Mental Health

Raising Children When You Have ADHD

Does having ADHD yourself affect the way you parent your own kids? Author Timothy Denevi had first-hand knowledge with both.

Diagnosed with ADHD when he was six years old, Timothy Denevi was the kid who couldn’t sit still, who spoke out of turn in class, who was humiliated by teachers who didn’t have the training or temperament to manage his issues constructively. He saw therapists and once threatened to kill himself in front of his mother after being put on Ritalin. Yet underneath all the madness was a sweet, vulnerable boy with an unusually high degree of self-awareness who was struggling to gain control over his life.

Denevi chronicles that fight in Hyper, a moving and thoughtful memoir that tells parallel stories of his own personal experience of ADHD alongside a clear but critical exploration of the medical history of ADHD, and the psychological theories, drug treatments, mistaken beliefs and advances surrounding it.

The kid who was ejected repeatedly from his third-grade classroom and made to sit by himself in the hallway is now a 39-year-old assistant professor at George Mason University. Married and the father of an 11-year-old son and a 4-year-old daughter, he is also the author of Freak Kingdom, a recently-published book on Hunter Thompson. We wondered about the legacy of ADHD on his life and how it influenced his role as a parent.

What form does your ADHD take now as an adult?

Probably a form of restlessness and difficulty with a sense of consequences and boundaries [or] the best way to estimate the effort I should put out and the time I should allot to do so. Like, pushing myself too hard at a sport or pushing myself too hard at writing.

What are some consequences these days of that restlessness or putting too much energy into a sport? What’s the effect on you?

With a sport, it’s fine, because as long as I don’t get hurt while I’m doing it, it tends to burn off the restlessness. [Other times,] it can throw me out of whack, like either trying to complete or finish a work of art I’m struggling with or by overreacting to and having a tough time planning out my work schedule at the university I teach at. I just [went through] a situation where for almost every instant of the day I felt overwhelmed and at the end of my abilities to be able to achieve all the different tasks I had to, because of poor planning and of overextending myself.

You’ve said that you believed that members of your family, particularly your grandfathers, struggled with ADHD-related issues. Do you see any of those traits in your own children?

I don’t see the need to burn off this excess restlessness in my children that I see in my family tree.

My son is a sweet boy. Like anyone his age, he can get distracted. He can play a video game for like 12 hours. I think he’s a normal kid. My daughter—she’s [more like me]. She’s like many of the women in my family. Her personality is very vibrant. She’s brilliant, but she is very fierce and determined and willful and exuberant. I think there’s a chance she may have some conflict because of her personality within the strictures of school, but it’s hard to say. Sixth grade was a nightmare for me, but my son is halfway through it and he’s doing great. My daughter is brilliant. She’s different than I ever was, she can sit and color a full book. She did blocks the other day. I always had to be active. I would make, like, sports games. My son is not like that. My son likes video games or he just likes to chill out. So I don’t see the overactivity. I don’t see the need to burn off this excess restlessness in my children that I see in my family tree.

You wrote a candid and revealing essay for Time magazine called “ADHD in Adulthood: To Prepare for a New Baby, I Had to Prepare My Mental Health.” You said that you thought ADHD was part of your past, but that understanding changed when your first child was born. How so?

You want to serve yourself in terms of rhythm and you’re afraid that people around you will suffer. It was a really hard time when my daughter was born. I had a new job. I was suddenly working more than I ever had. I didn’t have time to write. My wife was busier. We suddenly were strapped financially because we just bought a house, which was lovely but was difficult. It’s finally only gotten better in the last six months because my daughter’s over four years old now, we can just talk and engage, where she would just scream in the past and I would get really upset by that. I’d never been so overwhelmed as I was these past four years, working as much as I was, having a job that I didn’t understand that I’d be so busy and having that take away from my writing time.

You’re afraid that people around you will suffer.

Yet you took on another book project on Hunter Thompson. How did you manage all your responsibilities without super stressing out?

To finish the Thompson book from November 15 to March 15 of last year, I put myself on a nighttime schedule. I woke up at 5 PM and worked until 10 AM and went back to sleep. It was good because I saw the family from 5 to 7 in the evening and saw the family from 7 to 9 in the morning, but I didn’t see anybody else. I was close with them, but it was a way to avoid email distraction and politics and Internet distraction. I didn’t think I was going to make the deadline, and I was glad when I got it done.

To finish Freak Kingdom while managing his family and ADHD, Denevi had to put himself on a night schedule for six months.

