My son was 5 years old when he told me he did not want to live anymore. 

It has not gotten any easier to hear those words, but the shock has worn off. Sometimes I forget about it until someone else hears him say it and asks me if I know. He hasn’t made an attempt — he does not want to — but his earnest desire to not live in this world throws me. 

Last year, my son, who is now 10, was diagnosed with anxiety and ADHD. He has been seeing a therapist for five years. I was relieved to be able to put a name to his feelings and behaviors that I’ve been observing closely all along.

I want to share his story because I know that it is not just him. There are lots of other kids like him — kids who seem mean but may have something going on in their lives that we don’t know of. 

Since a very young age, he has had trouble focusing and yet he is acutely aware of the world around him. He constantly worries about people looking at him and judging him, thinking that no one likes him. In class, if he does not know an answer, he will think of himself as a failure. Often he criticizes himself so harshly that it makes it even more difficult for him to succeed. 

This anxiety manifests into behaviors that are harmful to himself and to others. He would joke, with a kind of wry humor that is beyond his age. Or he would be outright rude and disrespectful to people, bursting into an array of expletives. Often, he storms off, refusing to confront the situation. 

Other people see this child who is mean and causing trouble for everyone — someone who wants to harm others. Their first instinct is to stay away from him. 

But there’s no such thing as a bad kid.

What they don’t see is that when he walks off, he goes into a space where he shames himself into thinking that he is a terrible person that no one wants to be around. He ends up hating himself in a way that no child ever should. 

It has been difficult to set aside my embarrassment and feeling that I failed as a mother and to refocus on my child who hates himself. I try to hold him accountable for his actions but I also want him to rewrite the narrative from “I am a terrible person” to “I made a mistake.” 

This is what I want people to see — that behind his impulsiveness and impertinence, there is a child who acts out because that is the only way he knows how to take control of a situation. He does not want to hurt others but that is the only way he knows how to deal with his anxiety. 

Recently, he got upset outside of school and walked off. I was able to help him cool down and bring him back to the activity. His coach saw that, understood and intentionally told him that it was OK and they wanted him back. These are the kind of moments that fill me with gratitude because not everyone is always willing to re-engage with my son.

Therapy has helped him immensely. He is learning meditation, breathing exercises and planning so that his anxiety is less provoking. After his diagnosis, he established an individualized education plan, or an IEP, at school. The IEP allows him to remove time constraints on tests so that he can focus and accomplish. It also helps him break down longer assignments so that he is not overwhelmed because of anxiety and ADHD. 

It is wonderful to see how he can articulate his feelings once he calms down. I have seen him visibly let go of his stress and talk with an adult. When he cannot vocalize his feelings, he writes them down in a small notebook that he always carries along. These are the joys and the beauties of parenting a child like him because I am able to see a person who is incredibly thoughtful and caring.

What they don’t see is that when he walks off, he goes into a space where he shames himself into thinking that he is a terrible person that no one wants to be around.


But I fear that as he transitions into middle school next year, I won’t always be there with him to help him. It is easier to help him when he is still young and around. As he grows older, he will want to spend more time away. 

I don’t want him to get hurt because the world does not understand him. When I see what goes on behind what looks like an outwardly mean demeanor, I see a child filled with empathy. I just hope that the world sees it and is able to give him some of that, too.

Maria is a mom to two children in Pittsburgh. PublicSource has granted Maria anonymity to protect her and her son’s privacy. If you want to send a message to Maria, email

Lajja Mistry is PublicSource’s K-12 education reporter. She can be reached at

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