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Embracing the Unexpected Parenting Journey with an ADHD Child

24/11/2021
Shelly-Ann McMorris

Alison Brazier, PhD

Alison Brazier is a mother, health scientist, and parent and family ADHD coach supporting families with neurodiversity.  She is the founder of Brilliant Not Broken Coaching and Consulting.

I still clearly remember the heartache I felt when my six-year-old son told me he felt like his life was breaking apart because his dad and I were constantly mad at him.  At the time, we had no idea he had ADHD, and it was several more years before he was diagnosed. 

Though we were just in the early days of our journey, we realized that day-to-day life with an ADHD child can present huge challenges for parents.  Mostly, this is due to a lack of understanding of how the ADHD brain works, and what kinds of supports a child needs to be successful.  In my parent and family coaching practice, I listen to parents describe households in crisis due to conflict and difficult behavior, lack of parenting agreement between spouses, and severely strained relationships between parent and child.  Parents are left wondering, “What is wrong with my child?  Why am I failing as a parent?”  In the most extreme circumstances, parents have even expressed the desire to give up on their children.  They feel that broken. 

Research has documented that parents of ADHD kids do experience more parenting stress than parents of children without a diagnosis (Theule et al., 2010).  In addition, there is evidence of increased marital conflict and increased rates of divorce. (Wymbs et al., 2008).  Parents of ADHD children were shown to be two times more likely to divorce before the child turns eight years old.

As I have learned through my work with clients, my son was not unusual; children and teens living with ADHD often feel misunderstood, ashamed, and have low self-esteem due to constant negative feedback and the feeling they can’t meet the expectations of parents and teachers.  These kids express considerable emotional concerns such as questioning whether their parents truly love them as much as non-ADHD siblings, whether they will have any future success due to their perceived lack of potential, and some even have moments of wondering if their life is worth living in the most severe cases.  The ADHD child can clearly feel broken too.

Research also bears this out.  For example, a UK study (2016) looked at the impact of ADHD on the health and well-being of ADHD children and their siblings.  Findings demonstrated ADHD was associated with a substantial reduction in quality of life, even in those being treated for their condition.  ADHD study participants showed reduced health, lower subjective well-being, less sleep, and an increase in bullying compared to non-ADHD peers.  Both ADHD participants and their siblings indicated they were significantly less happy with their family and with life overall.  These findings are consistent with previous research.

How do we change this troubling situation? 

I believe a key factor in helping parents and children to feel less distraught is the willingness of the parent to dive into a process of personal growth to arrive at full acceptance of the diagnosis and the child. As Jeff Foster says in his book Deep Acceptance (2012), “Suffering is always, always the invitation to deep acceptance.”

Pediatric neuropsychologist, Dr. Rita Eichenstein, believes acceptance is the fifth stage of a grieving process for parents who receive a diagnosis for an atypical child.  Dr. Eichenstein’s book, “Not What I Expected: Help and Hope for Parents of Atypical Children”, is aimed at helping parents of children diagnosed with ADHD, autism, learning disabilities, and other developmental differences to better understand and navigate their emotional challenges.  She believes parents go through a process of grief over the loss of their ideal child – the one they expected to have, without the diagnosis.  She models her explanation of five stages of grief developed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross after the loss of a loved one:  These 5 stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance, with each stage involving different reactions to the diagnosis.

Not all parents go through all five stages, some go back and forth through the stages many times, and some get stuck in one stage and can’t move on.  For example, a parent can get stuck in denial and not be able to move past this.  According to Dr. Eichenstein, if there is a problem with parents “getting on the same page” it is most likely one parent stuck in denial. She says this is extremely common, and usually, the one in denial has less education about the diagnosis.

Why is acceptance so important? 

In the state of acceptance parents have truly embraced the child they have, and they have made peace with the life they now are living.  This doesn’t mean that life is not exhausting or that it is easy.  But acceptance moves the parent (and potentially the whole family) from a place of resisting what is and being able to envision a bright future even with this unexpected diagnosis.  As Dr. Eichenstein explains, “It means that suffering and joy can co-exist”.  For some parents, they can even see the gifts that the unexpected journey has brought for them or their family.  For me, it was the opportunity to become a parent and family ADHD coach, and work towards supporting neurodiverse families.

Acceptance is a process that develops over time.  It requires a commitment on the parent’s part to grow and learn, and to maintain an awareness and acknowledgment of their own feelings.  A parent’s willingness to gain sufficient knowledge and understanding about ADHD, and a desire to move out of survival mode and find a better way of living are also key factors.  Separating out the difference between what their ADHD child “can’t do”, for example, due to lagging skills or brain function, versus what they “won’t do”, more intentional behaviour they have control over, is a critical turning point. 

This distinction can open the door for compassion for the child as well as the parent.  If it is discovered the child is not willfully refusing to behave in certain ways, but instead, does not have the ability to meet a parent’s expectations, the household energy changes dramatically.  The focus then shifts from implementing consequences to supporting a child to develop the necessary skills.  As psychologist, Dr. Ross Greene, is well known for stating, “Kids do well if they can”.  

Our children are deeply influenced by our response to their neurodiversity.  If we deny, ignore, or can’t move out of our anger or depression about this unexpected parenting experience, we are demonstrating to our kids (consciously or unconsciously) that they are not ok, and having ADHD is a disability without hope.  In reality, ADHD is considered one of the most treatable psychiatric conditions.  We also know that those with ADHD not only have challenges, but their ADHD wiring can actually give them great strengths as well.  The task is to uncover them.

The other day I reminded my teenage son that he had forgotten to bring in the garbage cans from the street.  He responded with loud exasperation, “I just can’t do anything right!!”  I felt stress rising inside me in anticipation of an uncomfortable interaction.  But when I turned to look at him, he had a huge grin on his face, “I am totally kidding, Mom!”

He has now actually developed a sense of humour around those earlier, tougher times.  It made me think about how far we have come together from those days when he was young and feeling like his world was crumbling, and I felt like mine was too.  It was hard to imagine things getting better, but they have – immeasurably.  Deeply accepting my son’s ADHD, and his other neurodifferences has given me the freedom and ability to become the parent I want to be.  As a family, we have learned that having differences does not have to mean feeling broken.  It can be bumpy, but if we are willing to learn and grow, it can be brilliant. 

References:

Eichenstein, R. Not What I Expected: Help and Hope for Parents of Atypical Children. Penguin

Group, New York: 2015.

Foster, J.  Deepest Acceptance: Radical Awakening in Ordinary Life. Sounds True, Boulder, Colorado: 2012.

Peasgood T, Bhardwaj A, Biggs K, et al. The impact of ADHD on the health and well-being of ADHD children and their siblings. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. 2016; 25:1217:1231.

Theule, J, Wiener J, Tannock R, Jenkins, JM. Parenting stress in families of children with ADHD: a meta-analysis. Journal of Emotional and Behavioral Disorders. Published online 18 Nov 2010.

Wymbs BT, Pelham Jr. WE, Molina BSG, Gnagy EM, Wilson TK, Greenhouse JB. Rate and

predictors of divorce among parents of youth with ADHD. Journal of Consulting and Clinical

Psychology. 2008 October; 76(5): 735-744.

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