Many articles and books talk about parenting kids with ADHD. It’s much harder to find information about parenting when YOU have ADHD -- especially if you’re like many adults who weren’t diagnosed until recently.
In fact, I have seen so many posts from parents who were only diagnosed after their child was, and they recognized those symptoms in themselves -- myself included. I was apparently great at both masking and compensating, so I just internalized my failures as perfectionism and laziness, then possibly anxiety. 🎉 Super fun times!
...Or it’s just how my brain works and it’s a miracle I’ve managed as well as I have this whole time. It also explains why I excelled in high-pressure job situations where I was always on deadline and had no space to fail. Adrenaline ftw!
How Did I Figure Out That I Have ADHD?
My big wake up was after I read the classic book, Driven to Distraction, originally published decades ago and since updated. The examples read a bit like ‘90s after school specials, but the information (other than current medications) is still valid. At the end is a section about strategies to help manage ADHD -- and I already did almost all of them. Oh.
The issue for me (and I’m not alone) is that all the structure and strategies that helped me before went out the window after kids. With small unpredictable people depending on me for survival, suddenly I need more executive functioning skills, but I’m getting less sleep. Not helpful.
In case this is also an issue for you, I would like to be helpful! Hence this post.
This post covers:
- what ADHD is
- getting diagnosed (or not)
- the challenges of being a parent with ADHD
- examples of possibly struggles
- and rejection sensitivity.
It got long, so I'll stop there. Part two will tackle resources, strategies, and tools that actually help!
What is Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder?
The name Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder doesn’t really encompass what it’s like to have ADHD. It’s still easier to get boys diagnosed, especially white boys, but a lot of people still think it’s simply “bad behavior,” bad parenting, or both.
ADHD is a neurotype, so it’s the way your brain works and is a “flavor” of neurodivergence along with autism, OCD, Tourette’s Syndrome, etc.
ADHD has multiple presentations:
- Inattentive -- often seen in girls, looks like “daydreaming” or losing focus, previously called “ADD”
- Hyperactive-Impulsive -- stereotypically seen more in boys, can’t sit still, poor impulse control, talks a lot, “driven by a motor”
- Combination -- an individual exhibits 6 or more symptoms of each previous type
Read more about the symptoms of the 3 types here at ADDitude Magazine, which is a great resource for ADHD folks.
The easiest way to think about it is as a dopamine deficiency. If it doesn’t give you enough dopamine, you can’t do it. Not won't. CAN'T. I call my phone my dopamine dispenser because it's so easy to turn to it for a quick dose of dopamine, but it can also be a major distraction. Simply knowing that does help, though.
And that's the biggest benefit of knowing if you have ADHD or not -- knowing. Where can you start?
Self-Diagnosis versus Official Diagnosis
Many late-diagnosed folks have honestly just seen memes, graphics, or social media posts about ADHD traits and felt seen. As they look into it more, they realize that they may actually have ADHD, and that it explains a lot about their life. That's what happened to me.
Conveniently, my therapist is also a psychiatrist, so I was able to work with her on my own diagnosis. Depending on your healthcare situation (at least in the U.S.), you may be able to request a psychological assessment for ADHD that may or may not be covered by insurance.
What if insurance doesn't cover it? Do you need a professional diagnosis?
Not necessarily. Sometimes simply knowing that your brain works differently is enough. Everyone has a different experience of how their symptoms impact their life. There’s a thriving community of late-diagnosed adults with ADHD on the internet (especially Twitter), but there’s also debate if self-diagnosis is valid. Why the controversy?
The Pros and Cons of Self-Diagnosis
- the price is right!
- you know the most about yourself and can identify signs
- there's so much more information now available
- marginalized and historically oppressed groups can avoid the bias of healthcare providers
- self-diagnosis can be wrong
- ADHD symptoms overlap a lot with trauma symptoms, autistic traits, OCD, anxiety, and other conditions which can be hard to sort out yourself
- you can't access some treatment options like medication without a formal diagnosis
Sometimes the strategies are still helpful, but not necessarily. This is also more likely to be an issue for women, since girls are still less likely to get diagnosed correctly, and were definitely less likely to get diagnosed 20 or 30 years ago.
