One of the hardest things about being a parent is watching your child struggle in school, at home or with personal relationships. Now, imagine being a parent who realizes, for the first time, that the issues your child is facing are the exact ones that have plagued you for most of your own life. For many parents, this is the moment of awareness when they suspect, while trying to help a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), that they, too, struggle with it.
According to the Attention Deficit Disorder Association, ADHD is a relatively common, often unrecognized condition in adults. About 4 percent of, or 8 million, U.S. adults have been diagnosed with the disorder, and the association estimates that many more adults with ADHD live with the symptoms and suffer the often devastating effects without identifying the source of their struggles.
In adults, ADHD symptoms often include an inability to focus, forgetfulness, disorganization, difficulty completing tasks, a tendency to get bored easily and struggles with relationships. These symptoms often start in early childhood and continue into adulthood, and can be mistaken for emotional, disciplinary and academic problems early on, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
After seeing the signs of ADHD in their children, some parents realize they had been dealing with similar struggles.
“Most have had lifelong difficulties, but hit the wall in their 30s and up, when life becomes more stressful with more responsibilities,” says Terry Matlen, a nationally recognized expert on ADHD in women and the author of two books about the subject, including The Queen of Distraction.
As the pressures increase and the coping strategies that worked for so many years start losing their effectiveness, adults with ADHD might begin to feel as though things are unraveling, especially if they are also dealing with their child’s challenges. As a result, relationships, work performance and parenting abilities might suffer. This downward spiral of feeling out of control is what often leads adults to finally seek help.
That’s exactly what happened to Stephanie*, a Bremerton mother who decided to seek help after experiencing a series of surgeries, a second divorce and menopause all within a short period of time. These major life changes pushed her symptoms over the edge and made her realize that she couldn’t continue to manage everything. It wasn’t until her diagnosis that she realized the struggles with ADHD had been apparent most of her life.
“I always wondered what was wrong with me and why everything felt off. It wasn’t until my ob-gyn began looking at my hormone levels and other health-related issues that the possibility of ADHD came up,” says Stephanie, who has one son. “She encouraged me to seek more information, and when I was diagnosed, it felt like all of the dots finally connected. For the first time in my life, I had a strategy and road map to help me manage all of my symptoms.”
Often, attention deficit problems are a family affair, and the symptoms affect the entire household. “The biggest challenge parents often face is consistency. Usually many of these parents [if untreated] struggle just getting through their day and cannot pay attention to details. We have treated parents and grandparents when their children and grandchildren get diagnosed, and it is definitely a lightbulb moment for many,” says Dr. Niran Al-Agba, a pediatrician at Silverdale Pediatrics.
Diagnosing ADHD can be a complex process; symptoms can change over the course of a person’s life, and ADHD can also mimic other conditions that are similar in nature, so a physician or mental health specialist must analyze various data points before making a diagnosis.
ADHD, which an adult might have been dealing with over an extended period. “Therapy can be a huge help in sorting things out and working on a lifetime of struggles adults often have from undiagnosed, untreated ADHD,” Matlen says. Some patients, with the guidance of their doctor, might opt for stimulant medication.
After her diagnosis, stimulants “helped tremendously, and I got in fewer situations at work,” says Stephanie. “They basically help me from blurting out and give me an extra check.”
Stephanie found that all parts of her life changed dramatically after her diagnosis, treatment and medication management. “I discovered that having ADHD is like being in perpetual kid mode, but rather than let it frustrate or prevent me from being successful in life, I have found ways to manage the symptoms and even use it to help me better understand my son,” she says.
Strategies for support
Once a diagnosis has been made, and in addition to possible medication, lifestyle changes can help keep families functioning smoothly.
“Parents and children need consistency and a home routine,” says Al-Agba. She recommends that families dealing with ADHD try to make their lives as simple as possible.
Ideas for creating structure, consistency and routine include the following:
Work together as a team. Let family, friends and coworkers whom you interact with frequently and trust know what’s going on. The non-ADHD partner needs to understand the diagnosis and hopefully support changes at home to simplify routines and encourage consistency. The non-ADHD partner also needs to be careful not to take over too many responsibilities.
Use visual cues for parents and children. White boards are an excellent way to list all family members’ schedules. Use a different color for each person and hang it in an area that everyone sees as they enter and exit the house. There are also organizational apps available that work extremely well for children and adults with ADHD.
Enlist the kids to help. Teach children responsibility for their own belongings, and have chore lists or charts, and a personal list for mom or dad, for the week’s tasks. This supports the idea of working as a team.
Consider hiring a life coach or organizational specialist to help come up with a system or structure to work with. Sometimes, having an outsider help with the logistics can eliminate the emotions that come with adjustments to the home environment.
It is important to understand that ADHD can create difficulties within the family, but it can also have many advantages as well. “People with ADHD tend to be more creative, more sensitive and empathetic, fun-loving and they think outside the box,” Matlen says.
“Everyone has a gift,” Matlen continues. “ADHD makes it harder to access those gifts, so getting the proper help will make it easier to get to those gems within you, so you can become a happier, more productive person.”
*Name has been changed