Cartoon elephant.
The Elephant in the Room!

Part of the job of a caregiver is to be a detective. You can’t just handle situations in the heat of the moment without taking a second to think. Why is somebody acting out-of-sorts or not feeling well? Is it something they ate? Did something happen at work or school to set them off? Is there something new in their environment? Are they having a developmental growth spurt? Or, if they have mental disorders, is it a side-effect of their condition(s)?

Frequently if someone has a known physical or mental diagnosis, and they experience something which can easily be chalked up to the issue, then it is, without too much thought. But it’s not always the elephant in the room who knocks over the vase.

The other day I was trying to help my son with his homework. He has extremely severe ADHD and other mental disorders. His strong suit is math; reading, not so much. He always complains when it’s homework time, but that day it was particularly bad. Homework is always a fight with kids who have bad ADHD. What takes a non-ADHDer about ten minutes to do can take someone with ADHD one to two hours. To ease him into homework hell, I sat next to him and rubbed his shoulders, to bring it from screaming down to sobbing. I slid his math homework in front him and said, “Start here. You like math. It’s easy for you.” He took a deep breath looked over the paper, and then stood up wailing at the top of his lungs how he can’t do it and how he’s so stupid, while crumpling up the paper and throwing it in my face.

OK. At this point I could have screamed at him, stormed away, or given him a time out elsewhere to calm down. I gave him a time out to calm down, but so I could think. I looked at the paper he had so nicely turned into a baseball. It was some very simple math which needed you to show your work. I knew he knew the material already, so that wasn’t it. When he came down, I handed him a glass of water and asked him, “Why don’t you think you can do this math? I know you know this material already. All you have to do is write it out.” He looked at me and took a deep breath. “It’s not the stupid math, Mom. It’s the writing. I can’t write! I hate writing!” He could write, really jaggedly, but write he could. So I asked, “What do you mean?” “In Ms. S’s class, if I try to write and make it so she can read it a little, by the time I’m done with one sheet, the rest of the class is done with five. I CAN’T DO IT!!!” I calmed him down again.

So, I gave him a scrap piece of paper and asked him to write whatever he wanted. He scowled at me, but did it. I watched physically how he was writing. The angle of his wrist, the turn of the paper, the grip on the pencil. He’s left-handed. I noticed that he was holding the paper at an angle a right-hander would use. When he was done, I slid the paper over to myself and said, “Look I bet you didn’t know I’m ambidextrous. Watch me write a sentence with the paper the way you had it, left handed.” Needless to say it was kind of chicken scratch. “Not very neat, Mom. Actually, that’s kind of sloppy and jaggy.” “Yep. Now watch what happens when I turn the paper like you should for a lefty.” All of a sudden it went from nigh illegible to nice and looping cursive. “Ahhhhh.” “Now you try it.” I told him to go slow, concentrate on going slow and neat, and then it would start going faster. He did, and then amazingly he sat there for a half hour doing his homework and it was the neatest I’ve ever seen it.

He came over to my office where I was ripping apart a computer and proudly showed me his work. He said, “Mom, you were right. At first it felt funny in my hand to hold the paper like that and I went slower, but I started going faster by the end and it was still neat!”

It turns out that he had been having temper outbursts at school and behavioral issues, sometimes on purpose, because he was anxious about not keeping up with the other kids because of his writing. It wasn’t his ADHD or other issues. It’s because the school system taught him to write left-handed like he was right-handed.

It’s not always the ADHD. It’s not always the dementia. It’s not always the obesity. Sometimes there are other things at work. As caregivers we need to remember to look beyond the normal and obvious to get to the truth.