Q: My ADHD Husband and Son Are at Each Other’s Throats!
When father-son dynamics are complicated by ADHD, conflict may be more frequent, volatile, and erosive to the parent-child relationship. Here are ideas for promoting empathy, listening, and emotional control in your family.
Q: “Both my husband and our 16-year-old son suffer from ADHD, and the fighting between them is constant! My husband is super critical of our son and sometimes it feels as though he loves to ‘add fuel to the fire’ whenever he can. I’m worried because our son is very emotionally closed off; he doesn’t show his emotions for really anything. He has this mentality that a simple ‘sorry’ will fix every situation (even if he isn’t in the wrong) but there is never even a hint of remorse ever! What can I do to try and ease the tension between these two and finally bring some calm to my home? I hope this will bring back the vibrant, confident person that I know is still hiding inside my son.” — FeelingSTUCK
Dear Feeling Stuck:
It sounds like things are fiery in your home right now. I imagine that sheltering in place has increased the tension between your husband and your son, making your situation even more intense. My heart goes out to you; it’s really tough when the two people we love most in the world aren’t getting along.
You have raised some very challenging issues: parent-child conflict and empty apologies. I think these are related. Like most teens, your son is apologizing to de-escalate a situation and get out of there. This can be very frustrating to parents who want to see remorse and change. But as long as he feels criticized and provoked, your son won’t make progress in changing his ways. Let’s look at how improving the family dynamic will help him feel more comfortable and share himself more.
The top priority has to be reducing conflict between your two guys and forging a more positive connection between them. If it’s at all comforting, your family’s struggles are rather common. Research has found that families living with ADHD deal with higher levels of conflict than do families with neurotypical kids1. Stress and anger combine with the weaker impulse and emotional control typical of ADHD brains, causing conversations to devolve quickly into World War III.
Often, a parent and child with ADHD will set each other off because they share similar issues, they can’t step back to cool off, and they both want to be ‘right.’ They simultaneously struggle to articulate their feelings instead of acting them out. Sadly, the other parent — you — is frequently left to pick up the pieces after an eruption and negotiate the peace.
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Your job as parents is to expect pushback from your teen son. This is his job. He’s supposed to test limits, question authority, and practice his independence. You want to have a collaborative plan ready and waiting to address these moments.
Your husband’s job is to manage himself. Every time he loses it, he offers your son a reason not to trust him or feel safe around him. He also provides your son with a great excuse not to make any effort or be accountable because it’s easier to blame his step-father who is ‘crazy’ or ‘mean.’ Teens need a stable home base as a launching pad for venturing out into the world. This secure attachment assists him in maturing into an adult, regardless of how annoying he may be as he takes those steps.
Criticism doesn’t teach the lessons we are trying to convey. Instead, it brings about shame, resentment, and anger. I bet that your husband has struggled with his ADHD in ways that parallel your son’s experience. Compassion is what’s called for here.
How can your husband empathize with your son and remember what it was like for him to be judged or told he doesn’t measure up? We each have our unique paths to gain wisdom and experience in life. Perhaps your husband can practice listening and reflecting back what he hears your son saying instead of telling him what he should do. In all likelihood, your son’s not going to heed his advice anyway unless he’s already asked for it.
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I suggest that you don’t interfere any more in their outbursts unless safety is a concern. (If that’s the case, then please consult a mental health practitioner ASAP.) In order for your son and your husband to improve their relationship, they’ve got to figure out a way out of their destructive and disruptive patterns. This means creating a safety plan with clear steps for when they encounter those hotspots.
Instead of being surprised each time things erupt and trying to fly by the seat of your pants when they do, parents need to facilitate a collaborative, general agreement in advance of their occurrence. You plan and prepare for successful alternatives as a family. No one, especially your son, likes these unpleasant outbursts. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be apologizing or isolating himself.
Most people have the same argument over and over again, but it’s disguised in different clothes. By withholding his emotions and apologizing for things that may or may not be his responsibility, your son is showing you that he doesn’t know what else to do, is overwhelmed, and feels fed up. I’m guessing that he has things to say other than “I’m sorry” but doesn’t feel comfortable opening up, particularly in light of the critical atmosphere he experiences at home.
He needs help finding and using other language to describe what’s going on for him. What would he say if he didn’t apologize? Teens frequently want to say a quick ‘Sorry,’ get it over with and move on. They hide their remorse so you don’t see their vulnerability. I bet he’s feeling some hopelessness, sadness, shame and frustration underneath his facade.
A weekly, time-limited family meeting to calmly discuss conflict resolution and other issues will help your family get on a better track. Wanting to live in a more peaceful home and being included in the process of creating solutions will motivate your son to participate. In all likelihood, you’ll have to facilitate the first meeting since that’s been your role in the family. Be clear that, in the future, everybody will have a turn in this role. You are simply getting the ball rolling for the first discussion. As a family, you want to make a conscious shift from dealing with random issues (the changing and repetitive content of arguments) towards examining the process of the angry explosions. Whatever the issue is at hand is less important than how you agree to deal with the disagreement.
Follow these simple steps:
- Set aside a calm moment when the three of you meet for a discussion to brainstorm this strategy. Decide how long the meeting will be and stick with that endpoint. Everybody has a chance to speak about their needs and preferences for resolving conflict without judgment, eye-rolling or interruptions. If you have to set a timer so each person gets a fair turn, then do it. No answers are wrong.
- Ask yourselves these questions and write down the answers: What are my triggers? What things set me off? How do I behave when I’m activated? What would I like to see happen instead? What could I do differently?
- Share your answers by going around in a circle. Notice if there is any overlap and, if so, focus your next steps on those responses. If not, start with your son’s issues/ideas so that he will be engaged. You need his buy-in to make this work. Later, once you’ve made progress on that topic, you can shift to someone else’s priorities.
- Brainstorm alternative choices and behaviors to the selected problem. No idea is judged negatively. You are working together as a family towards a common goal: less arguing. Pick one set of solutions and try this for a week. Meet again, ideally at the same time each week, to review your progress, make adjustments, and notice what’s working.
Finally, your son and your husband would benefit from balancing their relationship. Right now, it’s skewed toward conflict, mistrust, and frustration. As a stepfather and son, they already have natural hurdles to overcome. Inject some fun into their interactions: going for ice cream, ordering and picking up take-out food or watching something on television. Maybe it’s a weekly trip to the grocery store or a nightly walk with the dog. The key is that they spend time together with little pressure to talk: just hanging out is a great remedy.
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1Agha, S. S., Zammit, S., Thapar, A., & Langley, K. (2013). Are parental ADHD problems associated with a more severe clinical presentation and greater family adversity in children with ADHD?. European child & adolescent psychiatry, 22(6), 369–377. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00787-013-0378-x