After taking a deep dive in your life in Hyper and trying to make sense of your early years, how did that knowledge influence you as a parent or the way that you parent?

You start to see yourself as older versions of your children.

It helped with my son Jack. I think I was aware at the moment during which you stop seeing younger children or even 18-year-olds that you’re teaching as younger versions of yourself, but you start to see yourself as older versions of your children. And that gave me a lot more empathy toward students that I was interacting with. My son and I have a very nice relationship. [Because my wife traveled so much for her job, I spent a lot of time alone with Jack after he was born.] I spend a lot of time with [my daughter now], but I have to go to Virginia three days a week to teach, so I don’t have that luxury of time I had with my son. I have to manage things better.

In Hyper, you write about the time you were on Ritalin and threatened to kill yourself in front of your mother with a butter knife. You go on to write: “How would you respond if your own son, in the midst of taking a stimulant for hyperactivity, told you he was going to kill himself?” As a parent yourself now, how would YOU answer that question?

I would just try to do whatever I could to be there for them. The brain is often at its worst when the child is between 11 and 18 or between 9 and 20. Those are difficult times. The brain is the most complicated thing we’ve ever studied. The problem with the brain is that the variables are as many as the atoms in the universe. What’s fascinating when writing about ADHD is to see doctors really struggle to understand how to interact with these young men and women who are having such a tough time. There’s no right answer.

Whether they inherited his ADHD or not, Timothy Denevi just wants to parent his kids with understanding.

For parents who don’t have children with ADHD, what should they know about parents who are raising a child with ADHD?

The behavior is variable. Just because someone comes over to your house and has a tough time and might cause a scene or might be difficult doesn’t mean that that’s the version of the child that always exists. I think it’s pretty easy if you don’t have kids to be like, “Oh, your child is the child who can’t sit still,” when in fact it’s all about environment. There are moments when a child who is deeply overactive can be very still and engaged in a way that would surprise those parents.

It always gets better. It really does.

What advice would you give to parents of a child with ADHD-related issues?

It always gets better. It really does. The effort that’s put out by the parents will pay off exponentially down the line. If you’re a parent who can minimize the conflict that comes from ADHD in order to help your child through the conflict or to get perspective on the conflict, that’s the best way. Here’s a parent that the child knows will always be there and is not going away. I think that’s the best thing because it’s going to get better later.

Mental Health Profiles

The Illustrated World Of An Autistic Superhero-Artist

Ray Vickers' one-of-a-kind comics, which feature teddy bear ninjas and sword-wielding bunny superheroes, have become highly-prized by art collectors. But for Ray, they're a way of making sense of the world.

Wearing a scorpion suspended in a glow-in-the-dark pendant around his neck, artist Ray Vickers sketches a picture of a rabbit wielding a sword made out of a carrot and tells me the legend of his own birth: “I was born with a tail, and with clothes on,” he says. “Red boxers, a white t-shirt, and a tattoo that said ‘Don’t Fuck With the Baby.’”

Coloring the carrot-sword orange, Ray tells me he can time-travel, that he’s Albert Einstein’s stepson, that he only ages once every 300 years. When he was a kid, he says, his tail let him hang and swing from things, until the fateful day it was bitten off by a pack of rabid dogs: “May it rest in peace,” he says.

As one of 160 artists working out of Creative Growth Art Center—a nonprofit that provides studio space and resources for artists with developmental and physical disabilities in Oakland, California—Ray channels his wild imagination and sharp surrealist humor into drawing.

“Art helps me with my anxiety,” says Ray, 29. “It helps me to not focus on the stuff I’m going through. It helps me escape reality. I like to live in my own world twenty-four-seven. You can’t get in trouble if you live in your own world.”

Photo by Hannah Hughes

“Art helps me with my anxiety… It helps me to not focus on the stuff I’m going through.”

The illustrated world Ray has created since joining Creative Growth in 2009 is filled with anthropomorphic rabbit-heroes and teddy bear-villains, pop culture icons like Captain America, and graphic motifs like eyeballs, eight-balls, and arrows.

As a comic book-obsessed student at Oakland’s Stonehurst Elementary School—which he describes as “H-E-double hockey sticks”—Ray often drew superheroes while bored in class.

“When I was young, but old enough to understand, my mom explained what I had: Autism, Asperger’s, dyslexia, ADHD,” he says. “We’re not stupid, we just learn differently than others. I always knew I was different, but didn’t know I could make money selling art.”

