Like Mother, Like Child: When ADHD Is a Family Affair

It’s one thing to be a parent to a child with ADHD, but when you also have the condition, it ups the stakes. Learn why self care, checking in with your kids regularly, and setting household rules will keep you sane.

An overwhelmed mom decides to block out everything else, and just enjoy time with her daughter in the park.
An overwhelmed mom decides to block out everything else, and just enjoy time with her daughter in the park.

Being the mother of a child with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) is not easy, even under ideal circumstances. But when ADHD affects mom, as well as child, it’s really challenging.

Over the years, many moms have come to me, expressing frustration at their inability to meet their own needs, much less those of their children. As one of my patients put it, “How am I supposed to keep track of my children when I can’t even keep myself organized?”

My anecdotal evidence about the parenting challenges these mothers face has been confirmed by a fascinating new study, “Parenting in Mothers With and Without ADHD,” published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Among other things, the study indicates that moms with ADHD (especially those with the inattentive subtype) find it hard to supervise their children’s activities and provide consistent discipline. What’s more, their problem-solving skills — that combination of intuition and rational thought needed to meet everyday challenges — are significantly compromised.

Sixty mothers participated in the study, half of them with ADHD. The researchers found that mothers who have ADHD tended to be less educated and were more likely to be single parents. Seventy percent of the moms with ADHD had a mood or anxiety disorder, as compared to 23 percent of the moms who didn’t have ADHD. At the beginning of the study, 16 of the mothers with ADHD were taking psychotropic medication. Fifteen were taking an antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication; astonishingly, only one was taking any of the stimulants commonly prescribed to treat ADHD. This finding confirms something I’ve long suspected — that only a fraction of women with ADHD are receiving appropriate treatment.

The study raises important questions about the quality of life for moms with ADHD. I’d like to offer the following four guidelines to help such moms help themselves — and their children.

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1. To take good care of your child, you must first take good care of yourself.

A mother’s tendency is to focus on her child’s difficulties and neglect her own. That sounds like the loving thing to do. Ultimately, however, it is counterproductive. It’s impossible to properly address your child’s needs if your ADHD symptoms get in the way. So, if you have ADHD, your first step should be to get appropriate treatment.

2. Household rules are helpful — but only if they’re consistently enforced.

Children generally behave better when they know exactly what’s expected of them. The best approach is to come up with a written document that specifies both the household rules and the consequences for breaking them. Post this list on your refrigerator door or another prominent place, to remind your children of what’s expected of them — and to remind yourself to be consistent in providing discipline if the rules are broken.

3. Checking in with your kids on a regular basis will keep you sane — and keep them out of trouble.

You can do this easily by using a watch or timer that’s set to beep once every 15 minutes (or more frequently at the beginning of the day, when your children are getting ready for school). At the sound of the alarm, immediately stop what you are doing and see what your child is up to.

It’s easy enough to keep tabs on a child who’s in the house or playing in the backyard. If your child is away from home, you’ll have to be flexible. For example, you might tell your child that you’ll check in with a phone call before and after soccer practice, an outing with friends, and so on.

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4. Solutions to everyday problems are easier to find if you enlist the help of everyone in the family.

In the study, mothers with ADHD were able to come up with just as many solutions to daily dilemmas as their peers without ADHD. However, their solutions were judged to be less effective — a reflection of the moms’ difficulty in planning ahead and strategizing.

One way to ensure that your solutions are good ones is to schedule regular family problem-solving meetings. With everyone in the family offering suggestions for improving day-to-day life, you’re bound to hear ideas that have not occurred to you. And children are more likely to follow through with rules they came up with than rules that have been imposed on them.

I have spent more than 10 years working with moms with ADHD — and being one myself — so I know these four guidelines won’t solve all your parenting problems. But if you follow them consistently, life should run more smoothly. You won’t become a more loving parent — you’re already an expert at that — but you will feel happier, less stressed, and more self-confident. So will your children.

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