Family is an emotional unit that is impacted by the interactions between its members; connectedness and reactivity make the functioning of family members interdependent. Add ADHD to this mix and it impacts the whole family unit and system.
The ADHD Rollercoaster
All parents of children with ADHD report that they face the same kinds of struggles. These include the child’s apparent lack of care or regard for the things parents ask them to do – from simple things like getting the bag ready for school tomorrow, to what needs to be completed for homework. This can lead to a constant battle of the wills between the child and the parents, and it can be exhausting for all parties. Recently, an 11-year told me, “I feel I’m such a disappointment to my mum, and I feel I will never make my parents happy.”
The way to parent the children in these situations can be an enormous source of conflict between mums and dads. I’ve been told this kind of thing many times: “Our seven-year-old is the reason my marriage is breaking down”; or, “My wife and I don’t agree on how to handle our ten-year-old, and we fight.”
So, the whole family gets impacted by ADHD. Parents struggle over whether they should use more stringent discipline measures to get their child to show compliant behaviour or to complete tasks; the child, on the other hand, gets angry and defiant, and feels a constant sense of disappointment – a feeling that they “aren’t good enough”. In my office, these children are often described by their parents as having a “bad attitude” rather than as children with a genuine neurological problem where their brain is wired differently. One of the goals often cited from parents is to see improvements in this “attitude”.
In this constant battle, neither the parents nor their child are right or wrong. Mum and Dad feel duty bound to be good parents, and the child feels alienated and resentful. More often than not, it’s a lack of understanding of ADHD and the challenges around it that are presenting in the constant battles.
What is helpful?
Educating the family
Get a better understanding of how ADHD impacts your child, and re-evaluate your expectations.
Separating the behaviour from the child
It’s important for children not to feel like a disappointment and for them to know they are loved. Although the majority of the parents I have worked with know this, sometimes it can be hard when we are gridlocked in a battle.
Understanding that family is a system
Everyone in the family is impacted, so each member has to be part of the problem solving. Discuss one problem at a time. For example: “If mornings are particularly hard, what can each of one us do to make it easier for everyone?”
Practising positive reinforcement
When the 11-year-old mentioned above told me how he was feeling, I asked him, “How would you know you are not a disappointment?” To which, he said, “If they recognised my efforts to have a better attitude and acknowledged the things that I do well”. So, ensure the child is paying attention and is engaged, then praise the small efforts and successes daily and genuinely. It’s not always easy, but try to remember to use language constructively.
Being mindful to the balance of your attention
Sometimes ADHD can be all-consuming with the constant battles, and siblings can feel they’re not important or they don’t deserve attention because they don’t have ADHD and they need less help. Ensure that you spend one-to-one time with each child and make them feel heard. If you schedule the time, be sure you keep your promise.
Knowing you are not alone
There is a lot of good research-based information available online specifically for ADHD. See, for example, chadd.org, the website of non-profit organisation Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/ Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD). Involve the school and get support from the teachers for your child; talk to your friends and family who may have had similar experiences as a support network; and, if needed, do reach out to professionals to get the right help for yourself and the family.
Finally, it is imperative to know and believe there is nothing shameful about ADHD. As many experts in the field point out, and my own professional experience has shown, keeping it a secret is never helpful, because the child is then labelled as lazy, as having a bad attitude, as irresponsible, or as someone who is unreliable – or, worse, weird. These labels can have a long-term impact on their self-esteem.
So, ensure that you don’t treat ADHD like a shameful family secret, and instead educate yourself and get a better understanding of it so you can accept its gifts and challenges over the coming years for your family and child. Remember, kids don’t come with a manual and we are all trying to do our best as parents!
Dr Zaidi is a British-registered clinical psychologist who works with individuals, couples and families in her private practice in Central, and as a mental health consultant for a number of international schools.
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