Fathers and Sons with ADHD

You promise to be a perfect parent. But will you?

Most prospective parents decree that, when they do have children, they will be “perfect” parents. They vow never to lose patience or raise their voice in anger (unlike their own parents). Fathers envision their role as being available, supportive and able to guide their children.

Then the time of delivery grows closer, and your view of parenting become more complex. Perhaps you and your wife have different attitudes about certain aspect of child-rearing. You speak with friends and relatives, and somehow the TV fathers seem less real. You begin to wonder what the “successful Dad” recipe really entails. Some fathers advocate a gentle and understanding approach, while others insist the secret of success is discipline and tough-love. Your in-laws might offer their own loving, yet completely contradictory, views on “How to Raise the Perfect Child.” But the one thing everyone seems to have in common is that they all feel qualified, even obligated, to help you raise your child.

So you read books on parenting and listen to the sage advice of parenting experts when they are interviewed by talk-show hosts. You confer with your spouse and agree that you are both nervous, but ready, willing and able to be model parents… or so you think.

Then you have your child.

No one could prepare you for the sleepless nights and the heart-wrenching sound of a crying baby—especially one who always needs to be held or rocked. As your baby becomes a toddler, and then a preschooler, you wonder why he needs to be watched every moment, while other children sit quietly and play nicely. You delight in his charisma, but grow concerned that he rarely listens to his babysitters, teachers—or parents. He seems to attract trouble, and constantly demands attention, without concern as to whether it is for good reasons or bad ones.

You begin to question your parenting ability. What went wrong with your master parenting plan? Your son is a reflection of you, and you don’t want him to tarnish your image with his behaviors. You resent that other parents (whose children lack your son’s personality) might think your parenting ability is inadequate. You thought you were “doing it right,” but whatever it is, never seems like enough.

So you resort to blame.

If you had it right (and you believe you did), then others must have sabotaged your efforts. You criticize those people (mom, the teachers, etc.) who spend more time with your son than you do. You argue with your wife over parenting styles: “You give him too much (leeway, understanding)… you don’t give him enough!” Romantic nights out (if a night away from your child even happens) become heated discussions about your son and what the other parent should be doing differently. What happened to the love and good times the two of you shared before “junior” was born?

You may also go through the denial stage, wondering whether things have just gotten out of hand and there is really nothing wrong with your child. Aren’t your own perfect genes enough to assure success? After all, he is “a chip off the old block,” and you turned out OK. Just because the school is constantly calling doesn’t mean it is all his fault. Why buy into the idea that your son is problematic – maybe his teachers are inept? And what is wrong with being a bit active and independent? Weren’t you at his age? Part of you is proud that he stands out from the crowd.

Unfortunately, turning a blind eye towards the situation doesn’t last long. You walk in the door and, before your coat is even off, the first thing you hear is another complaint, reminding you that your son is not the angel you would like him to be. In self-preservation you determine that it isn’t your fault; it’s your wife’s fault… The school’s fault… Or your child’s fault—he should know better. He just has to try harder. This was not your idea of what marriage and a child was all about. Your life has changed, and you feel it is no longer under your control.

These are not creative scenarios, but typical ones that we see when we coach adults at the A.D.D. Resource Center in New York City or, by phone, all over the country.

What often happens is that the Dad feels bombarded from all sides. Mom, child, school, grandparents, maybe even the neighbors. At first he is in denial. Then comes anger, frustration and blame. Hurt and sadness. A debilitating sense that life is not what he wants for himself, for his wife, and most especially, for his son. He created this child—what did he do wrong? If he, or his wife or relatives have similar issues to those of his son, then who is really to blame? Dad’s rational mind knows that his son’s AD/HD is a neurobiological problem. But that is irrelevant when his son’s behaviors trigger reactions he cannot easily control. And it is worse when, having AD/HD himself, he relives the challenges of his childhood and feels the guilt.

How can he reconcile his commitment to being a more nurturing parent than his own Dad was, when he sees himself reacting to his son’s behaviors in much the same manner as his father treated him? He knows he is taking his own anger and frustration out on his child—the very one he cares so much about and longs to see happy and successful. The son he cherishes and loves. This conflict produces sadness and even more anger (towards both his child and himself), mingled with fear—what will his son’s future be like? What is the real impact of this “loss of the perfect child” (and also the loss of his preconceived self-image as the perfect parent)? How will he now experience the life he had planned to share, in joy, with his wife and child?

We often coach Dads who did not plan to be overly hard on their sons, but get to a point where they cannot put the brakes on their reactions. They are often excessively critical and demanding, escalating arguments instead of resolving issues. When the Dad has AD/HD, his impulsivity and emotional liability can easily overtake his reason. Only after the situation is over, and the father and son disengage, does he realize what he has done. For many men, apologizing for an overreaction, or discussing what happened in a calm manner, is difficult. It is contrary to the macho way they have been brought up, and perceived as a sign of weakness. But remember, this is a child—your child. You are not in a business situation or arm wrestling at a bar. Child rearing goals are far different than winning at work or in a competitive sport. The only ‘win’ is the one that has a positive impact on both your lives.

