How Can Adult ADHD Affect Parenting?


There I was, sitting on the floor poring over every study and article I could find on how Adult ADHD can affect parenting. I was preparing to present on the topic at the CADDAC conference on ADHD in Toronto May 30-31, 2009.

My husband walked into my office, took one look at the explosion of papers surrounding me, and asked, “What the **** happened in here?”

With all the various angles and possibilities to cover — after all, ADHD is no one-size-fits-all condition — it felt overwhelming.

Top-Of-Class-Attorney? Meet Parenting

A few days later, with the presentation finally Powerpointed, I met a 40-something mother with ADHD. She said she also felt overwhelmed—by living the topic I’d only been writing about.

This top-of-her-class attorney had adjusted fairly well to her first child’s arrival seven years ago. Four years later came her second daughter, the sweet-faced little spitfire whose photo she proudly shared with me from her iPhone. That’s when this stay-at-home mom’s organizing skills—tenuous, even at times humorous, since childhood—hit the skids.

Setting off on her errands after dropping the oldest at school, she’d often find herself inexplicably off-course. Instead of mailing items at the post office and grocery-shopping, she was sipping lattes and cruising the toy-store aisles. At first she attributed her distractibility to being overwhelmed with the responsibilities of raising a family. “But honestly, ” she said, “plenty of other mothers are doing much more, and with less stress, it seems.”

She’d also noticed that she and her husband, who’d always gotten along so well, now often squabbled.

Those “Quirky” Behaviors Had a Name

Finally, in classic ADHD inter-generational style, her daughter’s teacher mentioned a significant problem with “daydreaming” and disorganization. That prompted her husband to read up on ADHD. He found apt descriptions not only of his daughter’s but also his wife’s “quirky” behaviors.

“I think I’m a good mother, a very loving mother who truly enjoys her children,” she told me, “But I’m not the mom with the organized closets and the weekly meal plans. In fact, if you peeked in my closets, you’d think, ‘What is she, crazy?'”

Newly dumbfounded by the recent revelations about ADHD, she wasn’t quite ready to acknowledge that it might be a problem for her. She did admit, however, she was tired of expending so much energy to get through the simplest household tasks. “And I worry,” she added, “about how I’m going to help my daughter stay organized and work with the school on helping her.”

This mom has a good foundation for tackling her challenges as well as her daughter’s. She has a supportive spouse, secure income, high intelligence, low defensiveness, and access to good resources.

For many respondents to the ADHD Partner Survey, however, co-parenting with a partner who has late-diagnosis ADHD poses larger challenges. Like ADHD itself, the issues are all over the map. The survey looked at several aspects of co-parenting when a parent has ADHD, which we’ll explore in future posts.

ADHD Partner Survey: Co-Parenting

For now, consider the responses to these questions in the chart below to gain a sense of some hot-button issues among ADHD Partner Survey respondents.

As with all things ADHD, we clearly see variability. That’s because ADHD is a highly variable syndrome, and adults with ADHD are not clones.  When ADHD interferes with parenting,  it tends to be in areas such as inconsistency (as with rules and punishment) and mood dysregulation.

ADHD parenting

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Your comments welcome.

—Gina Pera

This post first appeared May 22, 2009.


21 thoughts on “How Can Adult ADHD Affect Parenting?”

  1. My partner found your videos and sent them to me, and PHEW. I have recently brought it up to my therapist that I think the ADHD was swept under the rug after having my second child and seeking therapy. With our first, I started to notice a change. And what I thought was mere depression and anxiety for so long or possible BPD or possible bipolar, has become very clear that is is more than likely adult ADHD. My behaviors mixed with his reactions and vice versa have caused such a problem in our relationship that he hasn’t hardly spoken to me or slept in the bed for days…it breaks my heart. I have a hard time admitting my wrongs when he’s constantly pointing out my flaws and what I’m doing wrong for me. I have temper issues when challenged. I’m spacy, I have a hard time keeping tasks. I can’t relax with my family at night when I should be because there’s a million things going on in my head. That’s just a small explanation to a large laundry list of problems. I love my partner and I don’t want him to continue to tell me he’s leaving or would be happier with someone else. We have two beautiful children and almost 8 years together. But this is taking it’s toll. Do you think counseling and medication would be helpful? It’s a mess. I know he’s tired of my antics and I’m tired of feeling hopeless as well.

    1. Dear Sarah,

      First may I say I’m horribly disappointed, yet again, in the failure of almost the entire “medical establishment” to recognize ADHD.

      I often think about women with unrecognized ADHD, coming home with the baby. Hormones still creating the usual “loooiness” as with many women. And also facing the enormous demands.

      Hormones affect ADHD, too. So do increased demands at organization, irregular sleep, etc..

      There was an initiative a few years ago to routinely screen post-delivery women for depression. I thought that was a dangerous idea, because many of those women would then get treatment for “depression” — when it’s actually ADHD. And antidepressants can intensify ADHD symptoms. I think it didn’t pass. Or maybe it’s done in some hospitals. But shew….

