Positive Parenting

“I Can’t Do It All”

You watch like a hawk for danger, reinforce rules constantly, know the principal’s extension by heart, and even manage to sneak in broccoli from time to time. In other words, you’re tired. If your child has ADHD, you know that mom (or dad) burnout is a real threat. Here’s how to manage it.

Chairs on a beach, a relaxing vacation for a mom experiencing burnout
Beach chairs on a sunny beach

Many parents of children with ADHD have mixed feelings when their child is diagnosed.

Relief comes from knowing the reason for his disruptive behavior and academic struggles. There is some guilt that the problem wasn’t diagnosed sooner, and there is sadness in knowing that he will face challenges most children don’t have to contend with.

While you may fear what the future holds for him, you also hope that treatment will help.

Beth and Joel had all those feelings after their nine-year-old son, Brian, was diagnosed with ADHD. They became his biggest supporters, and each found that filling that role required lots of work. Beth met with teachers to help Brian keep up with schoolwork. She drove him to weekly appointments with his therapist and to monthly appointments with his physician.

Joel worked with Brian on following rules and sticking with homework and bedtime routines. Both coped with his frequent temper tantrums and helped him find his lost homework assignments and missing socks and underwear every morning.

Approaching Burnout

As Beth watched her son’s behavior slowly change for the better — because of her and Joel’s efforts — she noticed that her behavior was also changing. Not for the better. She was fatigued throughout the day. Her attitude started to turn negative. She didn’t enjoy things she used to relish. She was impatient and critical of her family, including Brian. One afternoon, as she left the office of Brian’s therapist, she couldn’t contain her feelings: She confessed that she and Joel were burnt out. Something had to change soon.

Mental and physical exhaustion are common in parents of special-needs children. When I met with Beth and Joel, it seemed that Brian’s ADHD had trumped the needs of his parents and his brothers and sisters. I explained that this was not Brian’s fault — it was not anything he asked for or had control over. It was Beth and Joel’s job to keep Brian’s ADHD in perspective. I told them that children with special needs don’t want to be treated as “special.” In fact, many of them want reasonable rules and limits, just like their brothers and sisters.

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I listened as Beth and Joel shared their worries, and told them that they should go easy on themselves. Here are some of their concerns and my responses:

“We feel guilty about our son’s ADHD. We should have known he had it.”

Attention deficit disorder is a genetic biological condition; it is not anybody’s fault. You are not “guilty” of giving your child ADHD any more than you are guilty of giving him life.

In terms of detecting the ADHD, even professionals sometimes have difficulty diagnosing the disorder.

“We get impatient and upset when Brian acts up.”

ADHD cannot be “cured.” It can be managed successfully. When Brian struggles with schoolwork or creates a scene at the grocery store, it doesn’t mean that he is a bad kid or that he has bad parents.

Beth and Joel worked hard to find strategies to improve his schoolwork — would he need an IEP? a tutor? — and to deal with his outbursts (a behavior therapy program targeted his erratic behavior). I told them to be persistent but patient, that they and their child are in for a long haul.

“We want to protect Brian, from morning till night.”

The more they worried about Brian’s ADHD, the more they wanted to do things for him — running out to Staples at 9 p.m. to get that fancy pen with the purple ink, or walking him into school to ward off his classmates’ barbs.

Being Brian’s Super Mom raised Beth’s stress levels. I told her that Brian was trying his best, and that, given the circumstances, he was doing pretty well. I asked her to take some time to assess Brian’s progress since his ADHD diagnosis. Above all, I told her to be hopeful that everything would work out. Hope is powerful, and I have found that it is absolutely essential in raising a special-needs child.

“We could do a better job of parenting Brian.”

Beth and Joel frequently praised Brian, and I encouraged them to pat themselves on the back. Praise effort and celebrate success — your child’s and yours.

Brian needed the same good parenting that any child needs, just a little more of it. He needed ongoing lessons in independence and responsibility, in using good judgment, and in making sound decisions. He needed parents to keep track of where he was and what he was doing. Beth and Joel were providing Brian with all of that. Once they made a list of what they did every day, their frustration and guilt began to wane.

“We could use a vacation from Brian.”

Beth and Joel felt guilty saying it, but they really needed a break. Parenting is a full-time job, and even the best parents — like Beth and Joel — should have time for themselves. I recommended that Beth attend her yoga class one night a week. I suggested that Joel call or see friends on Thursdays. I asked them to make a weekend date with each other to see a movie, go to a restaurant, or take a walk. After a little time away from Brian, they usually felt refreshed, and couldn’t wait to get back home to see him.

“I can’t do it all.”

When Brian needed extra attention and help, the less-busy parent pinch-hit for the other. When Beth couldn’t face another night of wrestling over homework, or had to stay late at the office, Joel stepped in without complaint. When they both hit a wall, they joined a support group for parents with children with ADHD. They got advice and much-needed support from other parents who, Beth and Joel discovered, were facing similar or even tougher challenges.

All of these strategies have helped to make Beth and Joel’s parenting a labor of love, not a recipe for burnout.