Talking About ADHD

Generations: A Family’s History With ADHD

How ADHD has affected one family across generations.

ADHD doesn't fall far from the tree
ADHD doesn't fall far from the tree

Shay and Stanley Lipton were sitting in my office describing their 9-year-old son, Brian. “We’re getting daily reports from Brian’s teacher. He refuses to follow directions. She has to remind him constantly to stop bothering the other kids and get back to work.”

Brian was also starting to hate school and seemed increasingly frustrated, making many negative comments about himself like, “I can’t do it” and “nobody likes me.”

Despite his difficulties, Brian was a bright child and quite capable. An evaluation confirmed what the parents suspected: Brian had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

During Brian’s evaluation, his mother gained some surprising insights of the impact ADHD can have on individuals and families over many generations. For the Lipton family, additional evaluations for Shay and her father (and the revealing behavior of other family members) became a vivid history of this impact, told along a time chronology that spans more than 60 years.

It Began with Brian’s Grandfather…

Shay’s father, Buck, was born in 1940. In grade school, Buck felt frustrated and bored in his classes, and was considered the class clown. He could not stay focused long enough to get through assignments or study for tests. Failing grades led to truancy, which led to more failing grades.

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Buck stopped going to school in his senior year after he got a job in an auto repair shop. He loved working on cars and had no problems focusing on that work. But when the auto shop closed, Buck went through a number of short-lived jobs that he either quit out of boredom or was fired for. He was never on time, disorganized, and quick to get into conflicts with his bosses and co-workers.

Buck found a job working on an auto plant assembly line, but he quit after one week, finding the repetitive, monotonous nature of the work unbearable. The decision led to a bitter confrontation with his father, and shortly after, Buck moved out of his parents’ house.

In his late 20’s, Buck went to work for his uncle in his commercial landscaping business. He found himself poorly suited for office managerial work due to problems with organization. He was also, once again, getting bored with his job, but did not want to quit and betray his uncle.

Buck requested to become lead salesman for the company and take responsibility for training and supervising the sales team. His lively enthusiasm and excellent people skills made him very effective in this new area. Within several years, he helped build the business into the largest commercial landscaper in the state.

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His Great Uncle Probably Had It Too…

Buck’s youngest brother, Barry, was restless, impulsive, and rebellious. He had a quick temper, got into many fights, and was a thrill seeker.

Barry also struggled with staying focused in class and completing schoolwork. He was expelled in the 11th grade for fighting at school and being in possession of marijuana, and never went back. Relationships with his parents were strained due to his school problems, drinking and drug use, and disregard for rules.

The family conflicts ended when Barry was drafted into the army. He enjoyed being in the military, was considered very good at his duties, and benefited from the structure provided.

Barry’s army unit was shipped to Vietnam in 1968, and he was killed in combat later that year. He was 22 years old.

Brian’s Mother is Diagnosed with Inattentive Type

Shay is a 36-year-old mother of three and a graphic arts designer who describes her childhood as happy and uneventful. She was a “huge daydreamer” throughout her grade school years.

Shay recall problems with attention and concentration dating back to early childhood. She did well in classes she liked, but had to work extremely hard in classes that did not interest her. Studying for tests seemed futile, for on test days she would forget what she had studied.

Shay continues to have difficulties with concentration. She finds it difficult to read for more than 15 or 20 minutes without her mind wandering, but she very rarely has problems focusing in her graphic arts work.

The responsibilities involved in raising her children and managing a household are more demanding and stressful for her than her job duties had been. Her struggles are raising doubts in her mind about her competence, and taking a toll on her self-esteem.

And His Aunt Might Have ADHD, Too

Shay’s and her younger sister, Sharon, grew up with very different interests. Shay describes Sharon as distractible, impulsive, and forgetful. Sharon is still trying to decide what career she wants to pursue. She went to three colleges over the course of six years, but quit in frustration each time.

Sharon was diagnosed with severe depression after dropping out of college. Her medication and therapy treatment did not provide significant benefits for her. She went though an inpatient treatment program for substance abuse some time later, but relapsed shortly after.

Lost Opportunities, New Hopes

When Buck and Barry were growing up, ADHD did not even exist as a concept. In Shay and Sharon’s time, our understanding of ADHD was still very limited and focused primarily on hyperactive young boys. Accurate diagnostic protocols and effective treatment methods were still many years away.

At 63, Buck wonders what might have happened if he and his brother had been diagnosed and treated while young. School failures and behavioral and family problems might have been prevented. He wonders if Barry’s short, troubled life might have been happier.

Shay thinks about how things have been different if Sharon’s suspected ADHD had been diagnosed and treated years ago, too, and whether the years of struggles and pain could have been averted.

Adults with ADHD like Buck, Shay, and Sharon also have new opportunities and many reasons to count their blessings. Advances in our understanding of ADHD have been impressive, though much remains to be done.

Brian is the fortunate one in his family his parents now have options to help him that were not available to past generations.

[Read This Next: When ADHD Is All in the Family]

Updated on September 29, 2020

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  1. I have an 8 year old with severe combined type ADHD that was diagnosed about a year ago and I can very much relate to this article. While he still has some challenges at school and at home related to his ADHD, since we began treatment with medications and family therapy, he has been doing significantly better and our house has been a much more peaceful place. After learning more about ADHD, including adult symptoms, I came to realize that I have it as well. It explained so much about me and my life experience, especially recently when being a parent combined with a very challenging and demanding career overwhelmed the compensatory mechanisms that I have developed over the years, causing issues at home and at work. I sought medication treatment, which has been a game-changer for me. It is truly amazing what a positive impact it has had on me, especially in terms of my performance at work.

    As I continue to learn more and speak to more family members about it, I have come to realize that ADHD has been in my family for generations. My brother has it, he was the one who was diagnosed as a child. Medication treatment at the time did not work for him. I think my diagnosis was missed as a child because compared to my brother, my symptoms were much more mild, perhaps more of the inattentive type. I always seemed to fly under the radar and get by doing mediocre work that didn’t cause any significant issues. I have also learned that my mother and grandfather very likely have it, and see how it affected their life courses.

    One thing I’ve noticed about all of us who made it into being successful adults with ADHD, is that we were all “late bloomers”, and ended up successfully going back to school or into a career much later in life than the average person. All of us went through a phase in our younger years that was verging on recklessness, but thankfully made it through. Personally I had a difficult time in high school,almost didn’t graduate, had problems with the law, followed by doing dangerous outdoor/wilderness activities for many years before I actually ended up going to medical school at age 30, which surprised all of my family, including myself.

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