      I feel for you. It’s not your fault that you didn’t know you had ADHD. It doesn’t sound like you were “denying” it. You were failed.

      I cannot say what’s possible for your marriage with your husband.

      But I hope he at least decides to learn more about ADHD, in particular the ways in which it might have been affecting you — that he took personally as intentional behavior.

      Here’s the thing: You and he will be sharing custody, right? He owes it to your children, if nothing else, to work with you on understanding ADHD and in pursuing treatment.

      I created my course for just such situations. It’s not all about, “Let’s learn about ADHD so you can do MORE for your ADHD partner and ignore your own needs MORE.”

      No, there’s compassion for all involved — and acknowledgement of difficulties. In detail. And it paves the path toward improving functioning — yes, including medication (the single most effective tool in the ADHD toolbox) but also new ways of cooperating. ADHD-friendly ways.

      I hope he will consider it. And if not him, I think it will help you to form a deeper understanding — and know which steps to take.

      There is an awful lots of nonsense online now — and in books, too. One must be careful, especially when not knowing ADHD has been playing a role in your difficulties.

      At least check it out. You can take it together. Or separately. Or just one of you.

      I wish you luck. You’re not alone.


  2. My grandson was diagnosed with ADHD just recently.Through this we have now discovered my son has it.After years of thinking he was an alcoholic, sending him to rehab a few times for months to now find out he has the same thing.The most worrying thing for me is he wants me with him most of the time.I cant seem to go anywhere.I dont want to upset the apple cart.Hes not started his treatment yet as the doctor has been treating him with depression so the meds are wrong at present. As he is in his late 20’s he is used to things but I also find there is a pattern with his ways.Sometimes I feel like I’m going round in circles with him.I have fought off his many many fines council tax court orders to prevent him going to jail.They become vulnerable adults & can very easily be led on.Also one day they can be like a child the next day like your the child.He only think about his needs & dosnt show feelings towards others.Im learning more as I try to get to grips with his situation.He has had 2 failed relationships with 4 small children involved.Its very sad & keeping him connected to them is so hard but I dont want the kids to miss out on him even though hes like a child too.Pheww! Last but not least it is killing me & my partners long term relationship as I now realise that hes going to have to live with us long term.

    1. Dear Carol,

      I’m sorry to learn of your family’s situation. It’s bad enough for an MD to miss the ADHD diagnosis — but when the MD risks exacerbating ADHD symptoms by prescribing an anti-depressant…..

      I hope that he can get into treatment ASAP. And I don’t recommend relying on that MD again or any other prescriber until you have proof of competence.

      I encourage you to read my first book right now, especially focusing on the medication chapters.

      You will need a solid education and probably much self-advocacy to stabilize him and your long-term relationship.

      The “clinginess” is common to some younger children with ADHD. I’ve not heard about it as much with an adult. Though I can see how it would happen.

      Seriously, my book will be an eye-opener and a strong support to you.

      Also, I will launch online training soon. It’s primarily for couples but I also point out that “couples” can sometimes be a parent and adult child with ADHD, or siblings, etc..

      take care of yourself!


  3. How much would parenting be a struggle when you have undiagnosed ADHD? I am pretty sure a friend of mine has ADHD, my daughter has ADHD and I see a lot of similarities. However there seem to be things that I would see as ‘common sense’ that she doesn’t seem to understand e.g. putting her 2 year old daughter in thin spring clothes, with her coat on inside out, boots and no gloves when it’s -20 C outside, she was going in the car but it is extremely cold at first even in a car. She is also talking about splitting with her husband, she blames him for a lot of things, but doesn’t seem to realize any of the consequences of doing this. She seemed to think all that would happen would be he would move out, personally I think she could lose custody of her kids and when I mentioned talked about at least joint custody I don’t think she had even thought about it.

  4. What an interesting and helpful article. Yes, the disciplining was left to me – but I’m ADD, too, so that didn’t go so well! Our poor daughter, also ADD (of course), didn’t stand a chance. Somehow we’ve got her to 18, but it’s been a nightmare at times. We’ve all found out just this year that we’re all ADD, which has been a huge relief as well as a lightbulb experience. Things would have been so different if we’d known, and if we could have had access to medication even a few years ago. Happily, we all love each other very much, so we muddle through.

    1. Hi Belinda,

      Let’s hear it for the love! 🙂

      Amazing, isn’t it? So many people still don’t know they’re grappling with ADHD.

      I’m so glad you and your family discovered sooner rather than later.


  5. I’m a mother with ADHD, diagnosed after my son was due to the fact the issues we had (my son also has dyslexia) didn’t go away with his diagnosis and help he was getting.

    I found I was this angry mum, the kids irritate me and I turned into this cranky, shouting mother who hate/d…I have never been so angry over little things, I shout over things so I don’t hit the kids (I had an abusive childhood so I think I shout instead of hitting which is sometimes just as bad!)

