ADHD AND THE FAMILY

Living in families and raising children can be difficult under the best of circumstances. Many of us had a hard time living in the families that we grew up in. It may be difficult today, living together in the families that we have created. We may feel guilty for not giving our children or partner what we feel they deserve. We may feel painfully aware of how we are not taking care of our own needs. This is especially true if a member or several members of our family have Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

As our knowledge of Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder grows, we are learning that ADHD is not simply a disorder of childhood. ADHD is a lifelong condition. Children with ADHD grow up to be adults with ADHD. People with ADHD do not live and grow in a vacuum. They have relationships, children, and create families with people who may or may not have ADHD. Therefore, it is essential to treat not only the person directly affected by ADHD, but the entire family. Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, similar to addictions, affects every member in the family. Families do not cause ADHD, and yet families need help to live and thrive in spite of the impact of ADHD.

We know that ADHD runs in families.  There is no one specific gene that causes ADHD. More likely it is a combination of genes (polygenics) which are influenced by environmental factors that contribute to the propensity of ADHD in families. Numerous studies of twins with ADHD present high rates of heritability.

One study, for example, found that 79 percent of identical twins both have ADHD, while only 32 percent of fraternal twins share the same disorder. They go on to state, “In general, first degree relatives (parents, siblings, and children) are five to six times more likely to have the disorder than people in the general public” (Meyers).

Environmental contributors include poor nutrition, perinatal exposure to alcohol, drugs, nicotine and other toxins. Head injuries also contribute to ADHD symptoms. As we learn more about the effects of childhood trauma, which is high in families with ADHD, we see how trauma influences symptoms of the disorder as well.

I frequently work with families where one or both parents have ADHD, and one or more of their children also have the condition. Living in a family with ADHD can be like living in a five-ring circus. There is always someone or something that demands attention.

As parents we want the best for our children, and are often willing to sacrifice our needs for theirs. If you think you might have ADHD, you deserve an evaluation and treatment also.

Too many times, I hear caring parents say, “Please help my son or daughter. I’ve dealt with my ADHD symptoms all of my life, and can continue to live this way.” The problem with this is that it can be incredibly difficult to provide consistent parenting for any child, let alone a child with ADHD, if you as the parent have untreated ADHD. There is a reason why the airlines request that adults put their oxygen mask on first, so that they are then able to help the children.

Families with ADHD have higher incidents of physical and verbal abuse. Substances such as alcohol, food, drugs, and behaviors such as compulsive screen time are often used to self-medicate the pain and frustration of family ADHD. Some parents of children with ADHD suffer from Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). PTSD is a condition that occurs when people are subjected to extreme, ongoing stress that is beyond the realm of normal experience. PTSD symptoms include depression, anxiety,  sleep disturbances, hypervigilance, and re-experiencing of the trauma.

For the aforementioned reasons, it is imperative that ADHD is viewed in the context of the family, or the person’s environment. Relationship therapy that is specific to addressing the impact of ADHD is essential. Family therapy which includes parents and siblings with and without ADHD is critical. So often the non-ADHD siblings are left out, or feel that they have to somehow make up for the difficulties that their ADHD sibling(s) are causing. Educating and treating all members of the family system promotes family wellness.

We have learned from the evolution of the addiction field over the past five decades that treating alcoholics and addicts outside of the context of their relationships is less than helpful. We have also learned that family members of the addict also need treatment, so that they too can recover from trauma of their relationship with the addict. The same is true with Attention-deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Let us continue to be quick learners as our knowledge of ADHD expands. Poor parenting and family dysfunction does not cause ADHD, and yet the entire family deserves treatment. No one in the family is immune from the impact of Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

References

Meyers, Karen, Robert N. Golden, and Fred L. Peterson. The truth about AD/HD and other neurobiological disorders, page 135. New York: Facts On File, 2010. Print.

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