Talking Back

Dear Coach,

I’m sorry. 

The way I talked back to you was wrong. 

I was upset.  I’d worked hard all week, getting to practice early to lift, staying late to watch film, and I didn’t understand why you’d benched me.  I didn’t see how I could be second string.

But that’s no excuse. I never mean to be disrespectful. In fact, I’m probably madder at myself than you are at me.

The thing is my mouth gets ahead of me sometimes, especially when I feel like I’m being criticized.

There’s a part of my brain – the amygdala – that is super sensitive compared to other people.  And another part – the frontal lobe – that doesn’t always to do its job.

The amygdala is the part that responds to threats.  It makes us feel scared when we sense danger – they call it the “fight or flight” response.  The amygdala told the caveman when to run like crazy to escape the lion or when to stay and fight a predator that had already gotten too close.  It might tell a modern human not to drive on an icy road or to stand up to a bully on the playground.

This is all good.  The amygdala keeps us safe from harm.

The hitch is that kids like me, who have ADHD, sense threats all over the place, even when they aren’t real.  Perceived criticism is a huge one.  I know it seems like I don’t care what you say and never listen or follow directions.  But really I care a ton.  

I care what you think.  I care what everyone thinks of me.  I really wish I could listen better.  I really want to be able to do everything right.  And what sounds to other kids like a simple correction sounds to me like an angry, critical putdown.  Worst is when others hear it too.

So, when I heard for the first time in front of the team that my completion percentage was down and that Jimmy would be starting, I was crushed.  I felt like I’d been stabbed, or maybe bitten by a lion. 

There was nowhere to flee in the locker room, so my amygdala said, “Fight!”  That’s when I said I didn’t care (so not true) and that you would regret the stupid decision (also wrong).

I didn’t have any more warning than you before that shot out of my mouth.

See there’s a double-whammy with ADHD that makes it even harder to keep the over-sensitive amygdala from running the show.

That’s the frontal lobe.  It’s like the brain’s control center.  It makes decisions, like when to get out of bed for school, how long to study for your test – and, unfortunately, whether to talk back to your coach.

When the amygdala is on fire, the frontal lobe shuts down. There’s no one at the controls to think rationally.  Gut instincts kick in.  This happens with everyone to some extent but is way more pronounced with kids who have ADHD.  Their frontal lobe development is commonly three years behind.  So a 10-year-old with ADHD is likely to react like a much younger kid.

This shows up in a lot of ways, and a big one is controlling immediate reactions.  When you benched me in front of the team – when my amygdala said fight – my frontal lobe didn’t kick in to tell me to chill.  Didn’t advise me to hold my tongue.   The frustration in my reaction was directed at myself for failing again, but the response that spilled out was directed at you.  And that was wrong. 

These brain quirks are not excuses.  I just want you to know that I never mean to be disrespectful.  I never want to talk back or do the wrong thing.  And knowing how my ADHD brain works, I can share some things that help me react appropriately. 

Talking to me privately first is way less likely to ignite my amygdala than calling the attention of the whole group. 

My brain also seems to turn up the volume on everything negative, so a critical tone sounds to me like screaming, even if it really isn’t.  That can make my reaction seem outsized.

The good news is that usually cool down pretty quickly, if no one engages with me.  I can argue until the cows come home when my amygdala is firing.  But if the threat goes away, my frontal lobe can take charge again.  Then I’m able to talk logically about what happened.  And apologize if I need to. 

I know I’m not always the easiest kid, but now that I know what’s going on in my brain I’m working on it too. I’m learning to be mindful of how I’m feeling, of when the heat is rising and how to breathe through the hot moments. 

I hope you’ll stick with me.  Because I’m ready to get out there for my next best play.