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ADHD: Living with It, and Parenting It Better

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Social media is the land of unsolicited advice. Post about your new dog and you’ll have three friends provide three brands of dog food that are each supposed to be the best. Share news about your search for a vehicle and everyone has an opinion about which model is for you. Post photos of your beach vacation and you’ll get dieting tips… which probably weren’t supposed to be as insulting as they felt.

And if you happen to share about struggles with staying organized, with being chronically late, or with being forgetful—well, then everyone has a suggestion. Get a day planner. Make a to-do list. Get disciplined.

For some people, those tips will do the trick. Adding a day planner or a to-do list, and seeking to become more disciplined, are good suggestions.

But for individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), no amount of planning will fix the problem, because the problem exists with the structures in the brain that control our executive functions, not with our discipline.

As an adult with ADHD, as someone with years of education in child and adolescent development, and as someone who spent more than 15 years working with adolescents (many of whom had diagnoses of ADHD or other neurodevelopmental disorders), I hope to be able to shed some light on this condition for individuals who live with it, and for those who love them.

ADHD is what is known as a neurodevelopmental disorder, a group of disorders that affect the development of the brain, causing issues with thinking and behaviour. Other neurodevelopmental disorders include neurogenic disorders such as dyslexia, many speech disorders, and the autism spectrum.

Because it impacts how our brains develop, ADHD is typically diagnosed in childhood. Estimates indicate that approximately nine percent of children and four percent of adults may qualify.

ADHD also comes in different subtypes, and these are generally diagnosed based on the predominant observable symptoms.

First, there’s the primarily hyperactive-impulsive presentation: individuals who present mainly with symptoms such as always rushing, excessive talking, difficulty sitting still, or interrupting others. This is the most commonly recognized cluster of symptoms and the ones typically associated with ADHD in popular culture.

Second, the primarily inattentive presentation: individuals who present more frequently with symptoms like staying focused, remembering names or recently learned information, becoming easily bored, having trouble paying attention, getting easily distracted, and having difficulty staying organized. Primarily inattentive cases can often fly under the radar and only be diagnosed later in adulthood.

Third, a combined presentation: for some, enough symptoms exist in both categories to gain a combined diagnosis.

Interestingly, the majority of symptoms needed to secure a diagnosis are symptoms that impact the people around the individual with ADHD.

More recent research, though, points to the existence of other symptoms that may not be as easily visible from the outside—but may be even more distressing for the individual themselves. Some of these symptoms include the following.

1. Hyperfixation. This is the sudden and seemingly inexplicable ability to not only focus, but to focus on something to the exclusion of everything else. People with ADHD who get stuck in hyperfixation may focus on a new hobby, task, or personal interest even when doing so impacts their ability to take care of their other priorities. This occurs because a brain with ADHD has an impaired ability to regulate dopamine, one of our reward chemicals, and so inappropriately directs one’s attention to what it perceives as the best source of dopamine.

2. Rumination. Individuals with ADHD are more susceptible to intrusive thoughts and to thoughts that seem to go in circles. They have a tendency to focus on past mistakes, future dangers, and other negative thoughts. This means they can easily become stuck in feelings of grief, anger, or fear.

3. Rejection sensitivity dysphoria. Several studies have shown that individuals with ADHD experience much stronger than normal emotional reactions to perceived rejection, criticism, or personal failure. These feelings can create debilitating anxiety, depression, and relationship issues. Nearly a third of individuals with ADHD identify this symptom as the most difficult part of living with their condition.

The precise causes of ADHD are not fully known, though there are many contributing factors. Brain injury, specifically being born oxygen-deprived, is one suspected cause, as is premature delivery.

Genetics are known to play a role, though exactly which genes are associated with its transmission are still being explored.

What is known is that the parts of our brains that deal with executive function (attention, perception, focus, and problem solving) as well as our reward pathways are impaired by the condition.

Unfortunately, despite its neurological origins, many people with ADHD are written off as rude, awkward, or lazy, which only adds stigma and shame to the list of burdens they carry.

And for parents of children with ADHD who may be struggling with how to support their child, they may experience judgment from other parents and society at large.

Parenting a child with ADHD can be challenging, to say the least. While most of the literature and research has focused on proper parenting strategies, education strategies, and counselling/medication techniques, relatively little focus has been given to how parents of children with ADHD are affected.

A recent psychological study in Australia found that parents of children with ADHD experience significantly higher levels of stress than other parents and significantly lower levels of perceived support from others. They also tend to experience more frustration and mental fatigue as they act as their child’s “external brain,” sometimes causing them to inappropriately target their child with frustration and anger.

Despite the challenges you may be experiencing, there are many others who have gone before and given us good information about the road ahead. Here are some tips for navigating this issue in as healthy a way as possible.

Number one, remember that ADHD is a problem of the brain. It is a neurodevelopmental disorder. It is not a personal failing, weakness of character, or chronic poor decision-making.

Next, if you have suspicions that you or someone in your care may have ADHD, seek an assessment. Your family doctor can be the first point of contact for this process. Online or internet-based self-assessments are generally not advised unless they are sent to you via a health information system by a qualified medical professional.

If you are diagnosed, seek treatment. The condition of ADHD is not the individual’s fault, but if they do nothing to mitigate its symptoms—either through medication, therapy, or a combination of supports—then they place the burden on everyone around them. For family members, consider learning about mindfulness meditation techniques, which are proven to reduce our reactivity to challenging situations and relationships.

Look for ways to educate yourself. Many evidence-based resources are available for individuals with ADHD, for parents, and for family members. Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) is just one of many available websites that have a wealth of resources, and they can point you in the direction of better practices for you and your family.

Finally, seek community with people who have the same experiences. The research clearly shows that isolation only makes parents of children with ADHD feel more stressed and puts more strain on the relationship. Surrounding yourself with people who know what you and your family are going through can be a powerful source of support.

Remember, no one chooses to have ADHD. But we can choose better ways to manage our symptoms, and we can choose better ways to support our loved ones—and that is something worth paying attention to.

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