Help! My Family Members Have ADHD and I Feel Powerless

Parenting ADHD is Lonely

The parents and romantic partners of people with ADHD often feel powerless to influence what happens in their family. They feel like too much of the burden of responsibility falls to them, like they can’t count on family members who have ADHD to do their fair share.

As a result, they too often feel tired, frustrated and disappointed. It’s easy to fall into the perspective that their family member with ADHD doesn’t really care about their relationship, and the romantic partner is left to do everything to keep the relationship going.

Here’s a real-life example from my practice.

My client’s wife went away for the weekend. She was disappointed that he didn’t think to call her to check in. Is that a reasonable expectation? Probably. You can see how she could take the position that he should have called her and therefore she has a right to feel hurt that he didn’t—as usual, she’s the one who has to do all the remembering. So she comes home on Sunday and tells him how disappointed she is; he feels bad about himself that, yet again, he dropped the ball. Nobody is happy and both feel powerless. Maybe they see the culprit as his ADHD. Often, they both just feel misunderstood.

You Both Have Options: Set Expectations

On the one hand, this can look like a very cut and dry situation: ADHD caused disappointment in both people. But my couples’ therapy training tells me that it is not that simple. Rather than seeing her as a passive victim of his forgetting, she made her own choices about what she would and wouldn’t do.

For example, she could have called him to check in. That way she gets the benefit of re-connecting while she’s away. However, checking in doesn’t give her the feeling that her husband loves and misses her so much that he just has to call her. If this is important to her (and it’s OK if it is), then it would have been helpful to have a conversation about expectations for the weekend before she left. Had he understood how important it was to her, he could have immediately set an alarm or written a reminder to call her, knowing that he tends to get caught up in things and lose track of time (which has nothing to do with how much he loves her).

Since ADHD is a disorder of converting intentions into actions, it is important that he clearly show her his intentions, especially when it’s possible that his actions won’t line up.

If they talked about expectations and he still forgot, she still has options. For example, she can just decide to call him and not read intentions into his actions (or lack thereof). This is better than allowing resentment to take away from her enjoyment of the weekend. Or she can text him. This could be a simple “?” (total time: six seconds) or something funny (“Call me so I know that you haven’t been eaten by wolves.”) or even something playful (“Guys  who call their wives are more likely to get laid.”)

Better Happy Than Right

She could make the case that she shouldn’t have to be the one to remember to reach out to him, or even that he should just know to call her. Perhaps. But think how much better it will work out if she asks for what she wants before she leaves; and, if necessary, reminds him if he still forgets. She may take the position that it shouldn’t be her job to remind him. This is probably true, but it is her job to do what will add to her own happiness (and hopefully his, too).

So if a member of your family has ADHD and you are feeling powerless over it, then step back and look for the power that you do have.

Ask Yourself These Four Questions:

  • To what extent are the problems that come up influenced by unintentional ADHD glitches, rather than by intentional choices?
  • If ADHD-related, are there better strategies and active steps that you can both do to compensate for them, rather than just hoping for the best (and setting yourself up for disappointment)?
  • What choices are you making that give away your power?
  • Would you be happier if you made different choices?

Look at your relationship as a two way street. It isn’t about blame. Instead, it is about recognizing that you have the power to influence outcomes that are important to you. When your family members have ADHD, look for the places where you have options to do something differently, so that you are in a better position to make your own choices. It won’t always work out as expected, but when you feel like you can influence situations, it makes it easier to feel a better sense of control, and to accept the times when things don’t go as you hope.

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