Family Dynamics on ADHD: 5 Rules for Dealing with Relatives’ Judgment

Every holiday season, we face a persistent challenge: how to respond to family members who don’t understand ADHD and yet feel compelled to share their discipline and parenting advice (often loudly). While every family dynamic is unique, here are some general strategies plus scripts for handling a wide range of common problems with obtuse relatives.

family dynamics concept - a family gathered at home; young child, man, and older man sitting on steps in conversation

“Ugh, there he goes again with his tantrums.”

“Why can’t your child just sit still?”

“You’re just making excuses for her bad behavior.”

“This wouldn’t be happening if you actually disciplined your kid.”

Ever, in the history of parenting, has a family member’s unwelcome advice or unsympathetic judgment made life easier for a child or their caregivers? Nope. For many of us, rampant misunderstandings, fear of being judged, short tempers, and even unspoken disapproval make spending time with some relatives stressful and frustrating. And bitter family disputes over ADHD are typically the last thing on Earth you want yourself or your child to endure during the holidays — or ever. Yet here you are, facing the possibility once again.

For many families, cutting off contact is not a viable solution. The fact is that we don’t get to pick our family members, and many of us value and relish family customs and traditions that we hope to preserve for our kids. That necessitates positive (or at least tolerable) relationships with far-flung relatives.

If you anticipate biting comments and unhelpful feedback from these family members, here are several strategies — from practicing self-advocacy to educating others about ADHD — that can help you and leave your child feeling buoyed rather than bullied by family members.

Family Dynamics: ADHD and the Extended Family Experience

Though no two families are alike, these problems, feelings, and concerns often come up when dealing with unsupportive relatives who don’t understand ADHD:

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  • Misunderstanding and misinterpretations: Family members may perceive your child’s ADHD symptoms and traits, like distractibility and hyperactivity, as misbehavior and bad manners. They may not understand (or may refuse to accept) that these are characteristics of ADHD, a neurological disorder.
  • Judgement and embarrassment: You might be blamed — directly or indirectly — for your child’s behaviors at a family gathering, which only fans the flames of stress if your child is having a particularly hard time.
  • Shame: Challenging family settings and judgement from relatives may leave you feeling like your child is flawed. Your child might also start to feel ashamed — a core experience for individuals with ADHD.
  • Guilt: Relatives might guilt-trip you over how you’re raising your child, but you might also lay the guilt on yourself for “failing” to control your child.
  • Behavioral dysregulation: Meltdowns and tantrums are never fun, especially when they creep up during family gatherings, subjecting you and your child to disapproving stares and worse.
  • Emotional dysregulation and anxiety: Negative experiences with relatives can make it difficult to think about family events without feeling overwhelmed or hopeless.
  • Denial and magical thinking: Assuming that family problems will sort themselves out rarely works and often leads to frustration.

Dealing with Difficult Family Members

How should parents respond when one or more of these challenges disrupts a family gathering or relationship? And how can we fortify our family relationships when ADHD is in the picture?

1.  Educate the family about ADHD

  • Give concrete information. Emphasize that ADHD is a neurological condition that impacts functioning. While treatments are used to help manage symptoms and behavioral challenges, ADHD can’t be overcome with sheer willpower, corporal punishments, or a specific parenting style. Explain how ADHD manifests in your child with specific examples (e.g. he has trouble sitting still during meals). It might help to share an ADHD information pamphlet and to direct your family to other authoritative resources.
  • Engage in productive discussions. Stay positive and inviting as you talk to your relatives about ADHD. Say, “Uncle Mark, I know it’s frustrating for you when my daughter looks away as you’re talking to her, but that behavior stems from her ADHD. Her mind wanders off. Please just gently remind her to stay with you. That’s how ADHD is for some people.”
  • Emphasize the importance of support. Remind your family that negative reactions seldom help your child, especially in the middle of a meltdown or tantrum. Support goes a long way toward defusing situations and helping ADHD families feel welcome and valued.

