Lighten Up! Your Quirky Spouse or Child May Be Happy Just The Way They Are
Maybe the problems you associate with their ADHD are really YOUR problems. Have you ever looked at the world through the ADHD lens? Would things still get done — just differently? Would everyone be happier?
Understanding ADHD in Adults
My client John wanted help with his ADHD; it was driving his wife crazy. On the weekends, he’d never get to the honey-do list she made. She hated how much time he spent on the computer, so he needed to find ways to reduce it. Could I recommend timers or reminders? She really didn’t want shoes in the house, and he could never manage to take them off by the door. Were there tricks to remind him about the shoes? He didn’t always do his laundry on Tuesday, sometimes putting it off until Thursday. Could I help him remember to do it earlier? Even though they were financially comfortable, he kept procrastinating on looking for work and it was making her angry.
He hoped I could help him find ways to motivate past his issues. I told him I could not. Because I didn’t think the issues were his. They were his wife’s.
Here’s the thing about ADHD and its interference with life’s functions: it’s only an impairment if the person with ADHD experiences it that way. Can someone be considered “disordered” if they function exactly how they want to be functioning?
As I dove into my client’s wants and needs, it became clear that he was actually very happy. His ADHD didn’t bother him; he liked being “quirky.” He’d retired at age 45 from a career he loved and had succeeded in. He didn’t particularly think the things on the honey-do list needed to be done and preferred to hire someone to do them if they did. He loved spending time on the computer. He thought the no-shoes-in-the-house rule was silly. He never had enough dirty clothes to warrant laundry on Tuesdays. Not needing the paycheck, he saw no reason to get a job. The only thing upsetting in his life was his wife’s constant nagging and her lack of affection toward him.
So, what was causing the dysfunction here? Was it ADHD or was it his partner’s controlling expectations? If she woke up one day and said, “Hey, I don’t care about Tuesday-laundry or shoes in the house,” she would still be living with a spouse with ADHD. But it wouldn’t cause an issue. So instead of working on his ADHD symptoms, we wound up working on his communication skills and tendency to avoid conflict. He eventually understood that a compromise in giving his wife what she needed sometimes would lead to him getting what he needed: more affection and freedom.
John is a fictitious compilation of numerous similar clients I’ve seen over the years. While this scenario depicts adults, as parents and teachers it may be equally important to look at our children with ADHD in this same manner. A criterion for diagnosing ADHD in the DSM-5 is “evidence that the symptoms interfere with, or reduce the quality of, social, academic, or occupational functioning.” As parent to two children with ADHD and wife to a man with ADHD myself, I can readily point to all the ways the symptoms reduce quality of functioning. But that is according to my definition of “quality of functioning” — not theirs.
Understanding ADHD in Children
While parenting a child with ADHD, I heard a constant nagging in the back of my brain: What if my children are perfectly happy the way they are, but the nagging, controlling expectations of me, school, and society are the things that reduce their quality of functioning? Are her temper tantrums erupting because I’m placing unreasonable expectations on a brain that works differently? Is his defiance a push-back against being asked repeatedly to do something he doesn’t understand or isn’t ready to do? Why is it bad to (DSM Hyperactive Criterion a.) fidget or tap or squirm often? Or (b.) leave seat unexpectedly? Or (c.) run and climb about inappropriately? Or (d.) be unable to play quietly? Or (e.) act as if driven by a motor? It’s only “bad” if you’re metaphorically married to my client’s controlling wife. Right?
Unfortunately, unless homeschooled or independently wealthy, our children basically are wedded to the expectations of the neurotypical world. We live in a society with rules, and our little kiddos have brains that don’t intuitively or physiologically play by those rules. Like I helped my client to develop a give and take with his wife, we have to help our kids understand how to compromise — not to turn off their brilliant, silly, energetic, emotional brains, but rather to balance them with everyone else’s idea of “quality function.” Why? Because maybe, just maybe, happiness lies somewhere in the middle for everyone.
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Updated on January 3, 2021