADHD for parents and kids
So what does life look like now for Bigelli and her daughter with ADHD? “It’s (still) a hot mess; it’s just a hot mess with a diagnosis,” she says. “But we are trying.”
For Bigelli, housework is a major challenge. “I still make bigger messes when trying to clean than actually cleaning. I still forget to switch over the laundry. I still set alarms for everything, but then either forget what the alarm was for, or I don’t focus on it — and forget to do what the alarm was for.”
But she and her young daughter understand each other in a unique way.
“Molly and I refer to ourselves as having a ‘race car brain with bicycle brakes,'” Bigelli says. “And I guess I am the perfect parent for my Molly because I can understand and empathize with what she is going through. It still breaks my heart, but on the days we accomplish something that is a big task for us — that’s a victory!”
“I knew I had issues with focus/attention, and that I hyperfocused on things,” says Hickey. “My son and I both have a problem with attention and sitting still.”
Hickey tried medication for herself but found it wasn’t the best solution for her. “Now I manage with to-do lists, which I learned to do when homeschooling my son. It helps him and me,” she says.
Peacey says the formal diagnosis, getting on the right medication and overcoming stigmas and shame with a therapist have all made a significant difference in not only her parenting, but also her work as a self-employed artist.
“It helps with the creative process, and I can focus when talking to clients and customers,” she says. “I’m not panicking, so I’m not procrastinating,” she says. She also says the inner voice of self-doubt she heard for most of her life was instantly gone after starting the right medication.
The path ahead for parents and kids with ADHD
The journey of self-discovery continues for the Ricketts family, as Siv’s two sons — ages 23 and 18 — are still living at home and attending different colleges. “We’re still learning and talking about what ADHD looks like in different people, in families, as adults young and old,” she says.
Sometimes, parents and kids are still wrapping their brains around a diagnosis and what it really means in everyday life. In recent discussions about the diagnosis, Hickey’s son Michael was surprised to learn he had ADHD, even though she had shared it with him before. “I was blown away he didn’t know,” she said. “I would say ADHD is more of a challenge to him than autism.”
Changing the perspective of what ADHD looks like and who it affects (not just boys, even though they are diagnosed more often) is an important part of helping undiagnosed children and adults get the support and services they need. Peacey hopes that researchers will focus more on the hyperactive brain, not just its effects on the body. “It’s the racing thoughts and speed of the brain that leads to that physicality of ADHD,” she says.
Do you wonder whether you or your child may have undiagnosed ADHD? Besides recommending that you seek a diagnosis or other forms of support, Bigelli offers these hopeful words: “If this sounds like you or your child, I hope that rather than feeling sad at the challenges ahead, you will feel relief, hope and assurance that you are not a failure, you are not alone, and there are lots of ways you can learn to navigate your ADHD without shame.”