How to Manage Your ADHD Child When You Have ADHD, too

Raising a child with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be challenging for any parent, given symptoms that often include forgetfulness, distraction, impulsivity, and turbulent emotions. It can be even harder for you as a parent if you also have ADHD.

ADHD is strongly hereditary. If your child has it, there’s more than a four in ten chance that at least one parent will have it, too. This combo can be a recipe for domestic disputes.

You arrive late to pick your son up from school. Your daughter leaves her homework under her bed. Your son won’t look up from “Call of Duty” after the sixth time you call him to dinner. The school principal reports yet another schoolyard fight, swearing at a teacher, or inability to sit still.

If any of this sounds familiar, take heart. As awareness of ADHD has grown in recent years, with more than 6 million U.S. children and 10 million adults estimated to have the disorder, so has attention to the struggles of parents with ADHD whose children also have it. Along with that awareness have come new ideas for how to help.

The basics

“It starts with educating parents about ADHD,” says University of Maryland psychology professor Andrea Chronis-Tuscano, whose research focuses on this issue. “With the internet, there’s so much junk. So, people don’t really know that this is a brain-based disorder. Your child is not doing things on purpose to get under your skin.”

Parents with ADHD also need to recognize their contributions to conflicts, she says. Such parents not only have more trouble keeping their emotions in check but are often inconsistent with discipline, she adds.

Anxiety, a concurrent diagnosis in half of all cases of ADHD, can make everything more difficult. Among other problems, it helps explain why many children and adults with ADHD sometimes unconsciously seek stimulating conflict, says psychiatrist Edward Hallowell, the author and coauthor of 20 books about ADHD. “There’s nothing like a struggle to focus your mind,” Hallowell says. “Contentment is too bland.”

Hallowell, his wife, Sue, and their three children have all been diagnosed with ADHD. In ideal circumstances, he notes, understanding ADHD from the inside can lead to more empathy and awareness.

“We folk with ADHD can be reflexively defiant: you say up, and we say down,” says Hallowell. “We can also be very stubborn.”

The danger zone

Irena Smith, a college counselor and writer in Palo Alto, California, has ADHD, compounded in her case, with a hefty dose of anxiety. Each of her three children has also been diagnosed with ADHD. Therapy helped lead her to the “slow, grinding realization that yelling can sabotage a relationship,” she says.

Credit: Irena Smith | Irena and Mara

A few months ago, she says she used this insight to react differently over a conflict with her young adult daughter, Mara. Almost every day for two weeks, Smith had asked Mara to clean up her bedroom floor, which was covered with clothes, shoes, books, a hairbrush, a binder, unmatched earrings, and shoes. “Apart from the aesthetics, it’s a safety issue,” Smith recalls worrying. “If there’s an earthquake and you have to make a run for it, you’re going to trip.”

Late that morning, Smith was ready with the vacuum, but Mara was still in bed–and her floor was still a mess. When she felt herself starting to blow, she paused and took a deep, restorative breath. Instead of yelling, she told Mara about an ADHD hack she had learned as a kid when her own mom pressured her to clean her bedroom: Start by throwing everything on the floor into the closet. As they cleared Mara’s floor together, they transformed from combatants to collaborators. Then they went out for coffee.

The path to peace

Studies confirm that criticism, shame, and bullying are common for kids with ADHD. This context may help you understand why it’s much more effective to err on the side of positivity and make sure your child has at least one loving champion in the world.

In this spirit, experts offer the following six tips on how to preserve a relationship with your child when your twin ADHD diagnoses are working against you.

1. Get treatment yourself

Addressing your own ADHD is essential, as Smith and so many other parents have found. If both you and your child are diagnosed with ADHD, it’s wise to seek treatment for both of you. Such care may include medication and/or therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), an evidence-based, goal-oriented technique that can work well for many behavioral challenges.

Recognizing your challenges and addressing them is crucial to managing your child, whether or not you consider therapy or medication, says Yulika Forman, PHD, psychologist and ADHD coach. “Executive functioning, for example, involves time management, organization, and planning, and is at the core of what people with ADHD struggle with.” Learning strategies to improve executive functioning will decrease stress associated with managing your child’s schedules, as well as with budgeting, spending, and keeping records organized, she says. “Decreasing overall stress levels associated with executive functioning makes it easier to parent,” she adds.

Parenting training can also be effective for families with multiple members who have ADHD. “The good news is that the treatments work,” says clinical psychologist Mark Stein, director of the ADHD and Related Disorders Program at Seattle Children’s Hospital. Stein acknowledges that it can be challenging to find and coordinate treatment for adults and children. He recommends that parents start by contacting their primary care provider.

2. Let it go

Once you’ve addressed your own ADHD, you may more easily muster the patience and self-control for the essential task of choosing your battles, says Chronis-Tuscano. In other words, when you find yourself in a tug-of-war with your child, ask yourself if the struggle is worthwhile or if it might be best to drop the rope and let it go. Is it a question of safety or health? Then, yes. Almost everything else can wait until both of you are calmer.

3. Be the change you want to see

“If you model a certain way of being in the world, your kids will pick that up,” says Hallowell. That includes modeling kindness. Maintaining calm can be hard when you have ADHD yourself, but it’s worth the effort as you teach your child the benefits of self-control by living it.

4. Reframe the shame

The extra work and emotional energy of coping with a child who has ADHD can be frustrating and draining, whether you have ADHD or not, and it can affect how you think about your child. For both of your sakes, be aware of how you talk to yourself about your child, especially if you’re having negative thoughts, recommends Chronis-Tuscano. “If you change your self-talk, you change your feelings,” she says. “If you say, ‘they’re doing the best they can,’ not doing this on purpose to torture you, you might have more compassion.”

A child who is causing trouble is often in trouble internally. Focusing on the positive instead of scolding–every child does something right, and ADHD can be a source of creativity—can go a long way toward restoring your child’s beaten-down self-esteem.

5. Broaden your lens

If your child is struggling with distraction and impulsivity, investigate whether there are reasons beyond ADHD that can be addressed. Are there problems with sleep? Bullying at school? A recent trauma?

Remind yourself, too, that there is no silver bullet when it comes to treating ADHD, says Hallowell. A toolkit that includes daily exercise, meds if needed, and regular activities that bring your child joy can help.

6. Share the love

To improve communication and trust—the key ingredients for a more peaceful home—cultivate family closeness with a lot of special time together. “You can’t phone it in,” says Hallowell. “We made a point of celebrating holidays and birthdays—and just celebrating life.”

Irena and Mara Smith
Credit: Irena Smith | Irena and Mara

While you’re at it, don’t forget some self-love, says Chronis-Tuscano. “Meeting your own sensory and regulation needs will make it easier to understand and manage your child’s needs,” adds Forman.

Regular self-care, as hard as it may be to prioritize, is fundamentally important for parents of children with ADHD, especially when they share the diagnosis. It doesn’t have to take hours—it can include mindfulness, relaxation, and self-forgiveness.

Self-care can also come via finding a community, says Forman. Connecting with parents going through similar situations can provide validation and offer solutions you may not have thought of yourself.

References and Further Reading

Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment, 2016, Starck, M., et al., Occurrence of ADHD in Parents of ADHD Children in a Clinical Sample

Journal of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, 2016, Danielson, M., et al., Prevalence of Parent-Reported ADHD Diagnosis and Associated Treatment Among U.S. Children and Adolescents

Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2010, Culpepper, L., and Mattingly, G., Challenges in Identifying and Managing Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Adults in the Primary Care Setting: A Review of the Literature

Scientific American, 2019, White, H., The Creativity of ADHD

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