Parent Enmeshment, Boarding School, and a Kid with Significant ADHD

So many of the clients we see at the Price Group are what we call ENMESHED with at least one of their parents! One of my clients, a very bright, very verbal young man, is struggling at his current boarding school. He has been diagnosed with ADHD and has real trouble completing most anything on time, especially homework!

A typical example: his mother had been his “ADHD coach” at home… which meant that in addition to her “day job”, she had another full time job: keeping up with her son’s homework, class work, and in general being the parental unit that made sure the “executive functioning” or organization and motivation occurred for her son. Again, as is typical, she began to be burned out… less effective, in constant conflict with her son because he would not get his work done, and their relationship suffered greatly. HER stress was great, while her son was mostly oblivious to the entire adult TEAM that had to be surrounding him to get his school work completed. As a parent of a student with milder ADHD, I have BEEN THERE! It is painful to watch your child do his work, then fail to find it to turn it in or miss a critical deadline!

When the family system was strained to the absolute maximum, even with ADHD medication, a psychiatrist, a psychologist, and an entire learning center team, this young man could not succeed! So… the family came to The Price Group for help on a school placement out of the home. Did this student need a therapeutic placement? No, not in the traditional sense. He struggled with mostly organization and impulse control, but he was healthy in his love of his parents, his desire for friends, and his desire to do well in school. He just COULD NOT hold it together for a single day in terms of getting done the assignments required or staying on task.

After an extensive assessment that confirm that his mental health functioning was such that he could succeed at a traditional school with a great deal of learning support/ADHD support, we placed him at a great school… but then the trouble started! Mom was so used to being “hypervigilant” and “hyperfocused” on her son that she worried constantly. Every time she went to the parent portal of the school, she could see his missing assignments and his grades were plummeting. Upset, she called the school and complained… “I thought you were a school for kids with ADHD, but I now see you are a school for kids with behavioral problems.” (I am paraphrasing.) So here is my blog about her son, her issues, and the school below. The names have been omitted but I suspect this is a very real scenario for many parents! Read on!

I am sitting here thinking about the ADHD “excuse.” Having extreme ADHD (and in my client’s case a slight touch of probable fetal alcohol syndrome at adoption) means you have extreme difficulty staying focused… Does that give you a “pass” on an honor code? NO.  Does it mean you may violate it due to your impulsivity, lack of ability to manage tasks? Yes.  Does it mean that you need capital S STRUCTURE in order to succeed?  YES.  If said structure means falling and failing and learning to pick yourself up, over and over, is that good? Bad?  Interesting comment…is _____ School an “ADHD school”? I say yes, this school does a wonderful job teaching executive functioning skills and helping students begin to learn to take responsibility for their own success or failure.

Where do consequences fit in this scheme? And, when are they helpful and when are they hurtful?  We need to do a workshop for parents on how to parent a student when they are at a boarding school, 17 going on 13, and how to support the school, rather than work against it! Mom’s biggest problem is the “lens” through which she sees results.  She defines success for her son as good grades and completed assignments (outcomes).  She is holding the school, not HER SON accountable for these results! This is the classic, “you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink!” When all of the adults are working harder to support a student’s success than the student himself, something is seriously amiss.

The real “lens” to look through, for this mother of an ADHD child, is the PROCESS of learning: life does not give you a “pass” due to your ADHD and neither will your employer go to your mother when you miss an important work deadline! Perhaps the most significant, loving thing an “ADHD school” could do for her son is help him to “re-wire” his brain circuits in such a way so that he learns that failure and missing deadlines DOES have negative consequences, DOES result in zeros, DOES result in more, rather than less, struggle!  Pain, to a point, is worth it.  An F in school is sometimes the very best lesson!

So that begs the question, when is it OK or even appropriate to let a child fail? And what constitutes a “good” failure and what constitutes a “bad” failure?  If a child has a supportive, committed group of adults, all on the same page, all staying consistent, all staying in relationship with the child (this is key…no shaming, no guilt… son you can do this, son we love you, son your own self- worth is not defined by good or bad grades) then the son can learn HIMSELF to make better decisions and choices…that is my definition of a “good” failure!  He can know he is loved unconditionally, but that his grades, his homework completion, his adherence to the honor code, or lack of these things DOES have consequences for both school and life.

How do we teach parents this balance between holding a child accountable and not the school? How do we help parents let go of the need to “overparent” and let the school do its job? How do we let them see that “ADHD schools” can have every kind of support system and all the tools to teach organization, but until a student “gets” his part in the plan/scheme and starts asking for help, taking ownership HIMSELF, the very worst thing a parent can do is focus on grades and finished assignments and should instead hold the “safe container” of love for her son, while at the same time allowing him the “pleasure” of experiencing pain and discomfort due to a lack of follow through, even if it means temporary poor grades, detention, and mandatory study halls!!


For more about enmeshment, here is an excellent link from a residential treatment center we have visited and had kids come from!