Crying in the Dentist’s Office :: The Constant Failure of Raising a Neurodivergent Child

Crying in the Dentist’s Office :: The Constant Failure of Raising a Neurodivergent Child

I fought back tears in my daughter’s dentist’s office today.

My oldest had just finished her semiannual appointment, and it hadn’t gone well. The hygienist had spent the majority of the appointment nicely lecturing my daughter on how and why she needed to do a better job brushing her teeth – pointing out to her that her discomfort and the bleeding was the result of her not doing a good enough job brushing her teeth. I had expected she would get such a lecture and was mentally bracing myself for a similar lecture that would come from the orthodontist, with whom we had an appointment afterward. When the dentist came in and echoed the need for better hygiene practices, I shared with her that this had been a constant battle, that my husband and I had modeled proper hygiene, helped her brush to make sure she understood how to brush properly, purchased her disclosing tablets and disclosing toothpaste, insisted upon the use of floss and mouthwash, but the moment we stopped the constant supervision, she regressed. Short of brushing her teeth for her every time, I was at a loss for how else to help her. By the time I finished talking, I was fighting back the tears, and I know the dentist could hear it in my voice. I know she heard the frustration of a mother at her wit’s end in my voice, but I wonder if she realized it was about so much more than my daughter’s dental hygiene.

Every aspect of raising my daughter is like this.

I’ve had similar conversations with the pediatrician, her teachers, tutors, and therapists. Each time, I try to keep the conversation to the issue at hand, but every time I want to tell them everything. I want them to know that we spent thousands of dollars on a complete cognitive behavioral health evaluation for my daughter. I want them to know that we are currently spending the equivalent of a private school tuition on a tutoring program to prevent her from failing school, in addition to fighting for accommodations at every 504 and IEP meeting. I want them to know that we’ve modeled, explained, lectured, and ultimately yelled because we don’t know how to get through to her. I want them to know that my daughter’s challenges don’t just affect her; they affect everyone in our household, but unlike most kids, she doesn’t learn from consequences (natural or other) and will repeat the same problematic behaviors over and over again, frequently blaming everyone and everything else rather than taking accountability.

I want them to know these things because I want them to know how hard we are trying, even when it looks like nothing is changing. Maybe if they get the full picture, they’ll understand that it’s not just her teeth, or her weight, or her grades, it’s absolutely everything.

Frustrated woman trying to explain herself

I know these professionals have seen worse, but each time I have to have these conversations, I feel judged. I feel like I’m being told that I am not doing enough as her mother and that only hits a nerve that is already raw, not only because I am hard on myself about it, but because whenever I am honest with others about my frustrations, they look at me like I’m a monster. I try so hard to do what is best for my daughter, but I also have a job, a husband, another child, and a household to worry about, and we don’t have family support nearby. I regularly wonder if I am doing enough to help her while simultaneously wondering how on earth I could possibly do more.

I read something on parenting, ADHD, or anxiety every day, but sometimes I just become more overwhelmed and confused because so much of it is contradictory, or what works for one issue doesn’t work for another. I try to apply what I’ve learned to parenting her, but sometimes I don’t even know what is going on. For example, the other morning, I asked her if she had brushed her hair. She said she had, but I knew that her hairbrush and detangling spray were still sitting in my bathroom from the night before. In the moment, I just asked her how she could have brushed her hair if her stuff was still in my room, let her brush her hair, and let it go, but I wondered what had really happened and what exactly needed to be addressed. Had she lied because she didn’t feel like working through her thick, wavy, easily tangled hair? Or had it been her ADHD time-blindness – she has memories of brushing her hair at some point in time, so in her mind, that meant she had brushed it that morning? Either way, we’ve had enough experiences with the consequences of her not brushing her hair (hours spent detangling with coconut oil, trips to the Sharkey’s for professional help, and even chopping out knots that couldn’t be undone) for her to know better and do better, but she still doesn’t change her behavior or seem to be able to think about those prior consequences.

When she says she cleaned her room but it’s still so obviously a mess, I try to remember that the therapist told me my daughter just doesn’t notice details – we have to point out to her each item that still needs to be addressed. I try to remember that she struggles with executive dysfunction when I’ve asked her repeatedly to do something and it’s still not getting done, but I can’t always stop what I am doing to walk her through the thing that she knows how to do and is perfectly capable of doing. I try to be thoughtful and intentional in my parenting of her, but more often than I’d like, my frustrations get the best of me, and afterward, the guilt seeps in. I don’t want to be a helicopter parent, and I can’t understand how anyone would choose to be so willingly because it is downright exhausting. I want my daughter to be independent and successful, but every time we step back and give her that independence, there are always consequences, and they never just affect her.

I know that my daughter is capable of doing all the things she struggles with, but conversations like I had at the dentist’s office are frequent reminders to me of just how difficult simple things are for her and how helpless I feel when it comes to guiding her. Certainly, there are immediate more consequences. Failure to properly care for her teeth means cavities and stains when her braces come off – things her father and I will have to pay for and things that may not be able to be corrected. I can explain these consequences to her, but she’s not going to understand or care (I’m still not always sure which one it is). But my biggest concern is never the direct and immediate consequences – it’s always the long term. I am constantly worried about my daughter’s ability to be a functional adult. I remember the therapist telling me about her adult ADHD patients regularly getting their water and power cut off because they forgot to pay the bill or can’t keep a job, and I am terrified that is her future. I have visions of her living like a hoarder and horrible fears that she’ll decide her childhood was toxic because she’ll only remember the times we lost our patience with her and not all the things we did to help her. If simple tasks are so difficult for her, how will she ever survive as an adult?

And so, I ended up fighting back tears again at the orthodontist’s office, not because she’s going to end up with stains on her teeth when the brackets come off, but because I’m at a loss for how else to help my daughter succeed and so very tired of the constant reminders that it’s never enough.


  1. As someone who had undiagnosed Adhd as a child it’s like you are describing me as a child. My teenage years into my 20’s were full with impulsive behaviors and no direction. I will tell you that how my parents raised me and set examples helped me for when things did start clicking the older I have become. I am 42 now, super successful, and I have only received water bills that were past due twice.(ha!) I own a home and I am a leader now. When I start to worry that my son will have the same problems I had I try to remind myself this is a phase and we will get through it. He is 14 and not been diagnosed with anything, I still have to remind him to brush his teeth. The teeth brushing thing doesn’t bother too much because I was your daughter and I know he will grow out of it. You are doing great and you can only do the best you can.

  2. Are you raising my daughter?! We have the same battles day after day after day. It is so frustrating. On top of the ADHD, she was recently diagnosed with autism, level one, so she’s high functioning, but we have all these battles and more. The teeth brushing, hair brushing, homework fights, the lies that you wonder are they lies or does she honestly think she did AB and C? I was a single mom raising her for the first 10yrs and have had my husband for the past year to help. She has made great strides in some areas, but it’s the same battles over hygiene and daily things that I am like you, I want to tell everyone she has this, this is why she acts the way she acts. It’s not that she hasn’t had good, structured parenting, because I paid for all the therapies and constant reminders and examples and we still fight the same battles. Needless to say, you’re not alone! I worry about her naivety when she gets older and starts being offered drugs and alcohol. She knows they’re wrong, but if a “friend” tells her it’s candy or something, she will gladly take it, not thinking about the consequences. The fears go on and on.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here