Many times Dad is the “enforcer” and Mom is the “appeaser.” And the sad thing is that it works. Research has shown that the male voice, volume and tonality can often work better than the female’s in controlling behavior in children. So if it seems to work, it becomes easier to yell and threaten. And if a little bit works, why not try a lot? When the Dad has ADHD, the confrontation, on one level, satiates his AD/HD need for excitement, as it often does in the child. So a relatively minor infraction may result in a major confrontation. This is a damaging cycle, wherein even small things get out of hand, with the son and father playing off of each other’s increasingly irrational behaviors. The negative excitement generated by this escalated confrontation does little to resolve the original issue.

It is often said, that those behaviors that most bother us in others, are the negative traits we see in ourselves—even if we do not consciously recognize them. How true. Many of the character traits and behaviors that are frequently found in people with AD/HD, whether you acknowledge them in yourself or not, become particularly abhorrent to the Dad when he “sees” them in his son. For many, this clouds his ability to effectively address the issues in a clear, mature and loving manner.

There is hope. Behaviors can be changed, once you become conscious of what you are doing, and have developed compensatory strategies to replace gut reactions. Here are some strategies we have found particularly effective for our coaching clients:

  • Be aware. The first step towards change is to acknowledge the reality of your situation. Accept that you are angry, frustrated, fearful. Accept that so is your child (although his bravado may cover it up). You cannot help your child if you cannot deal with your own emotions. If you feel as though you are out of control, seek the help of a doctor, therapist or anger management specialist.
  • Be prepared. Situations do not arise in a vacuum. You have enough understanding of the challenges of AD/HD to realize that there will be ongoing behavioral and attitudinal problems. Give thought – in advance – as to how you will handle various types of transgressions. Some examples:
    • If you have a younger child and are going to a restaurant or other public place, make sure you bring playthings that are suitable for the environment, and will keep your child busy. Bring a sufficient variety of items to satisfy his potentially short attention span, instead of getting angry when he acts out due to boredom.
    • If you are going to a party or play date, set a departure time that is “too soon.” Leave before your child has a chance to get bored, tired or cranky.
    • Have pre-determined rewards, and consequences. Make these very clear to your child, and be firm and consistent in how you use them. Getting so angry you threaten to take away his television privileges for a year is an exercise in futility, and only shows your child that you say things you don’t mean. (If this does happen, later during a calm moment, explain that you did overreact, and want to be fair and change the terms.)
  • Be selective. Choose your battles. Turn a somewhat ‘blind’ eye towards certain behaviors while focusing on those that you’ve determined are more important.
  • Involve your child in the solutions, especially if he is older. Have him sign an elastic contract (in which the degree of independence is related to proven responsibility). Get his input (in advance) as to what would be a desirable reward or a suitable consequence. Then, should things not go as planned, you do not have to react, but simply act in the way you both agreed upon when the situation was first discussed. An example would be using the family car. Assign conditions that would allow this to happen, and those that would not only revoke the privilege but might have other consequences as well. Then follow through.
  • Form a conscious partnership with your spouse. The more you present a unified front, the less likely your child will be to try to test the limits.
  • Practice the techniques of healthy confrontation. There are positive ways to argue or discipline (which, by the way, means ‘to teach’ – not ‘to punish’). Some of the most effective:
    • Avoid accusation. Keep the focus on solutions. Keep positive possibility alive in your conversation. Teach your child how to find alternatives that work.
    • Focus on the behavior, not the child. State how his behaviors make you feel, or that you dislike the behaviors. Make it clear that the child is not his behaviors, but has the ability to, within reason, control and change them.
  • De-escalate. You can’t communicate with an irrational person. When your child is very upset, he is irrational and cannot listen to reason. When you are very angry, you cannot deal with the situation rationally. So back down. Wait until you are both open to hearing what the other says. If voices keep rising, speak quietly. This breaks the pattern (and decreases the excitement level, which is stimulating). Remember that YOU are the adult and take the lead in resolving the situation.
  • Accept that you are human. You will get angry and frustrated. You do have hopes that aren’t being fulfilled and fears that too often become real. Your child is only a reflection of your parenting on certain levels, just as you were only partially a reflection of your parents. Don’t let a sense that you’ve failed as a parent because you have a difficult child color your interactions with that child, or your self-respect.
  • Avoid the AD/HD guilt trap. You may have similar challenges to those of your son, but he is his own person. ADD is an explanation, not an excuse. Because you think you have failed in certain areas doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have reasonable expectations for your child.
  • Be kind – to yourself and to your child. But don’t confuse being kind and loving with having, and reinforcing, rules and standards. Give your child the benefit of your AD/HD in that you understand what it is like to be different, and truly appreciate his successes.

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