The Pros and Cons of Formal Diagnosis
- more likely to be accepted
- required for medication or some other treatments
- can give you more confidence to have professional confirmation
- often not covered by insurance for adults which can be prohibitively expensive
- marginalized and historically oppressed groups in particular (like women and people of color) can experience bias and skepticism -- women are frequently told they "just have anxiety"
- professionals can also be wrong, and some still consider ADHD a childhood issue that can be “outgrown.” (More likely is that we get better at managing and masking, or for a lot of men especially who were diagnosed as kids, they have a partner to shoulder the mental load for them.)
Consider why you may want a formal diagnosis or what opportunities may open. If you want to try medication, you need one. Apparently a lot of undiagnosed people with ADHD self-medicate with coffee or even other drugs, not always knowing why it helps. I'll talk more about meds in my next post about tools and strategies.
Not having an official diagnosis doesn’t mean you don’t have ADHD, but it can help if it’s an option for you.
Why Parenting with ADHD is So Freaking Hard
Since ADHD is so often thought of as a childhood issue, people usually think of the impact it has on school. But how does ADHD impact adults with jobs and kids, especially trying to manage a household and other people?
And of course since neurotypes have a genetic element, the kids we're wrangling may also have ADHD. Compensating for ourselves is one thing, but what happens when we also have to compensate for our kids? Even neurotypical children have to develop and cultivate executive functioning skills. Some emerge with age, where others require practice.
Recognizing Executive Function Challenges
Many ADHD symptoms impact executive functioning, which are simply skills that allow you to execute tasks. People can have executive function disorder that isn’t ADHD and still struggle with them, or simple not have developed the skills to excel. That said, folks with ADHD have particular challenges, often in related clusters.
The book Smart But Scattered is aimed at kids ages 4-14, but I like the way they divide executive function into these 11 skills:
- Response inhibition (think before you act)
- Working memory (hold information in your mind while performing tasks)
- Emotional control (manage emotions and behavior)
- Sustained attention (pay attention without getting distracted)
- Task initiation (start projects in a timely manner)
- Planning/prioritization (break down the steps of a project and decide what's most important)
- Organization (create and maintain systems)
- Time management (estimate and allocate time required to meet a deadline)
- Goal-directed persistence (follow through to completion without being sidetracked)
- Flexibility (change course when presented with an obstacle or new information)
- Metacognition (perspective on yourself, your process, and the outcome)
I’m sure many of you immediately knew which are the hardest for you to manage. Most adults have developed systems to compensate for these challenges, but they might not work once you have kids.
Why Compensating Doesn't Work Anymore
Limited response inhibition, emotional control, and flexibility can make it especially hard to be patient with your children -- especially if they also have trouble with the same issues. Organization, planning, and time management are exhausting when you’re responsible for your schedule and your kids’ schedules as well.
Work and household tasks are much more difficult. If you already struggle to initiate tasks, then you get distracted by your child, you end up with smelly laundry, late dinner, or unpaid bills, then have to deal with the consequences. ADHD can get expensive.
Many people with ADHD also have anxiety -- some of it due to constant criticism for being late, forgetful, or “lazy,” and some due to needing enough adrenaline to start or finish a task. Anxiety can make it hard to sleep, and cause irritability making it harder to manage young children’s feelings.
When Parents Are Forgetful
Sometimes thoughts just vanish into the ether. This is not helpful if that thought was your child’s next appointment, the fact that you’re low on diapers, or where you left your car keys right as you need to leave the house.
This can be due to distraction, poor working memory, or both. Distraction is very likely with small children who are constantly making noise, moving, and trying to destroy things (just mine?). Working memory is like your brain’s computer clipboard or temp files, where you briefly store information in order to use it. But sometimes you copy the info, and it’s gone by the time you try to paste, which isn’t terribly helpful.
When you already struggle to remember information, adding the need to remember things for your kids doesn’t help. And there’s way more pressure on moms for this. Most people would chuckle at a dad who couldn’t remember his child’s birthdate, but most people would judge a mom for the same thing. Similar story for who knows your child’s teacher’s or doctor’s name, what size clothes and shoes your child wears, and their current height and weight. That’s a lot of information to store and recall on demand.
This can be challenging when it's just you, but adding kids can create a domino effect that takes even more executive functioning to clear up. It's a vicious cycle sometimes.
Disorganization Affects Information and Physical Items
Let’s not mention the number of times I have misplaced my child’s insurance card or vaccination record before a doctor’s appointment, shall we? 🤦🏼♀️
Having kids means more paperwork, and more paperwork means more information to keep organized. My system is often a bunch of piles, but I know exactly where things are in it. Then my husband or children move things, and everything is lost.
