Relationships

Accept Them. Support Them. Have Their Backs.

You understand that your spouse’s or child’s ADHD symptoms are not the result of laziness or defiance. But, still, they are sometimes tough to live with. Here, ADHD expert Russell Barkley, Ph.D., explains how to replace criticism with compassion.

A wife hugging her husband to support a loved one who has ADHD
Man and woman hugging and smiling on a beach probably

You may have once thought that your loved one with ADHD either had a motivational problem, a behavioral problem, a moral failing that he or she could readily change, or was willfully making bad lifestyle choices.

Maybe you believed he could just change if he wanted to. Maybe you withheld your compassion for his plight because, somehow, he deserved what was happening to him since he “chose” to behave impulsively, emotionally, and inattentively. Maybe you even criticized your loved one for deciding to be “that way,” viewing his actions as intentional misbehavior and irresponsibility.

Hopefully, you know now that none of those assumptions is true. That change of perspective usually brings with it a deeper understanding of what may be going wrong with your spouse or son or daughter. My hope is that it has led you to have greater compassion for your loved one’s plight and a greater willingness to assist him in managing this chronic disability.

Here are some of the ways you can help your loved one with adult ADHD.

1. Be an acceptor and a good listener. In various follow-up studies (including my own) of children with ADHD into adulthood, researchers working independently of each other discovered something: Adults with ADHD who felt they were doing pretty well always had someone who accepted them for who and what they were. That someone never abandoned them in times of trouble, and listened to them when they needed to talk about their problems. This was the person they always trusted to be there for them. Even if it was just to listen and relate to them in nonjudgmental ways, it was a valuable role, nonetheless.

[Free Download: 25 Things to Love About ADHD]

Being nonjudgmental does not mean you deny or make excuses for your loved one’s inappropriate behavior or its consequences. You can be a good listener and acceptor while still openly acknowledging the facts of a situation. You can be constructively critical without being morally judgmental.

2. Be a support team member. Adults with ADHD don’t just need professionals to diagnose, treat, and support them through the difficulties they experience in trying to change themselves and their lives for the better. They also need people who understand they are struggling to cope with a neurodevelopmental disability and who show some compassion for their struggles. That compassion should be expressed even if your loved one’s attempts to change are not always successful. This person encourages him and actively assists him throughout the change process. Like a birthing coach or midwife, the role involves assisting your loved one through a passage to a new and better life. If you are so inclined, you can help him with the changes he is trying to make. You don’t just “get it” about adult ADHD, you help him to “fix it.”

3. Become an advocate. Sometimes your loved one may need help in explaining what ADHD is to others in and outside of your family. Or he could use your assistance in defending against the callous or ignorant opinions of others. Your loved one could also use your help in encouraging others to accept and to make accommodations for her. At times, when relatives, friends, or social acquaintances make insensitive or critical statements about your loved one, you can help change their minds. They may not understand the nature of the disorder. If so, you can diplomatically correct their misunderstanding. You can even suggest resources they can pursue to learn more about adult ADHD.

Your job as an advocate is not to bite someone’s head off in defense of your loved one when someone has spoken ill of him. Instead, your role here is that of a teacher, liaison, or diplomat who clarifies the true nature of your loved one’s ADHD symptoms. Again, don’t make excuses, deny, or cover up the wrongdoings of your loved one and the adverse consequences of his actions. But you can help others to understand what role ADHD may have played in such misconduct and mistakes.

[“Is ADHD Real?” How to Respond to Doubters with Tact and Facts]

The role of advocate can be played with people at government agencies, schools, or other organizations your loved one must deal with. Just being with her when she is trying to negotiate these bureaucracies can be of great help.

4. Become a benefactor. This is not a role most relatives, partners, or close friends can play. It involves having the financial resources to be able to help pay for constructive things your loved one wishes to do. Assuming this role can mean paying for professional evaluations and treatments, school tuition and books, or hiring him in a summer or part-time capacity if you have your own business. Being a benefactor may mean that you help to get your loved one preventive medical and dental care checkups, or cover the copays if she has insurance but can’t afford them. This was one way I chose to help out my brother and nephew, who both had ADHD.