A page from “Newcha’s Revenge Against Bunnies Bunny Revenger”

Growing up in southeast Oakland in the nineties, Ray often saw the impulse to “escape reality” play out in drug and alcohol abuse. Having witnessed the toll this took on his community, he swore he’d “never smoke, drink, or vape.” Instead, he sought escape through reading DC and Marvel Comics, watching action movies, volunteering at the Oakland Zoo, and attending cosplay and toy conventions. “Toys are my drug,” he says, showing photos of his vast collection of action figures.

As a teenager, when he wasn’t attending Richmond Educational Learning Center, studying Independent Living Skills at Alameda College, or working as a handyman with his cousin, Ray “was just chilling constantly at home with [his] leopard gecko, watching Spiderman cartoons from the eighties.”

It wasn’t until 2009, when his case manager referred him to Creative Growth, that Ray found the resources he needed to develop his art practice. Superhero doodles soon evolved into works that have been shown in established galleries and major art fairs, including the NADA Art Fair in Miami and the Outsider Art Fair in New York.

“I always knew I was different, but didn’t know I could make money selling art.”

At Creative Growth one morning, Ray works alone in a quiet back room of the former auto-repair shop, drawing with Sharpie, listening to Nine Inch Nails on headphones. He describes his work-in-progress: “This rabbit’s looking at his carrot sword, trying to decide if he’s gonna kill the teddy bears,” he says. “The teddy bears killed his family and friends, because they were discriminating. Now he’s trying to decide what’s next in life.”

Another page from “Newcha’s Revenge Against Bunnies Bunny Revenger”

In recent years, Ray’s drawings of dead rabbits have earned something of a cult following. “He drew a dead rabbit one day, people loved it, and it sold very quickly,” Creative Growth Studio Manager Matt Dostal says. “It became a motif for him. Now he does these rabbits with carrot samurai swords beheading stuffed animals, a lot of funny comic violence.” In 2015, Ray’s series “Newcha’s Revenge Against Bunnies Bunny Revenger” was shown in a group exhibition at the renowned Fraenkel Gallery, curated by artist Katy Grannan.

In April, in preparation for Creative Growth’s annual fashion show and fundraiser, Ray spent months crafting an army-green suit with a matching mask and gauntlets made from shin guards, plus a bow and a quiver for arrows. This costume transformed him into Green Arrow, a superhero from the world of DC Comics. As Green Arrow, “I try to help others, save the city,” Ray says. “Fighting crime, beating up bad people.”

At the sold-out fashion show, called “Beyond Trend,” a crowd gathered around a runway festooned in paper flowers. Artists strutted down the catwalk, modeling handmade Frankenstein masks, shrinky-dink jewelry, pom-pom-covered shawls, and sparkly tinsel headdresses. When Ray emerged as Green Arrow, cheers erupted and he struck a fierce pose, drawing back his bow and aiming the arrow into the crowd.

“He looked so confident that nearly everyone in the audience instinctively flinched, if not full-out ducked,” says Creative Growth staffer Jessica Daniel. “Of course, he didn’t shoot the arrow— it wasn’t a real arrow, anyway—but he was pretty proud of the reaction.”

Photo: Hannah Hughes

Superheroes influence Ray’s real-world behavior, not just his art. He often rescues stray dogs he finds in his neighborhood. While skateboarding, he found an American bulldog on the side of the road, “looking really dehydrated.” He brought her home, named her Scuttles, and fed her plenty: “Now she’s fat.” Scuttles has two adopted siblings: a rescued Newfoundland named Ace and a bearded dragon named Hero.

“Ray is one of the most caring, sensitive, empathetic people I know,” Matt says. Superhero persona aside, “he couldn’t just see a dog looking hungry on the street and leave it there.”

But Ray doesn’t consider his empathy a superpower. “I don’t have any powers in my world,” he claims. Given the choice to have any superpower, “I would probably pick super-strength, so I could pick up literally anything,” he says, spinning his fidget-spinner. “If I was walking down the street one night and saw someone trying to kidnap somebody, I could just stop their car with my hand and rip their tire off. I can see it now.” He cocks his head to the side and gazes into the distance.

“When I daydream,” he explains, “I tip my head a little to the left.”

This is part two of four of Folks’ series of profiles of some of the amazing artists at Oakland’s Creative Growth Arts Center, which serves artists with developmental, mental and physical disabilities.