The Weight of ADHD on Your Marriage

If raising a child with ADHD can strain even the sturdiest marriage, imagine what it does to the rest of us. Follow these seven steps to save your relationship when parenting problems threaten to split it apart.

Raising a child with ADHD is difficult, and can add stress to a marriage
Raising a child with ADHD is difficult, and can add stress to a marriage

One of the best gifts you can give your children is a happy marriage. This is especially true if one or more of your children has attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) and has trouble forming friendships. Studies suggest that children develop more positive friendships and more successful romantic relationships as adults if they grow up with parents who are happily married.

Achieving wedded bliss, though, may be challenging for parents of children with ADHD. In their study of more than 500 parents, Brian T. Wymbs, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at the University of Pittsburgh, and his colleagues found that couples raising children with ADHD are about twice as likely to divorce by the time their children reach eight years of age as couples whose children don’t have the condition.

“It’s hard to keep a marriage on track when you’re managing your child’s symptoms from morning to night,” says Wymbs. “ADHD is a chronic disorder — it doesn’t go away-so there’s no escaping the marital problems caused by parenting a child with ADHD.”

There is some good news. Wymbs’s study found that the parents of children older than eight have about the same rate of divorce, regardless of whether their kids have ADHD. Couples who can get through those early years of child rearing, it seems, develop workable strategies to reduce stress on the relationship.

Here are seven ways to keep your marriage strong — and your children happy.

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Stop the Blame Game

Your child acts up in the toy aisle, and you are out of patience. Instead of telling him to improve his behavior, you turn your frustration on your spouse. “He got into another fight at school today, and I had to talk to the teachers by myself. It’s not fair. After all, he takes after you!”

The solution? Acknowledge that you’re both dealing with the same frustrations. “Accept the fact that your child has this condition and that this is the way things are, regardless of how they got that way,” says J. Matthew Orr, Ph.D., associate professor of clinical family and preventive medicine at South Carolina School of Medicine. In moving beyond blame to acceptance, you become free to celebrate your child’s strengths.

“Before my husband and I understood the ramifications of an ADHD diagnosis, we blamed each other for ‘bad parenting’ or ‘passing along ADHD genes,'” says Jody Aud, of Mount Airy, Maryland. “When each of us admitted responsibility, we let each other off the hook. ADHD is not ‘something we did to our kid,’ and it’s not the end of the world. Our child may not be the next Einstein, but she does have a shot at being the next Picasso.”

Get in Agreement

In another study, Wymbs found that the “hot” topics for arguments — money, sex, balancing home and work life, chores — are the same among all couples who have children. But couples with children that have ADHD fight more frequently about child-rearing issues than couples whose children don’t have ADHD. To minimize such arguments, agree on a ADHD parenting approach that you both endorse.

[Read: Accept Your Loved Ones with ADHD. Support Them. Have Their Backs.]

This worked for Sandy and Clayton Snow, from Huntington Beach, California, whose 11-year-old son, Parker, has ADHD. Parker was sent to the principal’s office at least twice a week — either for not following rules or for hitting other children. “I’d walk around with a knot in my stomach,” says Sandy, “wondering when we’d get the next phone call from school.”

The couple handled Parker’s problems differently. Sandy became impatient and told her son, “You know better than to behave like that. Why do you do these things?” Clayton took Parker’s side: “I’m sorry that happened. It must have been tough sitting in the principal’s office for an hour or so.”

The Snows got on the same page when they enrolled their son in a behavior modification program — and themselves in parent-training classes.

“The parenting classes taught me that Parker couldn’t help his behavior,” says Sandy. “We needed to make our expectations clear and to give him a way to succeed, by rewarding good behavior.” It worked. “There’s peace in our house now,” she adds.

“Find parent-training classes that teach parents to work together,” says Wymbs. Sandy agrees. “If only one of you goes to the classes, it’s like seeing a comedian in person and telling your spouse the jokes when you get home. A lot gets lost in translation. When you go to classes together, you have a better chance of agreeing on one approach.”

Give a Little/Get a Little

It’s simple: Each of you picks something that you like to do, and you schedule the activities into the week. “Maybe you like going to musical theater, and your spouse loves to go out for steak dinners,” says Wymbs. “Each of you promises to make that happen for the other, no matter how much scheduling it takes. Enabling your spouse to pursue an interest — even if it’s not your interest — strengthens your bond and brings more fun into the marriage.”

Spending time away from your spouse also works wonders. Lori Marra, a teacher and mom of two, in Winter Springs, Florida, who has been married to her husband, John, for 15 years, says time alone helped mend her marriage.

Their son, Ryan, age 12, has ADHD. “He’s a chatterbox,” says Lori. “He talks nonstop, asks questions all day long. They’re good questions, but it drives me crazy after a while.” Lori takes a break from it by getting together with friends each week to play Bunco. In return, she encourages her husband to spend time with his college friends, or to do projects around the house that he really enjoys. Each takes care of Ryan while the other has fun.

“As a result, we are more patient with our children when we return,” says Lori.

Tweak the Treatment Plan

Managing your child’s symptoms is good for him — and your marriage. “When your child’s behavior improves, thanks to medication or parenting strategies, the stress on your marriage will lessen,” says Wymbs. Monitor your child’s treatments to make sure he’s getting the help he needs, and look to make adjustments if his behavior starts to slide.

“As Ryan got older, his treatment required adjustment,” says Lori. “We went through Ritalin and Concerta, and finally settled on the Daytrana patch.”

