As awareness grows, we are better able to address the challenges people with ADHD face at school, at home, and in the workplace. Self-help strategies abound, but the focus is usually on help for the immediate family—the child, mom, dad, and siblings. The impact of ADHD symptoms does not stop with the immediate family, however. What about the concerns and reactions of grandparents or uncles and aunts? Research is lacking on the role and dynamics of the extended family when one or more members have ADHD.
In Taking Charge of ADHD, Russell A. Barkley, PhD, writes: “Parents of children with ADHD also may be deprived of the encouragement, warmth, and assistance of a supportive family. They tell us that they have fewer contacts with their extended family members than in families without children with ADHD, and that these contacts are less helpful to them as parents and more aversive or unpleasant.”
As parents, we want to help our children to become well-functioning and socially successful people, and our own anxieties are sometimes triggered when our children with ADHD act out and misbehave. We desperately want our child to behave appropriately and to be accepted. We often feel embarrassed and defensive for our child when he gets reprimanded or described as “spoiled” by a relative. And we feel guilty for being unable to prevent these stressful occurrences.
How do we respond to when our child becomes symptomatic at family functions? How can we advocate for our child, but also validate our extended family members’ experience while respecting their opinions and decisions?
Strategies for coping and healing
Much of the research and literature on dealing with ADHD can be helpful for educating our extended family. What strategies make the most sense in managing a family gathering so that our child (and everyone else) can participate and feel comfortable?
1. Educate the extended family about ADHD. The more we can speak openly with them about how ADHD affects our child (and us) in a way that is understandable, the more we can have meaningful conversations and explore problem solving skills.
2. Develop self-awareness. Find a way to slow down so that you can take a moment to check in with yourself. Practicing mindfulness, for example helps us become aware of how we feel in the moment, and is a key element for emotional healing and building of coping strategies and skills. For some, this means finding a word or phrase to help them remember to check in with themselves. For others, it might be deep breathing exercises to facilitate the process of self-awareness.
3. Practice self-advocacy. While advocating for our child, we are also aware of our own struggles and experiences and we also need to address our own struggles. To be effective in advocating for our child, we must check in with our family member and make sure that he or she is able to listen. How many times have you experienced rejection from an angry family member?
4. Explore alternative or new ways of communication. We need to explain to our family members that our child’s behavior is not about them, but is directly related to our child’s inability to regulate his or her emotions in the moment. It takes practice, patience and flexibility to work with these highly charged, emotional situations.
- Be proactive. Prepare for the next event by having conversations with your relatives before the family gathering.
- Brainstorm with your relatives. Include them in the process of exploring how potential stressors can be avoided or addressed before an incident happens.
- Be aware of your relatives’ concerns and feelings.
- Stay positive!
- Do “prep work.” For some kids and for some occasions, it might make sense to negotiate a “deal.”
- Find allies. Find some benevolent family member(s) who could jump in to support you in a time of need.
- Be prepared. Keep an eye on your child to check when the behavior is beginning to escalate so that you can step in before it gets out of control.
- Advocate for your child and yourself. Speak up and explain to your family members what is happening and how they can help when your child is in crisis.
As parents of children affected by ADHD, it is our responsibility to develop understanding and mutually acceptable support within the extended family. It is up to you to initiate the conversation. You know your child and yourself. When you reach out to your family members and invite them to explore how you can have a more satisfying family experience, you are creating an opportunity for change.
Advocating for and supporting our family member with ADHD is an ongoing process. With practice, patience, understanding, and consistency, we can better help our child with ADHD, our immediate family, and ourselves. We can also strengthen the ties to the loved ones in our extended circles of family and friends.
A longer version of this post appeared in the June 2014 issue of Attention magazine, available through our free app, which you can download on the App store. Current CHADD members can access it through the app at no extra cost.
You can also join the conversations about parenting kids with ADHD on Attention connection, your social network for all things ADHD!
Janette Patterson, MSW, LCMFT, is the co-coordinator of the Montgomery County, Maryland, chapter of CHADD, and a family therapist. Larry Maltin, MA, is program coordinator for Elkins Park Pennsylvania CHADD.