2. Defuse conflicts and behavioral disruptions

  • Focus on the goal. Remember that you want to get along with your family. When tempers flare, stay calm and speak in a neutral voice. Say, “This is our family dinner. Can we change the subject or hit the reset button? Let’s take a deep breath.”
  • Find allies. Align yourself with family members who support you and can help you in difficult family situations. They may be able to help calm your child down if they’re having a tough time.
  • Cope ahead. If you know you’ll be facing a challenging situation, prepare tools and strategies in advance. For example, if it’s a 3-hour car ride to grandma’s, think about taking breaks on the road, packing snacks and toys in the car, and other ways to keep everyone calm. Call grandma ahead of time and let her know that your kids (and you) will need a break when you arrive.

[Read: When Family Gatherings Meet ADHD: A Gameplan]

3. Practice self-advocacy

  • Find opportune moments to take the lead and communicate with family members about your concerns. Gently discuss better ways to handle challenging situations. You can say, “Aunt Betsy, do you have a moment to talk? I want you to know that when you judge my child, it makes him feel bad, and it makes me feel bad. My child has ADHD, and he’s doing his best. What may be more helpful is if you ignore the behavior or discuss it with me privately.”
  • Collaborate by inviting rather than demanding. Try to meet your family members where they are. Say, “Uncle Pedro, I know you like to dine quietly at the dinner table, but my children are rather noisy. They’re not that way because of my parenting style; they’re just bubbly. What would help? Can the kids get up from their seats earlier? Can all of the children be seated somewhere else?”

4. Develop self-awareness

  • Practice mindfulness. Pay attention to your thoughts and feelings, especially in tough family situations. Acknowledging your feelings can help you avoid getting swept up in the moment and determine appropriate, productive ways to respond.
  • Practice self-care. Take care of your physical, mental, and emotional health — key factors in building resilience against life’s stressors (like family problems). With ADHD, that might mean seeking a therapist for yourself and your child.

5. Don’t take interactions too personally

Easier said than done, but the more you practice this (along with mindfulness) the sooner you’ll recognize that a family member’s reactions have more to do with them than they do with you or your child. This realization will make it easier to brush off passive-aggressive comments, eye-rolls, sighs, and other reactions from family members. A sense of humor also helps.

Approaches and Example Scripts for Common Scenarios

  • Well-meaning but unsolicited parenting advice offered in front of your child: Invite your family member to have a conversation. Calmly share your observations and try not to put them on the defensive. “I would love to run something by you — I know that you love me and my child. It’s so clear that you want the best for us. But in those moments when you say X in front of my son, it’s not helpful to us. I do appreciate your ideas, but I would prefer if you brought them to me privately.”
  • “You’re pulling the ADHD card as an excuse for bad behavior:” It’s possible that your family member might not realize how judgmental and hurtful their comments sound. Talk to them about how their comments make you feel and do your best to explain your child’s ADHD symptoms. Remind them that your child is doing their best. This may also be a good time to practice not taking comments personally. In and out of the family, there always will be people who pass judgement — and you aren’t obligated to engage with them!
  • Your child picks up on differential treatment. Validate your child’s feelings and offer your presence. Talk through some ways your child can practice self-advocacy and self-care after being with family. If there’s a particularly problematic family member, find a time to talk to them about their actions.
  • “I struggled, too, but I turned out OK without any help:” It’s doubtful that you’ll be able to get through to family members who make these types of comments. But shifting tactics can work. Focus on the family member’s concern over the ADHD label. They might be able to relate, for example, to difficulties with getting started on homework or procrastinating until the last minute.
  • “Why can’t you just go with the flow?” Not all family members appreciate and respect the importance of your child’s reliable routine, and understand that departing from it can lead to serious consequences. Everyone has the right to their own lifestyle, and while explanations are not necessary, they can help defuse tough situations in the heat of the moment. Prior to a family gathering, for example, tell the host that you’ll be leaving at a certain time and that you’ll be taking breaks with your child throughout. “We know that you have different expectations, but this is important to us. It’s how our family functions best.”

Mold these guidelines to your family and its circumstances, and remember that it will take lots of patience and persistence to see results. Stay positive in the process and try reframing difficult family moments as opportunities to use your coping skills and strategies to solve problems and create a healthy family dynamic.

The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar “Family Ties: Managing and Advocating for Your Child with ADHD in the Extended Family” [Video Replay & Podcast #365] with Janette Patterson, MSW, LMFT which was broadcast live on July 29, 2021.

Family Dynamics on ADHD: Next Steps

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