Positive Parenting

When You Feel the Crush of ADHD Mom Guilt…

…Please know that I do, too. When I lose my temper. When I yell. When I blame my kids for their ADHD transgressions. I know better, but I’m human — and sometimes I make mistakes. Then I feel awful, debilitating shame and mom guilt. Here is how I move forward with purpose — and apologies.

The crush of mom guilt

I’ve done it. You’ve done it. Every parent of a child with ADHD has done it.

It usually goes like this: Something bad happens. This something occurs because of your child. If your child were neurotypical, we might say it’s their fault. We might shout out, for example, “It’s not my job to find your shoes!” Or “It’s your responsibility to remember your lunch bag!” Or “Stop running in circles and pay attention!”

We might wonder, “Why didn’t my kid pick up their damn board game after I asked them six times?” Or “Why did I have to say ‘Put on your bathing suits’ three times? Why did you keep watching television instead, even though you verbally acknowledged hearing me?!”

Transgressions like these are absolutely infuriating to every modern parent. They ought to be. We’re conditioned to expect certain things from children — chiefly, cleanliness and prompt obedience. When a kid doesn’t comply, that kid is “bad.” Even if that kid has ADHD.

Now, you know your child with ADHD isn’t bad. You know they try as hard as they can. You know they don’t mean to do these things that drive you nuts. But that doesn’t mean you are fully conditioned to accept them as less infuriating. No matter how many times you tell yourself, “They behave this way because they are non-neurotypical,” or “This happens because they think differently,” there will be times when you lose your temper.

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Society has told us, our whole lives, to have certain expectations of children. When they inevitably violate those expectations, we can’t shed every single shred of those emotions so quickly. We can’t learn to channel Zen so completely and so radically when faced with aggravating ADHD behaviors.

So we melt down.

I know this from experience. Sometimes, I deliver inappropriate consequences. I send my son to his room instead of connecting with him when he throws a tantrum. Rather than look for the root cause, I blow up. I say phrases like, “Why can’t you…” and “I wish you would…” — those shaming phrases that hurt children with ADHD so much. Sometimes, they flow from my mouth without my thinking. And I’m certain I’m not the only one who makes these mistakes.

Quickly, we realize what we’ve done — and hate ourselves. Our children have a disorder. We’ve blamed them for it and shamed them for it, and they get enough of that in this world. Our job is to be their biggest cheerleaders, and we’ve failed. We feel terrible shame. We feel like wrecks of parents.

But here’s the thing: That mom guilt does no good to anyone. To move forward, we need to give ourselves the grace to realize that every parent of every child with ADHD has done this. It’s not pleasant or pretty or right. But we’ve all done it. We need to give ourselves the same space to mess up that we give to others, and look at ourselves through the same lens of compassion that we use with our children. As they learn to grow up with ADHD, so too do we learn to raise a child with ADHD. Both are hard. Give yourself credit. Then do a few things:

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1. Breathe. We all make mistakes. Every parent has screwed up. Every parent with a child who has ADHD has screwed up in this particular fashion. That doesn’t make it right. But it is understandable.

2. Forgive yourself. Would you forgive a stranger for a mistake? Would you give them the benefit of the doubt? If so, extend the same space and grace to yourself. If not, understand that empathy and compassion are not a sign of weakness; quite the opposite is true.

3. Apologize to your child. Apologizing both admits your fault and models good behavior. Be specific. Don’t say, “I’m sorry I yelled,” say, “I’m sorry that I yelled at you when you forgot your bathing suit. I forget sometimes that ADHD makes it hard for you to remember things without a reminder.”

4. But don’t let them off the hook. Make a plan instead. That doesn’t mean ADHD is an excuse for bad behavior. It means ADHD requires more planning. So don’t leave that apology dangling! Instead, add: “What can we do together next time to help you remember your bathing suit?” This invests both of you in the behavior, puts you on the same team, and helps your child feel less alone.

5. Don’t beat yourself up about it. You apologized. You made a plan. You did the best you could to fix the situation. Resolve to do better in the future — and move on.

6. Figure out your triggers and how to avoid them. I freak out, for example, when I perceive that my kids are somehow “disrespecting” me by not paying attention to the things I ask them to do. Knowing that, I make a point of touching them when I request things, then standing over them until they begin doing them. This short-circuits the anger-blame-shame cycle.

You are not alone. Every parent of every child with ADHD has melted down over typical ADHD behavior. It sucks. It’s no fun. You feel awful. But there’s a way out. There are things you can do to help. And that begins with giving yourself the space to say: “I messed up. But I will do better.”

And you’ll mess up again.

But you will pick yourself up and try again in the morning.

After all, that’s the essence of being a parent.

[Read This Next: Never Punish Your Child for Behavior Outside Their Control]


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Updated on June 23, 2020

3 Related Links

  1. Thank you for this. I need to be reminded of this often because the guilt and shame from my own meltdowns really hits me hard and tends to stay with me, which I know is not helping anyone.

  2. This msg was perfect; I had a terrible argument w/my 19-yo ADHD son. I wish I could say I’m getting better at understanding this disorder despite becoming aware of it since my son was 13, but I still make the mistake of yelling at him when he frustrates me for doing things he knows that he’s not supposed to do only to have him yell back at me & resort to punching holes in walls & doors out of anger I, unfortunately, revert to the “I’m the parent & you’re going to respect me” which means nothing to a 19 yr old, but today my son was so explosive he blurted out that he hated himself!!! 🙁 This has me feeling so heartbroken & terrible that I aloud this to escalate; I have really tried not to choose my arguments but today I failed 🙂

    Parents of younger children I commend you for seeking help now to understand this disorder; my son didn’t have behavioral problems in school outside of the usual “boys will be boys” mischief; he only had the signs of the attention deficit. Please research, talk to other parents, exercise patience I didn’t today bc I keep telling myself he’s almost an adult; he finished HS for goodness sake, why does he continue to defy me & when is he going to move out on his own so I can have some peace, but I’m realizing that just like I’m frustrated—he’s frustrated; just like I want him to be a responsible adult—he wants this too, however, the reality is, he is just not ready & I will have to continue preparing him for the world by building him up rather than tearing him down bc the world will do that to him.
    That is why this article was so timely for me—Today I will forgive myself & make tomorrow a better day for me & only child,

    My thoughts prayers to all the parents who face these challenges. The tips in the article will be so helpful to parenting young children.

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