Notice that all of these things support constructive activities that offer a chance for improving your loved one’s life. Money won’t fix everything; problems can still occur. But what your financial support can do it to open doors of opportunity for self-improvement. And that, as they say, is priceless.

[“A Day in the Life of an ADHD Advocate”]

Adapted with permission from BARKLEY, R.A. (2017). ROLES you can adopt to be of help. In R.A. Barkley, When an Adult You Love Has ADHD: Professional Advice for Parents, Partners, and Siblings (pp. 293-306). http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/15963-015. Copyright © 2017 American Psychological Association. Any further use requires written permission from the American Psychological Association.

10 Related Links

  1. So, when is my ADHD partner expected or counseled to have my back?!?! This article is a one-way lecture to exhausted, strung out partners with their own life crises without any one to stand up for them when they need it and sometimes their ADHD partner participates actively in making the non-ADHD partner’s own life issues worse. Please strive for balance. Are there any articles here about strategies for ADHD folks to support them in standing up for and having the backs of THEIR partners?!?! Or, is this basically a non-expection given ADHD?

    1. I completely agree. This article is garbage. I’ve been in a relationship with an ADD partner and the excuses are ceaseless. Never dealt with so many instances of manipulation and complete abdication of responsibility. Articles like this send a bad, toxic message.

    2. Exactly. I love, respect and understand. But at some point an effort needs to be made. Try, use strategies, go to counseling…. you can’t just say oh I have ADHD and not try. I don’t expect perfection I except an effort

      1. izmj, GMF 47, jlynn2118
        Interesting responses. I am inclined to agree. When will these ADDers grow up and accept responsibility and take into account OUR feelings and needs?
        I am not sure the 65 yr old man I have been involved with for five years is ADHD or ADD (he is also an alcoholic, so that masks it)- but I am now pretty well convinced after reading dozens of articles on here. It is a NIGHTMARE coping with these people. Yes, we DO love them – or at least their “nice” side – otherwise we would not have hung on in for so long, but can they not SEE how they are sucking the life-blood out of us? Can they not SEE things from OUR perspective? Apparently not, according to stories on here. Would that life was as rosy-hued as this writer likes to portray, and that just loving, supporting and listening to these people was the magic wand we need to make it all alright. Has HE ever had to live with and cope with someone with ADHD or ADD for any length of time, I wonder? Lorna

    3. The comments are precisely the reason articles like this exist. It seems like effort isn’t being made but it’s not something that can be identified the same way in a person with ADHD. The effort is there but the executive function disorder PREVENTS success to equal or be correlative to effort exhorted. It’s exhausting to explain and we feel failed at the effort put in and the result being that if we had put no effort or we in fact did not care at all, there’s a possibility of the exact same outcome. Taking responsibility, “growing up”, putting oneself in the others shoes, not causing our loved ones pain, irritation, frustration, hurt feelings etc… is the reason we shut down. It’s a symptom of a disorder we have yet to find a cure for and it’s management is effort every single day and likely has been for our entire life. Decide to care enough to understand and change the judgement of the person or just kindly allow them to find a more compassionate person rather than add one more dimension to their daily effort to manage a disorder already alienating them from you. It’s called love and it’s not about getting what you give, not with someone with ADHD. You would have to realize a different brain requires different things and that goes for every single aspect of their life- your relationship with them is one component in a life filled with effort to fit into systems not designed or suited to fit them. Don’t be a martyr for the ADHD person in your life with the belief that your “tough love” approach will do anything positive for that person; you are not the first, only, or last person to be in a relationship with a person who has ADHD and do an ounce of research, it’s backed with enormous evidence- divorce rates, other mental disorders Co-existent, higher rates of depression and suicide etc… there are reasons and the fact doesn’t change in that a relationship is not going to as easy or even like any you may have ever had, be honest if it’s too much and let go if it’s not working for you. Relationships are still two way and nothing is ever only one person’s fault/doing/shortcoming. Take responsibility for your choice and attempt to be with a person with ADHD and walk away if you can’t but don’t pretend to be a victim of someone you have no understanding of; the information isn’t a secret and you have just as much free will To be in relationships as anyone else involved. Get over your ego and stop using a mental diagnostic as a scapegoat to blame what you can’t change. Non-adhd people could benefit from a little tough love too.

