Double Whammy: Mothers and Children with ADHD

Moms and kids who share a diagnosis of attention deficit can be, in some ways, a perfect mismatch. But they're also uniquely equipped to understand and celebrate each other.


Filed Under: ADHD Parents, ADHD, Women, and Hormones
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My son couldn't yet speak many words, but he was telling me plenty with his behavior. Who wants to sit in a circle and watch other kids sing songs when there's running to be done? And who wants to force a kid to sit in a circle?

Liz Fuller, a mother with ADHD

When my son was first diagnosed with ADHD, at age nine, we attended nine months of weekly workshops for parents and kids at the University of California, San Francisco. The kids went to one room, where they learned how to organize their backpacks, and the parents went to another, where we learned how to manage reward charts.

It was here, at age 48, that I got my first strong hint that I shared my son's disorder. While all the other parents brought in neatly lined, color-coded, computer-generated charts, and bragged about all the successes they were having, my hand-written graphs were crumpled, and my son's behavior was unchanged or worse.

Like Child, Like Mother

Mothering a child with ADHD is not for the faint of heart -- and it becomes more daunting when you, too, are struggling to stay on track every day. Still, millions of mothers now face this challenge, given the extremely high heritability rates for this vexing disorder. Research has shown that ADHD is more heritable than schizophrenia, only slightly less so than height, leading to all sorts of lively family dynamics.

The task of parenting an ADHD child is difficult for moms who have the same condition, says Andrea Chronis-Tuscano, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at the University of Maryland. Chronis-Tuscano's research focuses on this double whammy -- of women with ADHD raising children with ADHD -- making her fully aware of what an understatement she made. "We've found that moms who have elevated ADHD symptoms have difficulties being positive, and in keeping their emotions in check, while being inconsistent in terms of discipline -- they will often say something and then do something else. Distracted moms also have trouble closely supervising their children, which can be risky, given that children with ADHD are so accident-prone."

In many ways, parents and children who share an ADHD diagnosis can be a perfect mismatch. The job of parenting draws heavily on the brain's so-called executive functions: exercising good judgment, thinking ahead, being patient, and keeping calm. When moms struggling with these challenges have children in the same boat, you're bound to have more missed deadlines, general mishaps, emotional outbursts, and, just as often, moments that, at least in retrospect, are poignantly funny.

Chronis-Tuscano says that she had mothers in her study come in for interviews, check their watches, and dash off to pick up children waiting for them, somewhere else.

More Challenging Than a Career

Liz Fuller, a Chandler, Arizona, homemaker, certainly knows what it's like. Fuller has two sons, one of whom has been diagnosed with ADHD and high-functioning autism. Fuller herself has never been diagnosed with ADHD, but she says she suspects she would be, if she could find the time to see a doctor.

Occasionally, she says, she ends up being the only mom trying to take her son to school on a day when school isn't in session. ("Oops, if it wasn't written down, then it must not be true," she jokes.) She also periodically forgets that she has sent her child for a disciplinary time-out, and, even more often, forgets why he was sent there.

Like many highly distracted moms, Fuller, who used to work in corporate human resources, has found full-time motherhood to be far more challenging than college or the working world. Motherhood, she notes, in contrast to these other pursuits, provides "no formula or structure," leading to situations in which "you are staring at a million distractions and things to do, and none can be placed in a manila folder for later."

When Fuller tried to keep reward charts for her seven-year-old, to motivate him to turn off his video game at night when his time was up, she was often too busy getting her other two kids ready for bed, to catch the "teachable moments" when he complied. At other times, she admits she forgot she was keeping the charts altogether.

While these moments can be comical, double-diagnosis outcomes are less so. Researchers note a higher rate of divorce and substance-abuse problems in parents of children with ADHD, while mothers of children with ADHD report suffering higher levels of depression and feelings of social isolation than moms raising neurotypical children without the condition.

Melanie Salman, a mother of two and a part-time event planner in the San Francisco Bay Area, is still sad about what happened at her New Year's Eve celebration. Her friends had voted to make a little effigy of a political figure they all disliked, to burn at midnight. Just as they were getting ready to burn it, her nine-year-old son, who has been diagnosed with ADHD, approached Salman and said, "Hey, mom, if I was gonna make a doll to burn, it would be you!"

"I couldn't do anything but think about how -- despite the fact that I'm working with a psychologist, pediatrician, occupational therapist, and cognitive behavior psychologist, as well as a learning resources team, his school teachers, and music teachers, while also smoothing over his attitude with friends, and exercising him like a puppy to calm him down -- I am the intense target of his negativity," Salman wrote me in an e-mail.

What made it even worse, she says, was the sight of her seven-year-old daughter crying after she couldn't find her mother at midnight. "I hugged her and apologized and cried because I realized that I was so focused on the negative that I forgot to celebrate the goodness and fun in my life."

Bright Side of a Double Diagnosis

Which brings us to the bright side of the double-whammy dilemma. After living through it myself for more than seven years, I'm convinced that the more self-awareness you bring to this conflict-ridden, so-much-harder-than-normal-parenting situation, the more it can end up being a spiritual journey you may thank your child for one day, if you can only survive it.

Lamprini Psychogiou, Ph.D., a lecturer and researcher at the University of Exeter in Great Britain, offers a hopeful view of the possible outcomes of a shared diagnosis, in a study published in Development and Psychopathology. In an analysis of nearly 300 mothers, Psychogiou found that, while ADHD symptoms in children were linked to more negative emotions expressed by their mothers, moms who shared their children's symptoms were much more affectionate and compassionate.

Liz Fuller exemplifies this attitude. Her favorite parenting story centers on a day long before her child was diagnosed. She was agonizing over the fact that he was the only toddler in his music group who couldn't sit still in the circle. As Fuller took a shower later that day -- so distracted, as usual, as she relates it, that she shampooed her hair twice, and forgot whether she had shaved her legs -- she cried in frustration as she recalled the expressions of the other mothers, who had watched her chase him around the room and whisper threats in his ear.

But then, Fuller says, she remembered her own troubled path through childhood, recalling how often she would get grounded in junior high, for disruptive behavior, such as chatting with other kids and not being able to sit still. And, she says, "I felt this incredible understanding for my son for the first time. He could not yet speak many words, but he was telling me plenty with his behavior. He didn't want to (or need to) sit in a circle and sing. He wasn't trying to be bad or to frustrate me. He was bored! Hell, I was bored, too. Who wants to sit in a circle and and watch other kids sing songs when there is running to be done? And who wants to force a kid to sit in a circle?"

The revelation led Fuller to drop out of the music class, in favor of having a regular play date with her son in the park, where, as she says, "we wandered freely and explored the beautiful outdoors, where we are both happier, anyway."

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