Self Esteem

Fatherhood Rules: How to Be a Good Dad When Your Child Needs You Most

In my experience as a clinical psychologist, fathers have more trouble accepting — and adjusting to — an ADHD diagnosis. They wish for the symptoms to be just “boys being boys” or a temporary phase, but this denial helps no one. Loving and accepting your whole child is linked to better outcomes at school and in life. Here is a five-step plan to help dads get closer to acceptance faster.

black and white image of ADHD child left behind by father on a dock

Children are not “little adults.” They see the world through a different lens. Children, especially those with ADHD, live in the moment; they are motivated by emotion. Adults live in the future; they are motivated by goals. This, in many ways, explains why many parents feel so much frustration trying to connect with and help flailing kids.

As a clinical psychologist for more than 20 years, I’ve worked in schools and in private practice with countless families. Time and again, I’ve witnessed the heartbreak of families failing to help struggling children because they can’t understand — and don’t accept — the cause of their struggles: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD).

In these families, fathers are often more reluctant than mothers to accept their child’s diagnosis — and some even deny its existence. ADHD is a cognitive disorder; a developmental impairment of executive functions.1 The research and diagnostic criteria are clear, yet still some fathers stubbornly deny ADHD (“My son can’t possibly have a problem!”) because of this truth: How a father views himself interferes with the way he views his struggling child.

This causes fathers to underreport the frequency and intensity of their child’s ADHD symptoms and to be less likely to accept or engage medical and behavioral interventions. At home, in an effort to ensure the child works harder to catch up at school, a father may set limits that exacerbate problems for their child and family. Ignoring the problem makes the problem harder and harder to ignore with each passing day.

No one enjoys being easily distracted, hyperactive, and/or impulsive — children with ADHD certainly didn’t ask to be born that way. All children need their parents’ love and acceptance to thrive, so the sooner the parents of a child with ADHD accepts and supports them — and all of their challenging symptoms — the better the child will do both at home, at school, and on the playground both now and in the future.

How to Be a Good Dad to Your Struggling Child

We live in a world that worships data and outcomes, but we still cannot measure is a child’s potential. What we can measure are outcomes, and if ADHD goes untreated, outcomes are not so promising.

Especially when left untreated, ADHD is associated with low self-esteem, poor social skills and relationships, poor academic performance, more alcohol and substance abuse, higher prevalence of traffic violations and accidents, underemployment, and more criminal activity.2 3 4

That’s why it’s crucial that you help your child find and access his unique strengths and abilities. Many successful people and celebrities (filmmaker Steven Spielberg and entertainer Justin Timberlake for starters!) have ADHD and have overcome significant challenges. Your love and support will help your child succeed. Here are five dos and don’ts:

#1. DO provide positive feedback. Feedback forms memories; it is the foundation of a child’s sense of self. When a child receives mostly negative feedback — whether through words, actions, or marks on a report card — it impacts how he see himself. Researchers have recently discovered that the most significant predictor of an adult’s satisfaction in life is his or her emotional life in childhood.5 6 Positive parenting makes a significant impact.

#2. DO be sympathetic to their lack of control. Beneath your child’s struggle to self-regulate is how they feel about themselves. A hallmark of ADHD is the inability to execute at the “point of performance,” a clinical term that means failing to use what they know. That’s why kids with ADHD have trouble controlling their emotions and behavior, even if you’ve taught them strategies for doing so. What’s sad is the child’s awareness of it — they know what they should do, but in many cases, they just can’t do it. ADHD is not in your child’s control. If they could initiate, monitor or manage their emotions to complete tasks, they would do it.

#3. DON’T deny your child’s diagnosis. ADHD is a neurological disorder. It is not something most children outgrow. Studies show ADHD is highly persistent over the lifespan and goes way beyond an exuberant child with youthful energy just being a kid. Don’t make the mistake of seeing boyish behavior as “boys being boys” when it’s actually ADHD. Children tweak their behavior depending on the setting and the person with whom they are interacting. It’s important to step back and see what’s not happening, especially in situations where the child is required to control their emotions, to self-direct, and to follow-through during activities that aren’t preferred like video games.

#4. DON’T take a “wait and see” approach. Schools may be slow to start the complicated and expensive accommodation process and may suggest time for observation. During the observation period, academics become increasingly more complex at the same time that holes form in a child’s learning. A child with ADHD compensates until these holes become so large that the child gets overwhelmed. This approach is a model for failure because it misses the opportunity for prevention. “Wait and see” evolves to “there’s a lot of catching up to do.” Don’t allow this to happen to your child.

#5. DO face your fear. Does your child have ADHD somewhere in the branches of their genetic family tree — perhaps before the ADHD diagnosis was readily recognized and available? Do they have a relative with unexplained explosive anger and/or violence, school failure or drop out, alcoholism, gambling, serial relationships, and underemployment? Although the causes of ADHD are still somewhat unclear, research suggests that genetics and heredity play a part in determining who gets ADHD.7

The Heart of the Matter: The Best Thing You Can Do

The heart of a child, even the most oppositional child, responds to love and care. If the child isn’t able to fill up his heart with parental love, understanding, and support, pain and disappointment will seep into the empty spaces. The parent/child relationship is fundamental, and a strong relationship has the power to change the brain’s architecture for the better.

Put yourself in your child’s shoes — not just for a moment, but through their entire day. Try to imagine what it feels like to struggle to do what they have the potential to do.

Ask for honest feedback from the adults who educate and care for your child. When you listen from the heart you will hear and feel the pain and confusion your child feels and may not be able to express. In this space, the work of building a strong relationship with your child with ADHD will begin.

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View Article Sources

1Brown, T. E. (2009). ADD/ADHD and impaired executive function in clinical practice. Current Attention Disorders Reports, 1(1), 37-41.

2Fletcher, J., & Wolfe, B. (2009). Long-term consequences of childhood ADHD on criminal activities. The Journal of Mental Health Policy and Economics, 12(3), 119–138.

3Hammerness, P., Petty, C., Faraone, S. V., & Biederman, J. (2017). Do stimulants reduce the risk for alcohol and substance use in youth with ADHD? A secondary analysis of a prospective, 24-month open-label study of osmotic-release methylphenidate. Journal of Attention Disorders, 21(1), 71-77.

4Harpin, V., Mazzone, L., Raynaud, J. P., Kahle, J., & Hodgkins, P. (2016). Long-term outcomes of ADHD: a systematic review of self-esteem and social function. Journal of Attention Disorders, 20(4), 295-305.

5Layard, R., Clark, A. E., Cornaglia, F., Powdthavee, N., & Vernoit, J. (2014). What predicts a successful life? A life-course model of well-being. The Economic Journal, 124(580), F720-F738.

6Shaw, M., Hodgkins, P., Caci, H., Young, S., Kahle, J., Woods, A. G., & Arnold, L. E. (2012). A systematic review and analysis of long-term outcomes in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: effects of treatment and non-treatment. BMC Medicine, 10(1), 99.

7 Thapar, Anita, and Evangelia Stergiakouli. “An Overview on the Genetics of ADHD.” Xin li xue bao. Acta psychologica Sinica (Aug. 2008)