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Fatherhood and ADHD

By: Patrick J. Kilcarr and Patricia O. Quinn, M.D. (1997)

Fathers of children with ADHD have a special calling — to stand with their children during times of emotional or behavioral difficulties, to give their children hope and courage, and to provide opportunities so that their children might define themselves by their strengths rather than their weaknesses. To do this, it helps to appreciate the experiences and struggles these children face each day and to create a positive environment within the family to allow them to overcome these difficulties.

Understanding mutual frustration

As a father, it may be helpful to keep in mind that when you are frustrated with your child's behavior, your child is also feeling the some level of frustration. At such a moment, your son may be momentarily frozen in time, like a deer caught in headlights. His natural desire to please and conform is overshadowed by his emotional state. With each demand for him to "snap out of it" or indication that he is a disappointment, the pain sinks deeper and the "headlights" get brighter.

Fathers can change this downward spiral by attending to positive behaviors, and either ignoring or calmly dealing with the negative behaviors. This approach creates a major shift in the way a child will see himself and the world. Training yourself to ignore impulsive or inappropriate behavior requires an understanding of what your child can and can't control. If you continue to reinforce positive movements toward success, that is how your child will begin to define himself — as a success!

Creating a self-disciplined child

What is the connection between disciplining a child and a child's learning self-discipline? There is a direct link between the way children are disciplined and the degree to which they assume responsibility for their own actions and behaviors.

Disciplining a child, especially a child with ADHD, is complicated by our own emotional response to what we consider misbehaving or other social improprieties. The more emotionally consumed we become by our children's behavior, the more likely we are to utilize ineffective or inappropriate disciplining strategies, such as hitting, screaming, threatening, bullying, or withdrawing love and attention. When we lead with our emotions, the outcome is usually less then desirable, and often regrettable.

How we choose to discipline our children is one of the most fundamental aspects of raising a child with ADHD. As noted by one father:

"I used to be a lot stricter with him. I'd treat him like a 'normal' kid, meaning that I really didn't take into account that he had difficulty processing information or following rules. I would keep harping on him and trying to make him act like any other kid his age. I've come to learn that is not him, that he is not like many of his friends. In some ways he is more in control. I attribute that to the work we have been doing to create more consistency in our home, and definitely to reduce getting too emotionally attached to the issue. It is not that he doesn't want to do things, it is just that he can't always do it the way others expect or want."

An essential aspect of learning how to discipline your child effectively is understanding what he or she is personally capable of doing and when he/she is most able to do it. A child with ADHD needs his father to lean on during times when he cannot hold it together himself. If you are angry, upset, or out of control as a result of your child's behavior, you cannot provide the type,of emotional support and discipline necessary to resolve the problem.

A child with ADHD needing his father's support is much like a person with a broken foot needing a crutch. He will not need to use the crutch permanently; however, in order to feel comfortable and go about his daily duties, he needs the broken foot and the crutch to work together to minimize discomfort. As the child with ADHD matures, he will need his father less for support, and more as an important sounding board and resource.

Practicing calm discipline

The practice of remaining calm with our children who have ADHD and establishing effective methods of discipline are fraternal twins. Remaining calm and consistently disciplining inappropriate behavior results in a child who understands and takes responsibility for his or her own actions and behaviors.

The father of a nine- year- old boy gives us a clear example of this in the following:

"I don't think the way I deal with Marty now at all resembles the way I used to treat him. I used to think he was just a spoiled little kid who wouldn't stop until he got his way. If he didn't get his way, he would say stuff like, 'I hate you' or mumble derogatory comments under his breath. I would literally chase him up the stairs and around the house just so I could scream in his face."

"I think after he was diagnosed with ADHD and we put him on medication, I believed he was going to stop a lot of the [awful] behavior that would drive me and my wife nuts. At that time, I didn't realize that a change in him hinged on a change in us -- especially in me, because my wife was much more tolerant and forgiving of his behavior. The fact that he was on medication and still acting out made me even angrier."

"I didn't know how to make him act like he was supposed to. Even though my wife said I should look at how I reacted to Pete, it had very little effect on how I treated him. Believe it or not, things began to change for me after I read an article on disciplining your child. It was my wife's magazine, and one morning I was flipping through it and saw the article. After reading it, I was shocked at how I basically did everything to ensure that Pete not develop self-control and self-discipline. The screaming and punishment tactics I used made him feel even more helpless and out of control."

