Father’s Mental Health Affects Children

This week, I’m preparing a presentation for the CADDAC conference on ADHD in Toronto May 30-31. Here’s the description from the program:

“When The Acorn Falls Close to the Tree: Parenting when Both Parent and Child Have ADHD”

Your child has been diagnosed with ADHD, you’ve learned that this condition is highly genetic, and now you wonder: Could ADHD also be an issue for you and/or your partner? Even well into adulthood, ADHD can present challenges in staying organized, managing time (and mood), and maintaining the routines that stabilize and nourish a family. Learn how unrecognized ADHD symptoms in a parent can affect parenting skills and focus on strategies for success.

My desk is awash in copies of studies and articles on how ADHD in a parent affects the child. It doesn’t take a brain scientist to know that when a parent has difficult ADHD challenges in organization, initiation, motivation, and mood regulation, it doesn’t bode well for the child — especially if the child has ADHD and similar challenges. But here I am at my desk, trying to parse the studies in this area. Along with anecdotes and years of observations, it’s good to have data.

The studies are useful, if small in number, but mostly focus on mothers. Moreover, because no study can cover every phenomenon, they make no mention of certain patterns that I’ve observed for years in the online support groups for the partners of adults with ADHD and discovered from the ADHD Partner Survey results.

This morning, I coincidentally recognized one such pattern in a study published online in the British medical journal Lancet this week, as reported by Amy Norton for Reuters. Interestingly enough, it’s about fathers’ mental health.

The story begins this way:

Fathers’ mental health problems may take a toll on their children’s psychological well-being, particularly that of their sons, a new research review suggests.

The review, published online by The Lancet medical journal, found that when fathers had psychiatric conditions like major depression, drug or alcohol addiction, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), their children were at increased risk of mental health problems.

The pattern that caught my attention was this:

Furthermore, young children whose fathers become depressed soon after their birth — a paternal form of postpartum depression — have higher rates of emotional and behavioral problems.

To be sure, many men with ADHD are stand-up dads. We all know it, and the ADHD Partner Survey offers data on this (which I’ll be sharing in future posts at the ADHD Partner Survey blog). But some, well, it seems their ADHD symptoms intensify with the birth of a child.

Perhaps these adults with unrecognized ADHD functioned pretty well in adulthood, but this change maxes out their Executive Function. Perhaps too their mates have been compensating for them, assuming that when the baby arrives, their partners (with unrecognized ADHD) will “step up to the plate.” In such cases, these adults with ADHD receive a double whammy of stress: Their partners have pulled out the rug from under them by ceasing the caretaking and expecting to pitch in with childcare and tend to new household tasks. Moreover, the focus of affection often switches from them to the baby. Meanwhile, their partners are left feeling let down and hurt by what they perceive simply as self-centered, immature behavior. Next stop: Separation and dissolution of the family. All for lack of knowledge about ADHD — or deep denial.

As the Lancet study points out, we can’t attribute the entirety of children’s mental-health problems to parental behavior. The genetic inheritance is also clear; many of these children suffer the same neurobehavioral issues. But sometimes that child’s ADHD becomes the solo focus — and, sadly, often receives unfair share of the blame for marital distress. (This was the case recently with a study showing that divorce happens more often among couples who have children with ADHD. Here is one of the few more balanced reports on this study, in USA Today.)

It’s tragic to unfairly blame the child; kids with ADHD typically have enough problems. But denial about a parent’s ADHD hurts not only the child, it also hurts the individual and the couple. In short, denial hurts everyone.

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