In working with doctors, remember that they call it a “practice” for a reason; your child’s doctor isn’t around him 24/7. You and your spouse are, so you know what’s working — and what isn’t. Regularly discuss the treatment plan, and look for opportunities to make improvements.

Shout Out Your Spouse

A common dynamic in ADHD families is that Mom helps out with the homework and keeps the child on task, and Dad takes the child outside to play. “The result? Mom feels resentful toward Dad because he gets to do all of the ‘fun’ stuff, while she is the taskmaster and bad cop,” says Orr.

Mom may need to admit that playtime is not always fun for Dad. He negotiates rules, deals with temper tantrums, and teaches the child about taking turns and slowing down. Couples need to give each other credit for the things they do well.

“We have ‘debriefing’ sessions in the kitchen after our child goes to sleep,” says Michelle Sherlin, of Southwick, Massachusetts. “We review any updates from school, and we celebrate our successes. We might say, ‘Wow! We helped him study for his spelling test, and he got a 90!’ or ‘Nice job, honey, getting her through this busy week!'”

Laugh It Off

“Maintaining your sense of humor is important when raising kids with ADHD,” says Robin Singer, a special educator in Englewood, Colorado, and mom of two sons, including 14-year-old Avery, who has ADHD. She and her husband, Troy, have been married for 17 years. “When one of our kids does something crazy, Troy and I laugh first and get angry second. We love our sons, and we would rather celebrate their strengths than punish them for behavior they can’t help.”

Family fun can counteract many of the negative interactions that kids with ADHD have as they try to fit in at school or please the adults in their lives. “Doing fun things together can bring a family closer, and planning ahead can create a stress-free incentive for getting things done,” says Orr. For example, if your kids whine every time you ask them to clean the house on Saturday morning, you can say, “The movie we want to see starts at one. It’s 10 a.m. now. Here are the things we need to do — hang up clothes in the closet, clean the bathrooms, and do a load of laundry. If we do them by noon, we’ll get to the movies today.”

Present a United Front

“If you have a perceptive child with ADHD, as we do, he will home in on the stress between you and your spouse, and use it against you to add fuel to the fire,” says Maria Suglia, of Freehold, New Jersey, mom to eight-year-old Nick, who has ADHD, and 12-year-old Frank, who does not.

Maria’s husband arrived home before she did and started doing homework with Nick. Nick often told his father white lies — that Maria said he could have a snack and watch TV before doing homework. “Next thing you know, it was 10 o’clock, and he’s still doing homework,” says Maria. “I got mad at my husband for not getting things done earlier, when it was really Nick’s fault.”

Maria came up with a solution. She now calls her husband in the morning, after the kids get on the bus, explaining what he needs to work on with Nick. Maria’s husband returns the favor when he arrives home, asking what she said to Nick about his homework. Those everyday phone conversations ensure that both Mom and Dad are on the same parenting page. It has helped maintain peace in the marriage and family.

Everything you do to strengthen your marriage sets an example for your child. The next time you feel guilty about getting a sitter and going out with your spouse, remember that you’re not only making an investment in your marriage, but in the marriages of generations to come.

The Teachable Moments in Disagreements

Studies show that couples who have children with ADHD are quicker to yell at each other than those without ADHD kids. Here’s how to find teachable moments in disagreements:

—Clear conflicts in the open. “Kids can learn to resolve problems by watching you do it,” says Brian Wymbs, Ph.D. “Arguments that aren’t resolved in front of your child may make him think he is the cause of the fight.”

—Show respect. No name-calling, no raised voices, no stomping out of the house.

—Love means saying you’re sorry. Apologize when you’re wrong or when you lose your temper. Kids often have to apologize for their impulsive behavior, so you’ll be teaching them how to do it.

Readers Respond

Readers tell us what has held their marriage together through the tough times.

“We schedule regular date nights, when we get someone to watch the children. We find that the more we talk, the more united we are in raising our boys.”
—Elsie and Joe McHale, Doylestown, Pennsylvania

“Get educated about ADHD together. When one spouse has more information than the other, you can’t create a parenting partnership. You have to be on the same page.”
—An ADDitude reader

“Applaud loudly when your spouse handles situations appropriately, and back her up when she doesn’t.”
—David L. Burkebile, M.D., Port Townsend, Washington

“Go out without the children. I promise it will be OK. The house won’t burn down. Your children will appreciate it when you come back, refreshed and ready to tackle the next crisis.”
—A.J. Benett, North Carolina

“It helps if at least one of the parents has ADHD, too. Sounds crazy (and, yes, we live in a crazy house), but I see what my daughter is up against. I know what she’s going through, because I was the same way growing up.”
—Barbara and Jim Rybacki, Easton, Maryland

“Humor. Sometimes a good laugh can change everything.”
—Robin Singer, Englewood, Colorado

“Working with our son’s counselor has helped us so much. She gives us tools and advice for managing his symptoms and making it work as a family. Guidance from a ‘third person’ is priceless!”
—Julie and Scott Evans, Bay Village, Ohio

“Each of us just seems to know when the other has had enough (one of us usually blows up), and it’s time for the other to take over.”
—Stephanie, Pittsburgh

“We promised each other that the children would never come before us, nor would we let them get between us. It hasn’t been easy, but our love has grown over the years. Remember why you married your spouse.”
—An ADDitude reader

[Read This Next: How Learning to Listen Might Save Your Marriage]

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