"Shortly after this, I read another article about ADHD. It helped me understand what is going on inside of Pete's mind and body. I suppose I became more sensitive to what he was going through. I began doing more reading about how to help him when he was out of control. I rarely yell anymore. I let him know what is expected of him and what needs to happen in order for him to do what he wants. I think my not yelling and being on an even keel with him has had a huge impact on him. I see him as being much more responsible and listening much better."

"This was the gist of the article: Don't get excited about what your child does, be clear about expectations, be clear about family rules, and be clear about what the family limits are regarding certain behaviors and choices. The most counterproductive thing you can do is scream or hit the kid. This definitely makes the kid shrink from taking responsibility for what he did."

The parenting paradox

When a dad becomes accepting of his child's behavior, a paradox occurs: the problematic behavior diminishes in frequency, intensity, and duration. We are not suggesting that you accept the inappropriate behavior, but rather that you accept your child for who he or she is and for what he or she can and cannot do at that point in time. This does not mean that ADHD is or can be used as an excuse for acting out or engaging in disrespectful behaviors. We can and must hold our children accountable for their behavior while still maintaining a position of love and support. One father described how changing his attitude toward his son changed the relationship:

"When Paul is off his medication and his emotions are swirling all around, if I say something that irritates him, which isn't hard to do, he'll immediately say something like 'shut up' or 'get out of my face.' It took me a while to accept the fact that is his impulsive side showing. At that moment he really can't control what he is saying. When he is on medication, that type of response is very rare. I also respond to it very differently now, so he doesn't hang on to the negative feeling. I can tell he wants to say or do something different, but this surge happens and he blurts out this stuff. Since my attitude has changed, the more negative impulsive responses happen far less frequently."

The following is a wonderful example of how even the most difficult ADHD temperament can respond positively to sound parental structure and ongoing support:

"I have seen Quint use many of the techniques and strategies that my wife and I have used with him over the years. If he is getting too aggressive or angry, he pulls himself temporarily out of the situation to cool down, focus, and figure out what exactly is going on and how he is contributing to the problem. We are starting to see the results of years of working with him, modeling for him, and standing by him. When he was first diagnosed at age four, he was aggressive, agitated, and difficult to control. Now at age eight, he still has his down moments, but it is nothing compared to what it was. I see Quint as a happy and self- confident young boy. Because he was so disruptive at an early age, it would have been easy to be angry and disapproving of him a lot. But with guidance, talking with other parents, and professional help, Quint is, and is going to be, fine. Each day he learns to cope with ADHD more effectively."

Parenting calls us to a level of responsibility unparalleled in any other area of our lives. Our children are more than an extension of us; they represent all the possibilities and potential the world has to offer. They have the opportunity to exceed our expectations and to excel in unimaginable directions. We place enormous responsibility on our children to succeed, make good choices, establish sound values, and be good citizens. We often expect them to capitalize on opportunities we failed to or were unable to, and to construct a magnificent staircase carrying them to their and, by extension, our individual success. We want them to heal our historical wounds. In reality, however, our children must battle the some battles we fought, feel the some disappointments we felt, and learn the way we did to make sense out of an unpredictable world.

However, your child does not have to face the world entirely alone; he has you as a guiding force. While our children may offer us an opportunity to heal, what they definitely offer us is the chance to live honestly, demonstrate integrity, model forgiveness, and show compassion. We can give our children the things, emotional and physical, we did not get. As many parents have learned over the ages, it is much easier to provide physical comforts than the emotional comfort we may not have received ourselves. Fathers, especially, must push against both gender and social stereotypes in order to provide their children, and especially their sons with ADHD, with the level of emotional sustenance they need.

Raising a resilient child

Children with ADHD are incredibly resilient, resourceful, and determined. Even in the face of disappointed parents and disillusioned teachers, these kids try to hang on and "do better next time." Children who do not receive the support, empathy, and care that they need will eventually break under the weight of years of negative criticism and failed attempts at improvement. One father described his son's desire to fit in and do well:

"I know Bret wants to control himself and fit in. I can just tell. But once things start going bad for him, he becomes more frustrated and has even a harder time. He doesn't give up, though. I know he is trying to pull things back on track. And he knows I am supporting him in doing his best at the moment. I sometimes think of myself as his "emotional airbag." I know the way I deal with him makes him feel safer and better able to get things back together. I want him to walk away from a bad episode knowing that he is OK, and that he can handle his frustration rather than it handling him."

