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The Side Effects of Parenting Children with ADHD

Parenting my daughter, Natalie, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and other comorbid conditions, makes me feel helpless and powerless — and a recent study confirms I’m not alone.

I still remember that email from several years ago, with a link to the August 2011 issue of Attention Research Update, written by David Rabiner, Ph.D., of Duke University. This issue was particularly timely for me. In it, Rabiner summarized a study about how the stress of parenting a child with ADHD affects parents.

Rabiner writes, “The adverse impact of children’s ADHD symptoms on parents’ stress levels, satisfaction in the parenting role, and even depressive symptoms have been known for some time. Results from this study suggest that it is not ADHD symptoms themselves that affect parents in these ways, but rather, it is parents’ perception that their child is largely unresponsive to correction that is most challenging … Behaviors associated with ADHD appear to influence parents negatively because they are perceived to be largely outside parents’ control, which contributes to growing feelings of powerlessness.”

Powerlessness. Lack of control. Those are exactly the enemies I fight against daily as I raise my daughter, Natalie, who has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD). I feel powerless over the messes she makes. I feel powerless over her moods and her reactions to stressors. I can’t make her follow my directions the first time I give them. I can’t make her challenges go away.

[Free Download: 13 Parenting Strategies for Kids with ADHD]

Natalie’s propensity to make messes has been a major issue for me since the day she joined our family (she’s adopted), and it continues to be today. My lack of control over the state of my safe haven, my home, is the root of the problem.

Last Thursday, for what felt like the millionth time, I spent the whole day putting stuffed animals in storage bins, books on bookshelves, blankets in closets, and clean clothes in drawers. These are tasks I could repeat every day because they never stay completed. Within minutes, Natalie will undo all of the work I spend hours completing. Despite knowing this, in a constant fight to regain a little control, I culled through those stuffed animals, reducing their numbers by one fourth. I parted with two large boxes of books. I boxed up the latest batch of clothes that Natalie and her big brother have outgrown. (I’d boxed them up already, but Nat had dumped them out, rummaged through them, reclaimed half of them, and spread the rest all over the house.) I hauled the bags and boxes to Goodwill. Good riddance. I felt better — for a few minutes. Then Natalie came home from school, and it was as if I hadn’t done anything.

I gain a little ground in the battle for control, and then I lose it. It’s a fight I know I can never win. Never. And I can’t even express how much that bugs me.

Another area where my lack of control is currently a big problem is my inability to influence Natalie’s behavior. I’ve been yelling at her much more than usual lately, even though I know that she responds better to calm redirection. I’ve been taking stuff away from her as punishment at the drop of a hat, even though I know that positive reinforcement works better than punishment. I keep insisting that Natalie follow my directions the first time I give them, even though I know that for her, that’s impossible. Half the time, when she’s focused on something else, she doesn’t even hear me give her a direction.

[A Parent’s Secret Weapon for Better Listening with Less Nagging]

But suddenly, it’s like I’ve crossed some invisible line, and I can no longer tolerate her ADHD behaviors. I know that it’s me who has changed, not Natalie, but her ADHD traits have come to feel like pure defiance. I want to whip her into shape —zero tolerance. This is clearly my reaction to an ongoing lack of control. I know my inability to control my temper will only make things worse, but right now, I feel trapped in anger.

One step forward, two steps back.

Are you stressed, dissatisfied, or depressed by your ADHD parenting experience? Is a growing sense of helplessness and powerlessness to blame? And, most important, is there anything you — or any of us — can do to change that?