      1. I’m talking about situations where someone is actively verbally attacking me and he wont stand up for me… Not because he takes their side but because he has a fear of conflict.

        I’m talking about being sick with a fever and Mr. ADHD has to get the toddler ready for daycare on his own then being told before he goes for work, “you’d better be well when I get home.”

        Being angry at me for being exhausted at the end of day with two small children and a household chores because he feels fine and want sex. Its my fault for doing too much!

        I get in a car accident with our two kids nearly totalling our car because im exhausted and strung out and he is angry, distant and only says, “well i guess you got what you wanted…. I dont know why you asked me to come home early”. The car for the record was a coupe that literally caused me a LOT of pain due to post-partum back and hip issues and i had to twist myslef to buckle two small children into their car seats and he refused to have any discussion of getting a different more comfortable car.

        Honestly, your post shares a LOT of this blame the non-adhd spouse for their stress.

        These are past examples and things have improved as we’ve come to learn about the ADHD but most of these articles focus on managing work life and self-care.. As if personal lives dont matter. “The ADHD Marriage” doea a great job of balancong the ADHD and non-ADHD perspectives, literally speaking to both. one of the early statements to the ADHD spouse is “you cannot imagine the amount stress that your untreated ADHD puts your NON-ADHD spouse through…the real and serious toll your ADHD takes on the physical health of your NON-ADHD partner” I have not sen any acknowledgementn of this in ADDitudde Magazine. Its like the NON-ADHD partner is expected to be a selfcsacrificing saint. We’re not and no one should expect us to be. ELSEWHERE i have read yhat NON-ADHD partners need the mindfulness training to help them cope with the stress and added work their life with an ADHD spouse causes. Where is the non-additdute Magazine for us?

        1. The improvement I mentioned in the above post are from him accepting more responsibility all-round, managing his ADHD and respecting me more for what I do to make our lives work.

    4. I know a long time has passed since you commented, but I came across what you said and really felt like I needed to share something…

      This article isn’t trying to make the support of a ADHD/non-ADHD relationship seem one-sided in nature, but rather gives the perspective of one side. That’s not to say that the stresses of the non-ADHD person in the relationship are invalid, but the audience of this ONE particular article just so happens to only address one side of the relationship.

      Now, I was diagnosed with ADHD several years ago and I found some of your generalizations to be pretty offensive and ignorant….but the thing is, I totally understand where you’re coming from. It’s exhausting having to constantly be around somebody who exhibits ADHD symptoms and it can wear you down very easily. I understand that. But it’s SO important for you to have an open line of communication with your ADHD partner about the points at which their behavior becomes overbearing. That being said, you don’t want to turn that discussion into a criticizing rant (because that’s never helps anyone achieve anything lol) but you CAN set boundaries so that they know how they’re affecting you and making you feel. That’s helped me in the past, and I’ve also seen a change in my overall functionality as I’ve become more aware of how my symptoms impact the people around me.

      It really doesn’t hurt to look on the bright side of things too. There are benefits to having ADHD as well as being with somebody that has it, and I would encourage you to explore those positive aspects. People with ADHD are definitely not “toddlers” in need of nagging and mothering- trust me, I can tell you from experience how frustrating it is to have people assume that I’m incompetent and incapable. However, if you’re really feeling frustrated or neglected I would HIGHLY suggest seeing a counselor. My parents did this early on in their marriage because my mom felt similar frustrations with my dad (who has ADHD that is similar to my case) and doing so helped them immensely. She learned what behaviors she shouldn’t take personally, and my dad gained tools to help him recognize and address his actions that had a negative affect on her.

