Voices From Fatherhood

By: Patrick J. Kilcarr

The impact of ADHD on the family and the father's relationship with his child
Dr. Patrick Kilcarr

As many of us know, living with ADHD pushes the envelope of maintaining consistency and regularity in our lives. Just when we think we have a handle on it, something in life shifts to keep us off balance. Learning to manage ADHD in ourselves or in the lives of our children can be as emotionally frustrating as it is rewarding. This article draws insight and direction from the real experts in the field of ADHD: the fathers who live with and help support their sons who must grapple with and manage ADHD on a daily basis.

Over an eighteen month period, fathers were invited to participate in an audio taped interview regarding the sum and substance of their relationship with their son who has ADHD. Fathers poignantly discussed the impact ADHD has had on their lives, the lives of family members, and the influence ADHD has had on the hopes and dreams they hold for their sons. Fathers openly shared parenting strategies they felt were counterproductive to fostering personal maturity and responsibility in their sons. They also were very clear about the type of father-son interaction that clearly enhanced their sons' self-confidence, feelings of self-worth, and willingness to take appropriate social and emotional risks.

It was evident throughout these interviews that there is no one magical formula or specific behavior modification strategy that is going to make these children successful. While a multidisciplinary approach is essential in teaching these children how to overcome certain negative aspects of ADHD, the two most critical and influential factors were the father's attitude toward and belief in his son. Mothers naturally and often unconditionally express their love toward their children, especially children who tend to be more needy and dependent like boys who have ADHD. Fathers on the other hand, if they do not understand the way ADHD manifests itself in their sons, may express ongoing disappointment resulting in emotional withdrawal. Many of the fathers interviewed struggled to determine which behaviors were related to the ADHD and which negative behaviors were purposeful on the part of the child. This often lead to a heightened sense of frustration in the fathers, resulting in an over focusing on the problematic behaviors. This had the potential of keeping the father and son locked in a cycle of negative interaction. Fathers who reported a deep understanding of the effects of ADHD on their sons generally were able to avoid this type of destructive cycle by focusing on the positive behaviors which often were woven throughout the ADHD related behaviors.


Fathers also mentioned that having a child with a developmental disability like ADHD can put an enormous strain on the marital relationship. This frequently stems from different parenting styles or a difference of opinion on how to appropriately discipline the child with respect to negative behavior. As one father stated, "It was uncanny how my son's behavior would be the genesis of our marital turmoil. It was a predictable triangle. It started with his behavior, my wife would respond one way, I would respond another, and the result was the two of us arguing or getting angry about our response which all of a sudden removed the focus from my son." A united front and clear strategies for resolving marital disagreements were seen as essential by most fathers. Fathers who described a strained or poor relationship with their son often admitted to having an equally problematic marital relationship. Another father noted, "When my wife and I are having problems we have learned to slow down and see what role the ADHD behavior is playing in the whole thing. While ADHD related problems are not always the culprit, we have noticed a link between strain in our relationship and ADHD. This has been enormously helpful as far as redirecting our energy toward helping our son rather then splitting our relationship."


In terms of resolving or coping with individual and family stress, fathers described an increase in personal stress when there was a discrepancy between parental expectations and the ability level of the child at a specific developmental stage. One father described feeling enormously stressed when his son was in second grade. All the other children seemed to be reading or trying to read, while his son expressed no interest in reading or trying to read. He knew his son could begin reading if he only tried. He stated, "I began feeling less anxious about his academic ability when a counselor said, 'don't worry about his reading. He will learn at his own pace. Right now, reading is hard and is not reinforcing. As he gets older and can slow down and focus better, the reading will become less monumental.' This helped put things in perspective and gave me permission to ease-off my verbal haranguing." We want our children to follow the developmental milestones of their normally achieving/non-ADHD peers. The reality is that our children are special, unique, gifted, talented, and creative in their own way. This uniqueness will shine when kept in a warm and nurturing place.

Related to this is expectations fathers expressed that their sons experience and learn from cause and effect relationships, i.e., if you get in trouble, learn from it and avoid it in the future. Children with ADHD often think about what they have done after it is over. As they grow older and internalize many of the coping strategies they have witnessed over the years, they begin contemplating a behavior prior to acting. For a child with ADHD, this takes time, practice, and healthy modeling from parents and teachers. Because a child with ADHD seems to keep repeating an offense, it isn't necessarily an indication that the child is being disobedient, but rather, the mechanism for reflection hasn't fully developed roots.


The majority of fathers described the huge financial commitment involved in addressing their children's ADHD. The need for special services, possibly private schools, counseling, medication, and evaluations had the potential of creating a great financial drain on family resources. Fathers with limited resources described feeling guilty that they could not offer their children private schools or private counseling. This frequently created a great deal of personal stress for the fathers. One father said, "It's overwhelming when I think of the services my son could benefit from. Unfortunately, I can't afford many of them, so I have to rely on the public schools and the services they offer. It's difficult knowing I cannot do more right now."

The men interviewed for our book, Voices From Fatherhood: Fathers, Sons, and ADHDdemonstrated an ongoing commitment to walk the path of ADHD with their sons. This commitment has the potential to enhance the child's feelings of self-worth and self-confidence. The fathers clearly noted that it was not always an easy path, and at times the path seemed dimly lit. They did, however ,express that staying on the path and continuing the journey with their sons has made all the difference in the world. When fathers are actively involved with their sons, and demonstrate consistent nurturing and caring, the sons seem to excel in their social, academic, and family performance. As one father shared, "I think my son is doing so well because he genuinely feels good about himself. He has learned to let things go and not take his off days or off moments so serious. I also think his attitude adjustment definitely mirrors a change in my attitude and actions toward him. I have made a 180 degree shift in my response to him and the type of time we spend together. You can say that it is coincidence that he has been doing so well, but I think it is related to my willingness to change."

About the author:

Patrick Kilcarr, Ph.D., is Director of the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention and Outdoor Leadership School, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. Dr. Kilcarr also conducts a private practice in Washington, D.C. He is the father of five sons, two of whom have ADHD. His book, Voices From Fatherhood: Fathers, Sons, and ADHD was co-authored with Patricia O. Quinn, M.D. and is published by Brunner/Mazel, ISBN 0-945354-77-0.

Patrick J. Kilcarr, Ph.D. Georgetown University author of "Fatherhood and ADHD"