    I am learning to change my ways so my kids don’t become like me as in shouting rather than talking through things. When I do go OTT, I will calm down then try and explain that I didn’t mean it but I don’t how to change just yet but I AM trying. It sounds a cop out when I see it written down, but I hate excuses yet I know I haven’t had a normal upbringing to be shown the right ways to go about so use that as an excuse of why I scream and shout.

    I wish I had been diagnosed as a child so I could of had help to learn strategies to cope better. I also wish I had been able to focus better at school so I wasn’t returning to study in my 30’s and had a better handle on my finances/home life.

    It will be good to read more on this!

    1. Hi Jules,

      No, it’s not a cop-out. I observed years ago that many adults with ADHD struggled with emotional regulation. It’s only in recent years that the literature has made it clear: Emotional dysregulation can be a key challenge for folks with ADHD. And sometimes this is compounded by a parent (or two) who also has unrecognized ADHD, “modeling” the “shout and scream” method of parenting.

      Medication can truly help with that.

      I wish you all the best as you go back to school and learn more about managing ADHD so you can thrive.


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  9. oh this is so simplistic and poorly informed.
    I am an ADHD mother, not impulsive, no permiscuity,
    advanced professional education, effective disciplinarian, highly responsible … mother
    of a happy socially successfully high achieving son with ADHD.
    The reminder, tracking and executive functioning issues are hard hard work
    but with ADHD ordinary skills are difficult but extraordinary talents are there to focus on too… shine the light on their successes.
    We used to freak at people being left handed.. this is another normal way to be and stop making a one way road to prison out of this diagnosis…
    most of you are talking about deadbeat dads… it’s their character not their adhd. Adhd is another way to be not anyone’s identity. Everyone has some chink in their armour, and people with ADHD need not feel sorry for themselves or apologize for existing!!!!

    1. Hi Ruth,

      I’m glad to hear that you didn’t experience the difficulties that many other parents with ADHD do, until they learn that they have ADHD and find workable strategies.

      No one is making ADHD a “one way road to prison.” Please point to the part of my post that suggested that. (You can’t, because it’s not there.)

      But to deny the highly variable challenges that others might be experiencing, as you do, isn’t exactly high-minded, is it? How is it kind or even educated to deny their reality and create more confusion in the public’s mind that “it’s just a difference” or that if they make big mistakes it’s their “character” and not their ADHD?

      Bully for you, that you have so many stellar qualities and have raised a lucky son. One would think that your good fortune might make you more compassionate, not less.


    2. Emma walford

      Actually I think people with ADHD shud be more open about their symptoms and not be embarrassed or ashamed that they have it?! I understand that they can not adapt to certain things and find things difficult than a person that don’t have it I’ve known someone with ADHD for nearly 20 yrs now and have only found out that they have adhd this person has destroyed my life by not telling me this any sooner what happen to being honest instead of making up lies and using their clever side of the brain to Destroy other lives

    3. Hi Emma,

      I’m sorry you had that experience.

      Some people definitely are sneaky, and they hope they can pull the wool over people’s eyes.

      Others simply don’t realize that that their ADHD symptoms are as problematic as they are.

      A real mixed bag.

      Honesty surely seems the best policy.

      Take care,

  10. I had no idea that ADHD had such an effect on parenting.. I’m 18 and I’ve seen the effects it has had on my schooling, but I didn’t realize how much this would effect my lasting relationships and my parenting. This is the first article I’ve really read on the effects it will have in the future on the people around me and if anyone can point me in the direction of more such articles I’d really appreciate it.

    Thank you in advance,

    1. Hi Tiffany,

      Not much has been written about the topic. I am working on another book now…

      There’s one, though, for moms with ADHD, by Christine Adamec. You can find it on Amazon. Also, I think Dr. Patricia Quinn covers it somewhat in her book 100 Questions and Answers for Women with ADHD.

      Here’s the thing, though: You are young! Being diagnosed and aware early can help you avoid many of the “bad habits” that many late-diagnosis adults grapple with.


  11. I’m wondering if the discipline difficulty is based on how hard it is for adults with ADHD to think in other than “now” time, combined with difficulty focusing on the needs of others. Beyond simply not disciplining, when I ask what my husband wants for our child in the long term and how he can contribute to that through parenting he is stumped. The idea of spending time with her doing things he is not personally interested in so he can know her better is hard.

    I have been asked to contribute to treatment goals for my husband and trying to define exactly how I would like to see our situation change is really hard to define. Things like discipline seem almost like a red herring – it seems to be something even deeper that involves the executive functions that happen to make up discipline. It has to do with time other than “now” and the needs of others along with planning and follow through. We have shifted into a parent-teenager relationship which I hate. Finding my role during the drug trial phase is difficult. I think the pages around 304 in is it you me or adult add are probably where I need to be focusing my effort.

  12. I had no idea so many others had an ADHD partner who wants to be the “fun” parent and never discipline. That leaves me to be the bad guy all the time. Not fair. But even though my husband is the “fun parent,” he sometimes pushes the fun too far. The kids get wild. And then he cracks down on them. It’s confusing and hurtful for them.

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