Parenting with ADHD ain’t easy! We hear a lot about parenting a child who has ADHD, but what about when the parent has it? ADHD is a neurobiological disorder that impacts a person’s executive functioning skills – the ability to organize, self-regulate, inhibit impulses, focus and sustain attention, prioritize and make choices and more.
ADHD impacts us from the time that we are children right up to adulthood, often negatively. We struggle to conform to a neurotypical world and things that seem easy for others (such as being on time to work or maintaining basic self-care routines) can be very challenging for us. Many people with ADHD have a negative view of themselves and struggle with pervasive low self-esteem, and this can follow us into our role as parents. However, ADHD isn’t always a negative; some of the attributes of an ADHDer can be beneficial in the role of parenting a child.
We all need to valid in our roles as parents and find ways to work from our strengths. Here are 5 things that every parents with ADHD needs to hear!
1. Lead With Your Natural Tendency to Have Fun!
A lot of parenting is really boring. Regulating yourself to pay attention to your child when you don’t want to, following through on bedtime and mealtime routines when you’d rather be playing a game on your phone, watching Paw Patrol yet again – this is a challenge for all parents, but the unique neurobiology of ADHD makes it especially difficult for parents with ADHD. Doing something boring is almost physically painful for us, and although kids are the best motivation to do so, it doesn’t make it easy. The ADHD brain is intrinsically motivated by interest and fun.
This is because ADHD is a condition characterized by low dopamine. Things that are fun and interesting help the ADHD brain get the dopamine it needs to kick into high gear and take action on things – whereas low-dopamine activities aren’t motivating to the sluggish ADHD frontal lobe.
The more that you as a parent can align the way you take care of your child with your own natural tendencies for fun and and interest, the more you can stay engaged with your child in a meaningful way. If you find it hard to focus on your child in the home because of the temptation to go on your phone or zone out in front of Netflix, try getting outside or even finding a room in the house without a TV. Your ADHD brain will naturally look for something to amuse itself with, and with fewer distractions this is more likely to be something you can engage your child in. You might try collecting things in the yard, riding bikes, finding a really cool bug to look at, cooking, hammering nails into a piece of wood, playful wrestling or even just making silly sounds together. Your capacity for fun is your strength – so use it!
Ultimately, high-stim things like the phone are probably going to win the competition against low-stim things like taking slow time with your child to have a tea party, so the more you can learn what kind of fun things you naturally like to do that you can engage your child in, the more you can spend quality time with your child. As you discover these things, write them down on a list (don’t count on yourself to remember them!) and keep the list somewhere you can always find it, like on the front of the fridge. You’ll feel great about yourself as a parent when you can connect organically with your child without having to feel stuck doing something super boring while your brain is screaming at you to check Twitter.
2. You Can Do This – And It’s Okay To Know When You Can’t
Sometimes difficulties that we’ve had with ADHD can undermine our confidence in our own capacity. You might even ask yourself if you are able to be a parent. It’s important to know that many people with ADHD parent children. The important thing is to recognize what areas of strengths you have, and where you struggle. Just because organization and consistency are challenging for you doesn’t mean that you are incapable – but it does mean that you should face these problem areas and get help and solutions. There are many wonderful resources out there for adults with ADHD and managing through executive dysfunction including:
Self-Help Resources: I recommend Nancy Ratey’s excellent self-coaching book, The Disorganized Mind: Taking Control of Your Time, Tasks & Talents
Facebook Groups for Adults with ADHD like this one
Once you have started taking steps to manage problem areas, recognize where you are doing well. It’s very hard for folks with ADHD to give themselves credit where credit is due, but you do have strengths! If you are good at cooking, or storytelling, or organizing your child’s toys or clothes, try to organize responsibilities in your household to let you play to your strengths.
