Ask the Experts

Make It a Family Affair

When one person in the family has ADHD, the whole unit feels it. Learn balancing your attention, finding professional support, and separating the person from the problem can help your family dynamic.

A family takes a walk together in the woods, one way to stop anxiety naturally
A family takes a walk together in the woods, one way to stop anxiety naturally

Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be a boon to family life, lending a spontaneity that is sometimes absent in other families. Yet most families with a child with ADHD are enmeshed in what I call the Big Struggle. This contest of wills pits child against parent, and even parent against parent. It can last for years, and the whole family suffers.

The Big Struggle starts when a child neglects chores and schoolwork, ignores family schedules, and generally fails to live up to his parents’ expectations. In response, Mom and Dad discipline – setting ever more stringent limits on his behavior, and increasingly severe penalties for failing to toe the line. You know what happens next.

The child grows angry, defiant, and alienated. He comes across as a child with a bad attitude rather than what he is: A child with a neurological problem.

In this struggle, neither the parents nor the child is entirely right or wrong. The parents feel duty-bound to “straighten out” their child – who, in turn, feels as if he is in a war for his independence. The struggle ends only when everybody works together to create an environment in which behavior patterns are allowed and encouraged to change. Each family member must be educated about ADHD, and must learn to negotiate solutions and change his expectations of everyone else.

What can you, as a parent, do to start this process? Hang on to your sense of humor. Use family dinners, bedtime stories, and shared chores (like raking leaves) to foster a sense of “connectedness” within the family. Then try these steps:

[Get This Free Resource: 10 Rules for Parents of Defiant Kids with ADHD]

  • Separate the person from the problem. Kids need to know that their parents love them no matter what. Most parents realize this, but sometimes, in the heat of battle, we forget.
  • Involve the whole family. Since the Big Struggle involves everyone, everyone should be involved in finding solutions. Focus on one problem at a time – homework, mornings, and so on. Brainstorm ways to correct the problem, and try each.
  • Focus on the positive. Praise your child when he is “tuned in” or trying hard to address his problems. When he messes up, keep your comments constructive. For example, “Let’s set an extra alarm to help you get up on time” is more helpful than “Why can’t you ever get up on time?”
  • Pay attention to the “balance of attention.” When one child has ADHD, her siblings are apt to get less parental attention – and that can lead to feelings of jealousy and resentment. Encourage all your children to voice their feelings about what is going on in the family. Celebrate each child’s accomplishments, and meet each child’s emotional needs.

[Read: Why Is My Child So Angry and Defiant? ]

  • Don’t keep ADHD a secret. If your extended family knows that your child has ADHD, they’ll be able to work with you to find solutions to chronic problems. There’s nothing shameful about ADHD, and kids who have it are not irresponsible, lazy, or “ditzy.” Make sure everyone knows that.
  • Don’t worry alone. From pediatricians to family doctors, support groups, friends, family, and teachers, line up all the support you can find. Even if all this support doesn’t solve the problem, it will make your family life more manageable.
  • Schedule one-on-one time. Once a week, spend at least 20 minutes with your child. Do exactly what she wants to do (as long as it’s safe and legal). Take no phone calls, speak to no neighbors, run no errands until the 20 minutes are up. Let your child know that you’ll have this time together every week at the same time, and – barring disaster – keep your promise. Sometimes the best plan is a monthly “night out” with Mom or Dad, when you go out for pizza and bowling, or go to a fair. (If you have more than one child, you’ll need multiple nights out.)

No matter what happens, try not to feel as if the Big Struggle is anyone’s fault. It comes with the territory of ADHD. The important thing is to change the family dynamics that perpetuate the struggle. It isn’t easy to do that, but it’s always worth the effort!

[Read This Next: Two Families’ Stories of Oppositional Defiant Disorder]

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