      I hope this helps to ease your frustration a little 🙂 communication and understanding are KEY to making any relationship work (especially with an ADHD person) and I hope you continue to see improvement in your relationship!

      1. Thanks for replying and trying to be positive and suoportive. My complaint was about this one article. Its about the overwhelming pattern at ADDitude Magazine… Preaching supportiveness to the NON-ADHD partner and virtually nothing about ways for the ADHD partner to help their efforts have more impact, “work more effectly at your job” kind of articles for relationships. Since this post (I think the editors read it) I have seen at least one article specifically geared toward relationships “ADHD marriage”.

        You and other ADHD critics of my post also assume that I havent been responding xonstructively… That if I -NOTE I-beam responded did something more constructive or responded better, then this would change.

        The most constructive thing i did was get us BOTH -not ONLY ME- BOTH of us into coinceling. Since he was dragging his heels, I let him chpose the counselor. The counceling did nothing. He loed about his involvement at home, told lies about me to the councelor and this councelor bought his version of things, challeneged me to change based on the lies. AFTER each session, we went to lunch and talked over what was realky going on with us based on that day’s counceling session. Eventually he came clean to the counselor and the guy realized he’d been an ass to me too. BUTthat was the main thing I needed out of counceling at that time: my husband had to undetstand that certain things he say to me and about to me were uungrateful and down right abusive. I dont think you read my later reply within this thread with some details. This magazone sems to assume that the ADHD partner’s own struggles and defensiveness NEVER turn abusive. But they can and do.

        Since this breakthrough, which was years before my post here, we have steadily improved and he has started learning how to mutually care for me too. That said, when i am still really sick or debilitated from oyher lofe events, if it isnt a specific issue like we’ve had in the past, I still have to micro-manage his support for me.. Which is a thin line between getting support and performing self-care.

        Both the critical replies to this post reflect the common perception of the NON-ADHD partner as the raving harpie-nag who is the worst at meeting their spouses needs. The first reply is really offensive this way. NON-ADHD spouses come across this way because we are contorting our lives to Support and the ones most effective help their ADHD partners look really good but lack anyone to help them help their spouse. I repeat because neither of you seem to get this. NON-ADHD spouses are not gifted with unlimited reserves of energy, patience, and stamina just because we joined with an ADHD partner. Neither of you acknowledge what NON-ADHD partners do for their ADHD partners, possibly because you havevnt noticed? Without acknowledging there can be no appreciation, without appreciation efforts toward reciprocating are more likely to be misguided because they simply don’t respond to the NON-ADHD person’s actual needs.

        Example, post-counceling breakthrough. My had a mid-term miscarriage. My nerves were fried and i couldn’t drive for a few days and my ADHD partner’s usual loose driving was beyond my ability to cope with gracefully. I would make huge gasps and strong physically starts and shakings from driving moments (sometimes other cars too) truly were not serious but my raw nerves and depleted physical state meant I just couldn’t control my reactions. My husband’s reaction was to yell at me… He only quit this aggressice defensiveness when me made me cry… Only then did he realky hear what i’d been saying… That my nerves were raw and I couldn’t help it. These may be understandable to you from the ADHD perspective, but from the non-ADHD perpsective it is not acceptable, it is abusive.

        NON-ADHD partners are often the ones who bear the brunt of ADHD defensiveness and this takes a toll. We are not granted additonal resilience just because we have an ADHD partner… We need more credit tham we get at ADDtude.

        1. To me, it just sounds like he may just be an “ass” ….I don’t know that these inconsiderate actions you mention have anything to do with ADD/ADHD. People with ADD are not like OBLIVIOUS to what others need and want (by definition) so it might just be obstinance, or defiance in it’s basic form.

Leave a Reply