How A Parent’s ADHD Affects Their Children

by Hilary Davis | Jan 26, 2022

While it wasn’t always the case, there are now a good amount of resources available for adults and children with ADHD and even some specifically addressing how it might manifest in romantic relationships where one or both partners has ADHD. However, there hasn’t been much attention paid to how the ADHD symptoms of a parent might have an impact on their children—especially when the children do not also have ADHD.

ADHD is known to cause difficulties with:

  • Paying attention, appearing to listen, or sustaining attention
  • Remembering or following directions
  • Doing tasks that require sustained mental effort and attention
  • Keeping track of items and staying organized
  • Sitting or staying still without fidgeting and remaining seated
  • Waiting or taking turns while talking (not interrupting others)
  • Managing emotions and impulses

ADHD is quite often misdiagnosed and underdiagnosed, especially in adults. Many adults don’t become aware of the above symptoms until their 20’s, 30’s, or potentially even later.

Some of this may be due to an assumption that ADHD is a “childhood problem”, meaning that it only manifests in children and is later grown out of. While some children appear to grow out of ADHD (or perhaps never actually had it in the first place), many more don’t—but sometimes their symptoms might change or not be as noticeable to the individual themselves.

Often times children are diagnosed due to what their parents, teachers, or other important adults might observe. But an adult, whether they have been diagnosed with ADHD previously or not, might not even realize that they are having symptoms—because many of these symptoms might affect the people around them and their relationship with them more than they might affect them directly. In some cases, the person with ADHD might not even recognize these effects on their relationship until their partner ends the relationship or until their children withdraw from them.

Alternatively, the person with ADHD might notice the impact of their symptoms on their loved ones but might not realize that these behaviors are symptoms at all and instead mistake them for character flaws, leading to feelings of guilt and shame and a sense of hopelessness about whether things can get better.

Ultimately, when an individual has ADHD, it is seldom an individual problem. It instead is a crucial facet in understanding the dynamics in a family or relationship that must be recognized and addressed.

The individual with ADHD has their own internal experience which might include feeling frustrated with themselves for not being able to do things as easy as it may appear others do. They might feel that they are unintelligent, lazy, or unmotivated, and they may have even been told this by others in their life. They might appear as underachievers despite being quite intelligent or come off as rude or uncaring despite being kind and compassionate.

They may also have developed elaborate, regimented routines and methods in order to keep themselves functioning and appearing competent and “normal” at the expense of their personal relationships and their own time and energy.

While perhaps managing to appear like someone who does not have ADHD, they might experience extreme exhaustion, frustration, and feelings of loneliness, not understanding why this seems to be more difficult for them than it appears to be for others. And alternatively, those around them might challenge what appear to be arbitrary, very regimented ways of doing things or mistake symptoms for signs of thoughtlessness or a lack of caring.

For example, consider a parent with ADHD who has trouble listening to her child while he talks about his day at school. Because ADHD might make it hard to sit still and focus attention on one thing, the parent might think they can listen to their child better while they wash dishes at the same time. This might be conscious and even communicated to the child, but oftentimes it isn’t, and the child might interpret this behavior as his parent not really caring to listen to him or even internalizing that clean dishes are more important than how he’s doing.

It might also show up as a parent who has trouble not saying what he really thinks to his child in a tense moment, sometimes blurting something out impulsively that despite an authentic apology afterward, might be hard for a child to forgive or forget.

In romantic relationships, a common theme that is often talked about when one partner has ADHD is the dreaded “parent-child” dynamic that can take hold. This refers to when one partner doesn’t have ADHD and over-functions in order to take on more of what should be the shared load in the relationship.

Sometimes this dynamic is so extreme that the partner without ADHD is taking over tasks that really should be the individual responsibility of the partner with ADHD—such as returning phone calls to their parent, making doctor’s appointments for them, keeping track of where they last left their keys, or even regulating their emotions for them.

To some extent, it’s normal for people in relationships to take care of one another sometimes. But when it happens chronically, and it tends to only go one direction, this is when you can end up with a parent-child dynamic where the partner with ADHD feels like a child and the partner without ADHD feels like a parent. This obviously has a negative effect on both partners—nobody wants to feel like a parent or a child in their romantic relationship.

This dynamic can still show up when a person with ADHD has kids as a sort of inversion, where the child feels compelled to caretake for their parent with ADHD so as to help manage their symptoms. This might look like a child helping their parents keep track of appointments or reminding them that it’s time to leave to avoid lateness, helping their parent locate their lost items, or taking over household responsibilities like cooking or cleaning in excess or when it’s developmentally inappropriate for the child.

In more subtle ways, it might be a child overcontrolling their emotions or not speaking their true feelings to avoid upsetting their parent or causing extra stress, or a child presenting as older and more responsible due to putting their parents’ needs before their own consistently. A child might present as having depression, anxiety, being overly responsible or overly shut down from over-functioning for their parent or absorbing some of the emotions of their parent—and the parent may not even realize that the child is compensating for them or that their emotions are being so outwardly expressed in front of their children.

Being a parent naturally requires a lot of organization skills, close attention, and the ability to respond thoughtfully, consistently, and with warmth to their children. It can also sometimes require a lot of emotional control and intentionality about when and how those emotions are expressed or not expressed. ADHD can make these common difficulties even more difficult.

Additionally, research has shown that a chaotic home environment that is disorganized, loud, and unpredictable impacts the well-being of both parents and children. This is not to say that people with ADHD shouldn’t be parents or that they are incapable of maintaining a consistent and calm environment, but that it’s certainly something to intentionally invest into maintaining as much as possible.

If you have ADHD or if your children are struggling with feelings of loneliness, overwhelm, or withdrawal, you might consider seeking out an evaluation with your primary care physician or qualified mental health professional. Even if you don’t think you have symptoms or don’t think they have an effect on your children, this may not necessarily be the case.

The children of a parent who is unaware of their symptoms or doesn’t think they have an impact might still feel that their parent was inattentive to them, minimized their distress, or was not involved enough with them, and that experience is valid and worth exploring, whether or not it stems from their parent or from ADHD symptoms.

One of the most important things for an individual with ADHD to do is to acknowledge it and do their best to manage it as much as possible. This not only will improve the quality of your life, but also the lives of those around you who may be adjusting themselves in response to your symptoms whether you’ve asked them to or not. Children in particular are excellent at picking up on signals however subtle and molding themselves accordingly to the situation—making them incredibly resilient and incredibly sensitive to their environment.

Parents who have ADHD might feel entirely to blame for issues with their children or entirely without any involvement, and the answer always lies somewhere in the middle. No matter our intentions, we are all sometimes misunderstood or unintentionally affect others—and there is an ability to make repairs when this happens.