The challenge of keeping my impulsive and hyperfocused son safe

When our family moved to a small suburb several years ago, my then 6-year-old son asked if we could explore our new neighborhood on our bikes. My son has ADHD and autism, and he was quite impulsive at that age. So I was nervous about taking him out in an unfamiliar area. But I agreed.

As we made our way down the side streets, we were passed by a pickup truck. “Daddy, look! That truck is an F-350 Super Duty!” my son excitedly said. He’s obsessed with trucks and loves pointing out the makes and models. He was so hyperfocused on the truck traveling away from us that he didn’t see a pothole near the curb in front of him.

I called out to him several times, each time louder. “Stop! Look out for the hole!” But he didn’t hear me, even though I was only a few feet behind. He was in his own head, watching the truck and making engine noises of his own. He hit the pothole and went down hard.

Thankfully, he wasn’t hurt. And after dusting himself off, he was ready to ride again. But a little way down the road, an older man fixing a car told him that he liked his helmet. My son stopped and told the man his name, adding, “We just moved to this neighborhood.” Before I could stop him, he blurted out our new street address.

These are just a few of the ways my son made my wife and me worry about his safety when he was young. We worried he might get hurt because he’s curious and doesn’t stop and think before exploring a new place or trying a new activity. He would get so caught up in things that interest him that he wouldn’t notice potential danger in his surroundings.

It was easy to tie myself in knots thinking of the worst thing that could happen to him. One route would have been to shelter him, keeping him inside all day and protect him from the world. But we wanted him to be a regular kid — to do things any kid does. We didn’t want to let our worries limit his world and keep him from all the experiences he should have.

That’s why, while facing our own insecurities, we tried to put strategies in place to help him stay safe.

For instance, as part of his love of trucks, my son couldn’t resist checking out license plates in parking lots. He would stop to look at a plate he likes, while not realizing that the car it belongs to was backing out of its space.

Our strategy in these situations was to always remind him of what we’re doing right now, and what we’re planning to do. We used phrases like, “We are going to the car now, so you need to stay with me and watch out for cars.” We checked in with him along the way to keep his focus: “Are you right with me? Good job watching out.” Honest, specific praise really seems to encourage him.

Another safety concern was that my son has always been very social and trusting. He loves to talk to people and over-share information about himself. Here, our strategy during the elementary years was having conversations with him about “stranger danger.” My wife and I told him about “sneaky people” who may seem friendly and harmless, but who may want to take advantage of him or hurt him.

If these strategies seem very specific, it’s because each situation was unique for him. Each needed a unique solution. I found a sense of confidence that I could come up with a strategy or solution to help keep him safe.

It’s a slow process and takes a lot of practice. But it has paid off now that he’s in his teen years.

He’s on his own more, of course. We can’t always be right by his side, warning him about the potholes. But those potholes from his younger years have helped him develop strategies he can call up and use to navigate life on his own.


Read next