Six Strategies for Creating Strong Families with ADHD, part 1

Melissa Orlov

ADHD is often a family affair. It’s commonly inherited, and once a child is diagnosed, one or both parents may find themselves saying “those symptoms sound awfully familiar…!” This week I share three opportunities for making your ADHD-impacted family stronger. Next week I’ll write about three more ways to make life in your household healthier…and easier. 

Opportunity 1: Be an ADHD Role Model 

In many families, the adult with ADHD was undiagnosed when the parents became partners or got married. Not knowing about ADHD created friction, as common symptoms such as chronic distraction and disorganization went untreated and were misunderstood in the relationship. But once an adult diagnosis is made, there is an opportunity for the ADHD parent to better manage ADHD symptoms, and to be a role model for children about how to live with ADHD. Opportunities include: 

Embracing ADHD treatment Good treatment for ADHD includes three legs: 

  • physiologicalwhat helps normalize brain chemistry for improved focus and attention 
  • behavioralwhat actions and structures are put into place to improve reliability 
  • interactivewhat actions are taken to improve communication and interactions with others, including anger management, and speaking honestly about questions and issues 

Parents who accept multi-dimensional treatment of ADHD experience greater improvements in their own lives. They also set a good example for ADHD children who may be struggling to understand how to cope with the fact that they do things so differently from their peers.  

Embracing individuality Doing better with ADHD isn’t about trying harder in the ways that others do, but rather about trying differently – i.e. finding ways to reach goals that are ADHD-friendly and work specifically for you. That might mean setting reminders, creating lists, setting routines for where to keep things, or racing a clock to get work done. Families with ADHD thrive when they make it okay to do things differently. 

Embracing trial and error – Living with ADHD requires experimentation with finding systems and coping strategies that work for one’s very different brain. Failure is part of the process of figuring that out. Parents (ADHD or not) who embrace a strategy that focuses more on trying than the end goal may find, as we did, that it creates healthy, well-adjusted kids with realistic expectations and a strong desire to persist. This is particularly a gift in families where unexpected challenges inevitably crop up. 

Opportunity 2: Be Cautious with Emotional Lability 

Emotional lability, defined as larger and faster emotional responses in both the positive and negative spheres, is a core issue for those impacted by ADHD at any age. In adults, particularly in those who may have been struggling with the frustrations of undiagnosed ADHD for some time, this may well mean: quick, angry outbursts; quickly feeling overwhelmed in difficult or tense situations; and being easily triggered into depression or anxiety.   

This can be problematic in families, particularly when you have both teens and a parent with ADHD-related emotional lability issues. Address this issue through therapy, empathy, coaching, and creating systems for moderating quick responsesFor example, couples and families can create a verbal cue, such as “I’m beginning to feel overwhelmed right now,” so that a person with ADHD can communicate what others cannot visibly see – that he or she is starting to shut down and will soon not be able to deal with whatever conversation is going on. Using verbal cues creates a much healthier (and more respectful) interaction than continuing with a conversation that is emotionally distressing. 

Opportunity 3:  Be Open about ADHD 

Parents sometimes fear that their child might feel stigmatized by a label of ADHD, but this misses a critical point: people with ADHD know they are different. They perform differently relative to their peers, and it can be easier when they have a way of understanding just how they are different. 

I recommend open and supportive, ongoing conversations about ADHD, the role it does (and doesn’t) play in one’s life, and what strategies can be used to make sure it doesn’t get in the wayFor an introductory conversation with younger kids, try something like this:   

“Everyone’s brain is different. You can see that with someone who is very good at math but not art, and someone else who is very good at art but not math. Your brain’s difference is that you have trouble focusing on things that aren’t very interesting to you, and you are easily distracted.  This has to do with the brain chemistry you inherited from us, just like you inherited your eye color. Your lack of focus and distractibility might create problems for you sometimes, so we may have to figure out strategies to help you with focus.  (*Possible conversation at this point about whether or not this is an issue for the child…*)  But none of that difficulty focusing stuff has anything to do with who you are as a person…you are amazing, and wonderful, and energetic and happy and… (*fill in the rest here!*)…” 

Families who have open conversations about ADHD may be better at helping ADHD family members differentiate between ADHD symptoms and the core characteristics of the people who have ADHD.  This helps everyone stay on the side of battling ADHD struggles together, rather than becoming adversaries around ADHD behaviors.  And that is a very good outcome, indeed!

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