Unfortunately, there are going to be areas where you just tend to struggle as a parent. People with ADHD are notorious for not asking for help and wanting to do everything ourselves – after a lifetime of shamefully hiding your mistakes, it makes sense, right? I often work with clients on increasing their capacity for vulnerability and finding the strength to delegate or ask for help. When it comes to the wellbeing of your child, there is no better reason to ask for help. Recognize that you do not need to be the perfect parent in every aspect of your child’s life! If you don’t love bedtime routines, doing the cooking/meal times, or being the one to sit and read to your child because it’s too hard or boring, get your family and support people involved. Sit down with your partner if you are a couple and negotiate who is going to do what. Get grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and older siblings involved as often as possible. Don’t feel embarrassed or ashamed to admit that there are aspects of parenting that you don’t love – because you love your child enough that you want to make sure they are getting that attention from someone who can provide it more naturally! It takes a village to raise a child, and it behooves a parent with ADHD to use the human resources around them as much as possible.
One caveat – if you have people in your life who belittle you, put you down, ridicule you for your struggles or undermine your authority as a parent, do not ask these people for help. Use good boundaries to protect your own self-esteem as a parent from the judgement of people who seek to make you feel small. If you struggle with boundaries, here’s a great resource to start to understand how to set and maintain them.
3. Doing Things Differently From Other Parents Is Okay – Do What Works For YOU!
Maybe your kid goes to bed at 11 pm and gets up at 9 am. Maybe you don’t eat at a table. Maybe your child is allowed to climb on the furniture and make a big mess, swear or scream in the house. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves as parents to provide structure and organization for our children, and while structure is important for kids, nobody ever said you have to follow the status quo.
There are many wonderful parenting resources available that provide different philosophies on how one should parent – I would encourage any parent with ADHD to peruse them in an ADHD-friendly manner (via audiobook, book review on YouTube, or reading with a friend for accountability) to get a sense of what will work best for you as a parent. Sit down at a time when your child is otherwise occupied or with another family member and write out what structures are most important to you. For me, it was making sure my child had a (fairly) consistent bedtime routine because she’s a night owl and I’m a morning person, so by the time she starts getting tired my executive functioning is at it’s lowest and it is very challenging for me to regulate myself to follow through all the steps of a proper bedtime routine, but if I don’t, I’m falling asleep and she’s still wide awake! Less important to me was the idea that she should only have a certain amount of screen time or that her day or meals should be overly structured in a certain way. Think about your needs and routines as a person with ADHD and what you’re going to be able to do and not do, and what your child’s natural proclivities are and try to find the middle ground.
Nobody can tell you the right way to parent your child, but a parent with ADHD may find themselves in a perpetual ‘reactive’ state and find that they are drifting far from the kind of parent they’d like to be. Set your parenting intention by writing them down and finding a way to remind yourself of them – a calendar reminder that pops up on your phone every 3 months, a buddy-system check in with another parent-friend about your parenting philosophy, a note on the fridge or in your planner, or asking your partner to gently remind you. Being intentional about what is important to you will also help protect you from the judgement of people in your life or other parents. When someone looks down their nose at you because your child is covered in oatmeal from head to toe, is bringing a bucket full of worms in the house or is allowed to be up at midnight, you can politely smile and say, “I know, we do this on purpose!”
4. Taking Care Of Yourself And Your Emotions Is Key To Being A Good Parent
One of the most underappreciated aspects of ADHD is the impact on our emotional regulation. While emotional dysregulation is not listed as a symptom of ADHD In the DSM, it is widely acknowledge to be one of the most devastatingly impactful parts of being an adult with ADHD. Emotional dysregulation is characterized by intense, rapidly-changing emotions that are hard for the person with ADHD to manage (or “regulate”). Many ADHDers feel “flooded” by emotions that come on quickly -anger, sadness, frustration or even joy. Part of the neurobiology of ADHD is a reduced capacity to manage and move through these emotions, so we sometimes find we get “stuck” in an emotion, which can lead to rumination, overthinking, obsessing or hyperfocusing on a feeling or situation that is upsetting. Some people with ADHD struggle with anger management or may find they have “meltdowns” almost like a child!
Emotional regulation is something that children learn. Small children cannot regulate their emotions as their brain has not developed physically enough. As they grow, they increase their capacity to modulate and regulate emotions, but the extent to which they do so also depends on how they see emotional regulation modelled around them. A child who grows up in a family that yells, screams, calls names, or models explosive anger is more likely to emulate these behaviours. Studies also show that ADHD is genetic, meaning that a parent with ADHD is more likely to have a child with ADHD, so modelling good emotional regulation takes on an extra layer of importance, because our ADHD children are already disadvantaged in this matter.