All the STUFF that kids acquire also makes this a Sisyphean task.
- They’re constantly outgrowing clothes that need to be rotated out and saved or sold or given away.
- They get toys, some of which break, many of which have a million pieces to keep together (Legos, MagnaTiles, puzzles, etc).
- Art projects like drawing, cardboard creations, and papercrafts leave the detritus of a creative hurricane in their wake.
My floor sometimes goes missing for days at a time since they can make a mess faster than I can pick up.
Hey, one of them outgrew their shoes while I typed that last paragraph! (It really feels that way, doesn't it?) What size are they wearing again?
Organization means systems, but they only work if you use them. How many paper planners have you purchased, versus how many have you actually used long term? How many apps have you downloaded thinking that THIS will be the one you’ll finally stick with? Most organizational tools are made for neurotypical brains that just need a little structure. ADHD brains don’t work that way. And now you have multiple places you've tried to keep information and you still can't find anything.
But that's OK, you can find a new system that will finally work, right? Change is
good bad good!
Being Impulsive Doesn't Make You Spontaneously Flexible
ADHD can make it hard to adjust when things don’t go according to plan, as well. Kids… rarely do. This can be exhausting. It’s often connected to executive function, working memory, and impulsivity.
A major compensation strategy for these challenges is planning ahead and creating structure, so if the plan changes suddenly, it requires a sudden infusion of patience and working memory that may not be available at the time. Adapting to changing conditions can be really hard, and also ties into impulsivity and emotional control.
This can impact things as simple as running out of a preferred food, someone being sick and needing to adjust childcare, plans getting cancelled, or a change in routine.
Part of this is also related to obstacles and mistakes, and rejection sensitivity can play a part as I explain below.
Where These Issues Intersect
These are just a few examples. None of these challenges exist in a vacuum, and there’s a lot of overlap. Sometimes there’s a cascade effect where a deficit in one area exacerbates another, or affect you at the same time.
One example is grocery shopping, which I would say most of us need to do. The pandemic has introduced a lot more people to grocery delivery of some type which may help, but let’s use an in-person visit for this.
In order to go grocery shopping, you need to:
- notice that you're low on food
- initiate the task of planning the trip
- use working memory to see what you’re out of and make a list
- you need to plan meals for the next few days using those ingredients
- sustain attention long enough to finish the plan and the list
- and have the time awareness to actually fit in the grocery store visit.
Oh, and you have to get everyone dressed and out the door in a timely manner while no one is hungry or needs to use the bathroom in the next 10 minutes. Good luck with that.
Then you get to the store and have to:
- remember to grab the list you made
- read the list to navigate the store
- use working memory to find the items you need
- use impulse control to avoid just buying snacks
- be flexible if something is out of stock or has moved locations
- and survive the likely distractions of your kids talking and asking for treats, plus other people pushing carts around under bright fluorescent lights.
Hope you didn’t forget your wallet, reusable bags, or your list at home! 🤞🏻
That’s a little more complex than just, “make a list, buy ingredients, come home.” And it can be so much work that by the time you get home, you’re too drained to actually cook the food you just bought. If you experience rejection sensitive dysphoria, you may also struggle if you forgot items, or end up ordering out anyway.
What Is Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (RSD)?
People with ADHD often face criticism for “not being able” to do things others think they “should.” Often this gets internalized and can cause anxiety, especially for undiagnosed folks. On top if that, it’s not uncommon for people with ADHD to experience Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria.
RSD can be triggered by external criticism, rejection, failing to meet their own standards, or even by perceived future criticism. It can feel like intense and sudden sadness, actual physical pain, or externalized instant rage. The desire to avoid these feelings can cause anxiety and hypervigilance, people-pleasing tendencies, or avoidance to prevent any possibility of failure.
This can obviously cause problems at work, and also with friends and family. As a parent it’s easy to set unreasonable expectations for ourselves, so failing to meet them can be a trigger. Also, young kids push boundaries like it’s their job, because it is, and that can bring up RSD as well. Conflicts with your partner/co-parent, or even anticipated disagreements can create issues, some of which are truly in your head. That doesn't mean you don't feel the impact, however.
Read more about RSD or you can even take a quiz to see if you experience it.
(I told you it got long.)
That sounds frustrating, doesn't it?
But I promise there are ways to help manage the challenges coming up in part 2. You probably know some of them already, but between trying to keep the kids fed and clothed and alive, you might be out of brain power to think of and implement them on your own.
Fear not! And stay tuned...