The Hidden Challenges of Parenting a Child with ADHD

5 min read

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By Suzanne Allen, Psy.D.

In 2016, the National Household Education Survey collected by the U.S. Census Bureau captured information regarding educational involvement from parents of children with ADHD compared to parents without a child with ADHD. Results from this study found that parents with a child diagnosed with ADHD were three times more likely to receive phone calls from school about their child, twice as likely to receive notes about their child from school, and three times more likely to meet with a guidance counselor. It is safe to say that many of these calls, notes, and meetings were being used to address emotional, behavioral, or academic concerns within the classroom and are negative and stressful for parents.

Despite these stressful interactions, parents of children with ADHD were 77 percent more likely to attend parent-teacher conferences, displaying a high level of engagement with their child’s education.

In contrast to all of those stressful school interactions, the study found that parents of children with ADHD (compared to parents of neurotypical children), were 29 percent less likely to attend a school or class event, i.e. “the fun stuff.” This data indicates that parents of children with ADHD are, on average, having more negative interactions with their child’s school and fewer opportunities to enjoy or have fun with their child, their child’s peers, and other parents.

In my clinical work, I see many parents who feel anxious prior to family gatherings, birthday parties, class field trips, or a simple trip to the playground. These situations can create anxiety for a parent who may anticipate a potential meltdown or conflict with peers and subsequent judgments from other parents or adults. Often this anticipatory anxiety or previous negative experiences can ultimately create avoidance. Similar to the school statistic, it may be that parents of children with ADHD have less opportunity to have fun, socialize, and receive support than other parents.

But this goes well beyond concerns that parenting a child or teen with ADHD is more difficult or even less enjoyable; it actually carries a risk for greater mental health concerns. Research from the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology identified that parents of children with ADHD experience higher stress levels, less satisfaction as a parent, and higher rates of depression than parents of other children.

When a child or family feels included, supported, and understood, they fare better and we fare better as a community. A broader and more accurate understanding of ADHD as a deficit in regulation (attention, emotions, energy, other executive functions, etc.) vs. only a deficit in attention will help build more accurate interpretations of children’s behavior, more targeted and specific supports, and greater empathy for the challenges that people with ADHD face each day.

Tips for Teachers and School Professionals

  • Educate yourself and your colleagues about ADHD. Neuropsychologist and ADHD expert Russell Barkley, for example, offers free and easily accessible videos and online resources with up-to-date research.
  • Be mindful of your communication with a parent of a child or teen with ADHD. Separate positive observations from less pleasant ones, and make sure to share good moments and progress with a family in addition to areas for growth or intervention.
  • Invite parents of a child with ADHD to attend fun class functions as well as the more academic-focused events. With the help of a counselor or other support person, brainstorm in advance how this event could be more successful for a child and their parent. Set reasonable goals for participation.

Tips for Other Parents or Family Members

  • Get educated about ADHD. Greater understanding leads to greater empathy.
  • Be inclusive. If you are comfortable, ask the parent how you can help the family outing be more successful or how you should respond if things go wrong.
  • Give a genuine compliment to the child or the parent. They could really benefit from hearing something positive about their child and knowing that you see all facets of their child.

Tips for Parents of Children with ADHD

  • Keep educating yourself on ADHD. It can be easy to get stuck in the muck of day-to-day parenting, and little reminders from books, social media, or podcasts can help remind you of the challenges that ADHD can present and can keep you in a more effective mindset.
  • Give yourself a pat on the back and a lot of validation. This is hard and you are doing the best that you can.
  • Take a break from people and situations when needed, but also remind yourself that you and your child have a right to the fun things in life too.
  • Consider being vulnerable and share with someone that you worry about you or your child being judged. Sometimes when we create the narrative or call out the elephant in the room, we can elicit more help and support from others.

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