The following can be seen as a metaphor for personal resiliency and emotional fortitude:

One day a mule fell into a dry well. There was no way to lift the mule out, so the farmer directed his boys to bury the mule in the well. But the mule refused to be buried. As the boys would throw dirt on the mule, it would simply trample the dirt. Very soon, enough had been thrown into the well that the mule walked out.

That which was intended to bury the mule was the very means by which it rose. This story speaks as much to the experience of parents of children with ADHD as it does to that of the children themselves. As parents, we sometimes feel like we are being "buried alive" by all the problems caused by ADHD. It is not that our children intend to smother us; rather, the symptoms emerging from the ADHD are themselves suffocating to both the parent and the child.

Like the mule, a surprising number of children with ADHD refuse to be emotionally buried by negative feedback, parental disapproval, isolation, and academic difficulty. Somehow these children walk into their adult lives making significant contributions to their communities and chosen vocations. It is believed that these children often had at least one person who unconditionally believed in them and supported the competent and capable side of their personality. It is amazing what one person, especially a father, can do to ensure a child's success.

In conclusion, children with disabilities, whether emotional or physical, can open overcome sizable odds if they believe a parent believes in them. Like a chameleon who takes on the color of its environment as a form of protection against danger, children with ADHD often take on the attitudes and beliefs of their parents. Children often define themselves by how they are defined. If they perceive that they are considered "bad," a "waste of time," "worthless," or only tolerated, they will begin living out this belief by seeking out negative experiences. On the other hand, when a child feels loved, even when he doesn't feel particularly loving, he feels a sense of redemption and hope. The following shows that a shift in a father's heart and understanding of his son's ADHD is a catalyst toward reducing tension and increasing his son's overall sense of self-worth:

"Before Chris was diagnosed and medicated, I would go ballistic on him if he disobeyed, talked back, or caused problems. I became so aggravated that I just would lose it. This in turn would send him even deeper into a bad attitude or defiance. The louder he got, the louder I got, and so forth."

"There was a tremendous amount of stress and tension in the house. Now, since I have learned more about ADHD and realize my previous way of dealing with Chris was, at best, ineffective, I now deal with him in a different way. If he starts spiraling out of control, I reduce my negativity and greet his intensity with a calm manner and reason. The change in his behavior in response to this is remarkable. There is very little tension in the house, and if he does something really inappropriate, I will calmly send him to timeout. The whole way of dealing with him now is different and productive, especially when he feels overwhelmed by his emotions."

Reprinted from Attention! Magazine, Volume 4, Number 2 - Fall 1997 with permission from CH.A.D.D. For information regarding CH.A.D.D. membership contact CH.A.D.D., 499 N.W. 70 th Ave., Suite 101, Plantation, FL 33317, Ph. 954/587-3700 or visit the CH.A.D.D. website at www.chadd.org

About the book:

This article is based on a book written by Drs. Kilcarr and Quinn recently published by Brunner/Mazel, Inc. titled Voices From Fatherhood: Fathers, Sons and ADHD.

This book examines the inner thoughts, experiences, and feelings of over 100 fathers who have sons with ADHD. This is a book written especially for fathers who have sons with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and don't know how to interact with them. It is filled with quotes from fathers describing their observations about the impact of an ADHD son on their marriage, their families, and themselves. This is a book that everyone- fathers, mothers, educators,and mental health professionals - will find useful in helping to understand the dynamics of healthy father-son relationships.

About the authors: Patrick J. Kilcarr, Ph.D. is Director of the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention and the Georgetown Outdoor Leadership School at Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. He has presented numerous seminars on ADHD, including Working with Children and ADD, and The Impact of ADHD on the Child and the Family. Two of his sons have ADHD.

Patricia O. Quinn, M.D., is a developmental pediatrician practicing in the Washington, D.C. area. She specializes in child development and psychopharmacology, and works extensively in the areas of ADD, learning disabilities, and mental retardation. She gives workshops and has published widely in these fields. She is also the author of Attention Deficit Disorder, ADD and the College Student, and Adolescents and ADD; coauthor of Putting on the Brakes and The "Putting on the Brakes" Activity Book; and co-editor of BRAKES: The Interactive Newsletter for Kids with ADD.

Patrick J. Kilcarr, Ph.D and Patricia O. Quinn, M.D. Attention! Magazine Volume 4, Number 2 - Fall 1997