Parenting a child who has ADHD comes with additional challenges on top of the usual trials and tribulations of child rearing. Parenting when you yourself have ADHD entails a whole other dimension of difficulty.
“ADHD in adulthood can be quite impairing as it affects self-management as well as fulfilling multiple adult roles, including those that affect others, such as parenting, being a partner in a relationship, and managing work and academic roles, not to mention self-care and other endeavors from which we derive our sense of self,” J. Russell Ramsay, co-founder and co-director of the University of Pennsylvania’s adult ADHD treatment and research program, told HuffPost.
Parents who have ADHD often go years without a diagnosis. They may feel like they have to work harder to hold it all together as they care for their children and keep their homes and lives in order. Challenges involving emotional regulation, sensory overload, sleep struggles, relationship conflicts and feelings of guilt and shame are common.
There are no simple solutions when it comes to living with a complex neurological disorder. But there are ways to ease the difficulty. Below, experts share their advice for how to manage parenting when you have ADHD.
“It’s important to stop judging yourself,” said Michigan-based psychotherapist and ADHD coach Terry Matlen, who is herself a parent with the disorder. “You’re doing the best you can, and it’s OK if it’s not like how you were raised or how your sister or neighbor runs their households. The rules have to change and you’ll need to learn to be OK with that, including having a home that might not be as tidy as others’.”
Practice self-compassion and self-acceptance, especially when you feel like you’re falling short of expectations for what makes a good parent.
“Remind yourself that you are doing your best, and allow your household to have its own ways to do things ― maybe allow one night to be ‘eggs or cereal for dinner’ night,” said Dr. Lidia Zylowska, a psychiatrist with the University of Minnesota Medical School and author of “The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD.” “Having humor about the ADHD pitfalls can also be helpful.”
If this kind of validation feels unnatural, you may find help reaching a state of radical self-acceptance and self-compassion with a neurodiversity-affirming therapist.
“One of my favorite things to tell my client is that nobody is good at all of the things, and it’s OK to have things you’re not great at,” said Los Angeles-based therapist Rachael Bloom.
Understand your strengths
“Parents with ADHD should acknowledge their strengths,” said Billy Roberts, a therapist at Focused Mind ADHD Counseling in Columbus, Ohio. “ADHD can indeed be a superpower. ADHD adults can be highly empathic, intuitive, creative, and amazing in a crisis. These skills are just as valuable as any other parenting skill.”
You can hype yourself up by thinking through these strengths in times of self-doubt. And you’ll be better equipped to manage ADHD as a parent if you understand where you shine and which areas are more challenging for you.
“ADHD education of how ADHD shows up for everyone in the family is really important,” Zylowska said. “Since ADHD runs in families, the children and one (or both) parents can have the condition. Knowing everyone’s strengths, challenges and needs can help the whole family deal with ADHD behaviors as a team.”
Ask for help
“Don’t suffer alone!” Matlen urged. “Find other families who share this challenge so you don’t feel so alone.”
There are a number of ADHD communities, like Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) and the Attention Deficit Disorder Association (ADDA), that provide various forms of support, validation and advocacy for families. Connect with people in your area and find assistance online.
“For example, since meal planning is often hard when you have ADHD, look to resources like ‘Cookbook for Busy Minds’ on the CHADD website,” Zylowska suggested.
“Asking for help, or delegating particularly difficult tasks to others, is often needed ― e.g. asking [a] non-ADHD parent to do the school drop-offs in exchange for taking care of another task,” she added.
Outsource to professionals when possible
In addition to asking your partner, family or friends for help, you might also consider bringing in professionals to help manage your household.
“If it’s within your budget, hire a cleaning person to come in every two weeks or whatever you can afford,” Matlen said. “This will bring down the stress and tension of dealing with the clutter and mess.”
She recommended hiring a professional organizer to help you with problem areas, work with you to develop systems and otherwise make your home more ADHD-friendly.
“If money is an issue, barter your talents with someone else’s,” Matlen said. “Offer to babysit in exchange for them to help you manage clutter, laundry, etc.”
The same can go for tasks like helping with schoolwork. Parents with ADHD may find it particularly difficult to sit down and spend long stretches of time focusing on homework assignments with their children.
“The most important thing for you as a parent is to maintain a good relationship with your child,” Matlen advised. “Hire a high school or college student to come in and work with your child on homework.”
Develop steady routines and systems
“To manage the frustrating parts of ADHD, it’s good to have many routines and systems that reduce the guesswork of life,” Roberts said. “This might mean getting dialed into habits that support memory and organization.”
“For example, getting in the routine of making lunches and packing up the car the night before,” he went on. “What is also helpful is having time to review systems, perhaps a family meeting once a week with a spouse to be more aware of what is working and what is not.”
Be creative, and as always, think about what is best for your family, not what other people are doing.
“Find systems that work for you, rather than trying to force yourself to conform to something just because everyone else says it’s the right way to do it,” Bloom emphasized.
The key is to adjust your expectations and tune out the external noise telling you what “good parents” do.
“Your family is different,” Matlen said. “That’s not a bad thing unless you decide it is a bad thing. But it does mean that you will have to do things differently.”
“My daughter was unable to sit at the dinner table,” she said, by way of example. “She’d either fall off her chair due to her severe hyperactivity, or she’d be leaving her chair constantly, making everyone miserable with the commotion. I let her eat her dinner in a different room in front of the TV. Everyone was happy.”
“Be aware of your emotions,” suggested Cristina Louk, a clinical psychologist in Washington state who also has ADHD. “If your emotions are rising, find activities that can help distract or soothe you.”
Practice mindfulness so you can identify when stress and intense emotions are starting to bubble up.
“This gives you an opportunity to do something to notch it down via taking a deep breath, taking a break or self-coaching through it ― ‘Remember your child is not difficult on purpose, they are forgetting things because of ADHD,’” Zylowska said.
Your approach to mindfulness and coping mechanisms will inevitably shift as you become a parent and your children grow up, but it’s still important to prioritize self-care.
“For many new parents with ADHD, there is an adjustment, realizing that whatever strategies you had as a single person to manage your ADHD ― such as exercising regularly, or taking breaks in nature to ‘reboot’ ― may not be as easy to do when you are a parent,” Zylowska said.
“Noticing when you are depleted and taking some time to replenish can restore parents’ ability to problem-solve tasks and manage [the] stress of parenting,” she went on. “The self-care strategies may have to be reinvented and coordinated with your partner, but making it a priority is a key. ”
Fine-tune your treatment plan
Medical and psychological professionals can not only diagnose your ADHD, they can help you develop the right treatment plan for your situation.
“Medications approved for ADHD can be helpful with symptom management for children, teens, and adults with ADHD,” Ramsay said. “There are non-medical, psychosocial treatments designed for adults with ADHD, such as cognitive behavior therapy for adult ADHD and adult ADHD coaching, that focus on the implementation of effective coping strategies to better manage adult roles, as well as focusing on negative thought patterns, emotional management, and setting up good habits and routines to support overall better functioning and well-being.”
As with your approach to parenting overall, your ADHD treatment should be about what works best for you, not what others do. Don’t forget to adjust and fine-tune as needed.
“Get to know your own ADHD ― your strengths and weaknesses ― and prioritize your own support to be able to care for others,” Zylowska said. “The support may mean medication, therapy, mindfulness or lifestyle strategies like adequate sleep, good nutrition and self-care.”