As a parent with ADHD, your emotional regulation is your responsibility. Parenting any child is not always easy, even if you are neurotypical. Parenting a child with ADHD is especially challenging. For this reason, I believe that parents with ADHD must take their emotional management seriously. If you have struggle with rapid anger or managing your emotions, now is the time to get help from a therapist, anger management support group or ADHD coach (or all three!). If you are unfamiliar with the idea of emotional regulation or how ADHD impacts emotion, now is the time to study and research it and to learn strategies to de-escalate yourself when you are feeling overwhelmed. There is no better reason to take charge of emotional management than to help your child have the best and healthiest future they can, and to make sure that you are fostering an environment of trust, love and support between you and your child. Now more than ever, we understand the neurobiological impacts of trauma, rejection, fear and abuse on the developing mind and it is imperative that as parents we do everything we can to help our children grow up healthy and safe.
Feeling judged or shamed by what I’ve said? Don’t. You are doing the best you can and it isn’t easy. Forgive yourself for any mistakes you’ve made or moments where you haven’t been the parent you wanted to be – shame, guilt and embarrassment are not going to help you become a more cool-headed parent; more likely they will cause you to avoid thinking about this. Your coach and therapist can help you hold compassionate space for yourself around this topic while gently pushing you to grow. I am not a child development specialist nor am I trained in mental health so I am not qualified to tell you what exactly you need to do to manage your emotions better, but one of the books I really enjoyed reading was “Positive Discipline For Preschoolers” by Jane Nelsen Ed.D ,Cheryl Erwin M.A, andRoslyn Ann Duffy. It puts forward the idea that you can take a “cool down” time out in order to model this important aspect on to your child, and that you can discipline your child without getting into power struggles with them, or shaming them. Another great resources for managing a child with ADHD is the Rolling With ADHD video series through Kelty Mental Health.
Part of taking care of your emotional wellbeing is taking good care of your physical body. Being underslept, not eating enough or eating nutritionally, and not having enough down time or time to have fun is going to have an impact on how intensely ADHD affects you. Depending on your situation as a parent, there may be limitations around how much good sleep you can get or how much time you can take for yourself, but if you find that you neglect your physical body, I encourage you to get creative about creating a system to track and make incremental improvements to problem areas. It might look like a daily habit chart on the fridge, asking a friend to check in with you and go for a walk around the park once or twice a week, downloading a free meditation app to do a once-daily 5 minute meditation, or giving yourself permission to have a night out with your friends once a week while your partner takes the kids.
Remember that the ADHD brain is chronically seeking dopamine, the neurotransmitter that is produced from fun and pleasurable things. If even taking better care of yourself seems too challenging or you are feeling unmotivated, start by giving yourself permission to have a little fun – not an easy thing to do when we feel like we are behind, failing or not doing well. Play some video games, make a small/reasonable purchase, have some intimate time with your partner, or best of all – exercise. Exercise is a powerful way to produce dopamine in your brain and studies have shown that vigorous cardiovascular exercise can produce more focus in people with ADHD in the 60 to 90 minutes afterward. Better self-care is challenging for all parents, but for an ADHD parent it is the medicine that allows us to be our best selves for our children.
5. You Have Unique Gifts To Bring To The Table As A Parent
If you’re like me, you’ve probably seen a lot of stuff out there on the internet about what ADHD brains are ‘good at’ and not good at, in terms of career. We are quick-thinking, great in a crisis, good at creative, outside-the-box or big-picture thinking, but not great with routines, consistency, detail work or finishing things. For the ADHD parent, this means that we bring our own unique skills and strengths to the table. Most people with ADHD are naturally curious, and if you get your child involved in the things you’re curious about you can create wonderful learning opportunities. You may be the best person to take charge when your partner is in crisis or someone in your family is hurt or sick. If you tend to hyperfocus on work you might be a good provider for your family. You may use your natural inclination to have fun to be the fun parent that keeps your child entertained.
No matter what areas you thrive in, make sure to take a strengths-based approach to parenting. Parents with ADHD are vibrant, vivacious, curious and loving people. When we work with our brains, we can excel as parents and feel great about ourselves!