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When Both a Child and Partner Have ADHD but You Don't

What to do when the needs of your family members are so varied.

A concerned mom from a family with two ADHD and two non-ADHD family members recently wrote to me about how confusing it is for her to support wildly different needs to keep her family happy and healthy.

“I don’t have ADHD, but I have one child who does, one who doesn’t, and a partner who does. I am struggling to figure out how to manage my three very different roles with each of them, while also trying to ensure everyone is getting the individual support and help they need…. It’s taking a toll on each of us in four very different ways.”

It can be daunting to have such divergent styles in a family, and yet it also provides an opportunity for all to learn about empathy and loving people who are very different from yourself. And, while you all have neurological differences, your basic needs—to feel loved and connected, gain confidence through successes, and find joy and security in life—are all the same.

My own family has a similar construct. I don't have ADHD. My husband does. My eldest child does. My younger child does not. Here is what I found helped:

Have open conversations about neurological differences. ADHD is physiological—in most instances, you inherit it, just as you might inherit poor eyesight. Your different styles are genetic "luck of the draw," not failings. We all have strengths and weaknesses—people with ADHD simply have a different set of strengths and weaknesses. It's important to respect our differences.

Get well educated. Three great books can help parents navigate raising kids with and without ADHD. Parenting ADHD Now! and What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew cover how to parent kids with ADHD and what issues your ADHD-impacted child may face. In addition, Ned Hallowell’s Childhood Roots of Adult Happiness provides very sage parenting advice for helping both ADHD and other children to grow into healthy, well-balanced, and successful adults.

Focus on everyone's strengths. Your child and husband with ADHD will struggle with staying focused, organized, and on top of things. While that’s hard for everyone, it’s part of ADHD. What makes them special are their areas of strength and, like anyone, they need ways to shine. Each person in the family should work to mitigate their own weak areas and grow their skills so they can do "well enough" to get through school or work without focusing on being perfect. Instead, spend as much energy as you can on developing each person's best assets. Create a family life where everyone celebrates everyone else’s strengths, no matter what those strengths are.

Listen well. You won’t always understand where your ADHD family members are coming from—their minds process information quite differently, and so their logic may confound you. That’s okay. Give the gift of listening and respecting…plus being a good listener is a great thing to model for both of your kids.

Be a safe zone. That means you’ll need to be compassionate. It’s really, really hard to have ADHD. A person with ADHD often feels as if they are letting themself and others down. People try to make them into a non-ADHD person, rather than seeing them for who they are. They probably feel that they often don’t fit in. It takes patience and effort to be that safe zone when you feel frustrated that an ADHD partner or child isn’t doing what they said they were going to do. But that’s part of ADHD…and they may be as frustrated as you, even if they don’t say that. (See another one of my blog posts here, What It’s Like to Have ADHD for more on how different you are.) While I'm speaking about compassion...don't forget to be compassionate towards yourself. It's hard to live with people who have ADHD, too.

Get support if you need it. Great resources are available in many schools and with family counselors, for couples seeking to improve their connection and to treat ADHD. You don’t need to traverse this ground alone.

Know where your boundaries are. As the non-ADHD adult, you will be tempted to over-function—taking on too many of your partner’s responsibilities and creating a strong support structure for your ADHD child. The former leads to resentment and relationship breakdowns. The latter can help your ADHD child succeed…until he or she leaves home and can’t function without your structure. Be a backstop and search for resources to share, but give enough space so that all members of your family—even those who struggle—can find their particular ways of successfully navigating the world around them.

Take time for yourself. You need to have strength and stamina for dealing with your family life. Consider creating a "retreat room," exercising, yoga, or meditation. Find something that gives you energy and space so that you can remain upbeat, flexible and happy. All of these qualities are greatly needed when you have ADHD in the family.

Remember, it's not all about ADHD! Seek ways to enjoy your family life, connect, and have fun! One of the saddest results of having family members with ADHD can be that you get so focused on making things better that you forget to enjoy today. Live life and enjoy yourselves now!