Life with an ADHD Partner or Family Member
Life with a chronic condition can be very challenging. Fortunately, in recent years there has been much more awareness and support options for people living with a neurodevelopmental condition such as adult ADHD. Not enough though has been researched about the family members and loved ones of people with adult ADHD. Their life is far from easy.
Just to clarify a few things, ADHD (or any condition for that matter) is only one part of the whole person. A person is much more than their condition or diagnosis, even if at times it seems that the condition affects all areas of their life. It is still important to separate ADHD from the person themselves.
A person with ADHD may struggle with a variety of everyday tasks that may affect their work, relationships, self-esteem, enjoying their hobbies and free time etc. But people with ADHD also have their character strengths, unique personality traits, values, abilities, needs and wishes. When we love a person, we love and focus on all those wonderful parts of them, while manage the other parts the best that we can.
In this article I will focus on three of the most common challenges that partners and loved ones of people with ADHD struggle with and provide some ideas on how to manage it.
Challenge 1: Feeling ignored/not listened to/not cared about
Due to the difficulty to regulate attention and focus people with ADHD have, people around them may feel ignored or not listened to when in conversation. It often happens that the person with ADHD, despite their best efforts to listen to what their loved one is saying, will look away, change the topic of conversation, interrupt, yawn, ask unrelated question and will seem as not being present to the person in front of them.
This is highly frustrating to the loved one who may end up feeling disrespected, uncared for, not important, and even hopeless about the relationship which may lead to resentment and even separation. Losing the relationship can be a lose-lose outcome, especially if the loved one’s assumption was incorrect and the person with ADHD values the relationship and just does not have the appropriate tools to manage communication and maintain strong connection.
Strategies to try:
- It is important to point out to the person with ADHD that they’ve lost focus, in a non-judgmental way. Remember, it is very hard to manage the symptom of inattention, the person is not in control of it most of the time. Therefore, we may say something like “I was talking about… and you changed the topic/were looking away… can we go back to what we were discussing, it is important for me”. You may need to do that multiple times during a conversation.
- Choose the right time. Timing is very important. People with ADHD get overwhelmed easily. Therefore, you may want to have a conversation after dinner instead of straight after they enter home at the end of work/study day.
- Minimise distractions. Chose environments that have less distractions: put the phone in a different room or switch off; switch off the TV. You may find that conversations go smoother when going for a walk or a drive.
Challenge 2: Unequal distribution of chores and duties
It often happens that the neurotypical partner (the one without ADHD) ends up doing the lion share of the responsibilities around the house, parenting, managing finance, planning holidays etc. This often leads to resentment and burn out of the partner, as well as feelings of helplessness and unworthiness of the partner with ADHD. Things to try:
- Use a strength-based approach. Observe what each person is good at, negotiate roles and responsibilities and commit to your part in it. Do what you are good at. Compliment each other on small achievements and acknowledge how each partner’s effort contributes to the whole family/household. As confidence of the ADHD folk grows, they may be able to take on more responsibilities in the family.
- Manage expectations. Its is more helpful to be realistic about what each person can and cannot give or do. Work on the areas in your relationship where you can see some change and progress (even if small and slow) but avoid pushing in the direction where no change happens. This just leads to disappointment, bitterness and frustration. Some level of acceptance may be helpful.
*Note: it is easier said than done, and there may be a level of grief associated with this process. Therefore, seek help through friends, family and professionals to help you manage your emotions.
- Identify priorities and most important needs of the family/relationship, then use a solution-focused approach. Break the need into smaller tasks and practical behaviours. For example, if neurotypical partner took it on themselves to manage their ADHD partner’s calendar so they don’t forget their appointments and obligations, implement a reminder systems and visual calendars the ADHD person can use themselves.
*Note: Link with professional services and get support and strategies. For a more practical approach, it may be beneficial for the family to use the services of skilled ADHD coaches/therapists to create behavioural plans for both partners to meet the demands of the family/relationship.
Challenge 3: Unpredictability and inconsistency of mood
People with ADHD have difficulty regulating themselves. That means, their energy levels, mood and motivation will change frequently and unpredictably (even in the absence of obvious triggers, which may be perplexing). These inconsistencies may be very hard on the loved ones of people with ADHD as they do not know what to expect or what mood they are coming home to. Try these:
- Take a step a way and breathe. Help yourself manage your own emotions and frustrations first. Only then offer help, support reassurance.
- If you find you are not able to tolerate the strong emotion of your loved one with ADHD, tell them gently that you need to take a break and get back to them after they have calmed down (especially if you are dealing with anger). If you can tolerate the emotion (such as sadness, confusion, fear), acknowledge the emotion and stay present with your loved one for reassurance. Do not jump to offer advice. It may be more helpful just to be near and do small acts of kindness such as giving the person a hug, offering a cuppa, offering to go for a walk/coffee to change the environment.
*Note: When the person experiences strong emotions it is not useful to talk about solutions and problem-solve, as the person is not able to process that information. Bring this conversation up when the person calmed down, or even the next day.
- Practice self-care. Loved ones of a person with ADHD will find themselves in a carer role at times. This can be draining. Moreover, the frequent mood changes (sometimes within a few hours) may leave the neurotypical person anxious, exhausted, helpless and even depressed. It is therefore essential that self-care is implemented on a regular basis. Making sure that you are well, will make it possible to love and care for the loved one with ADHD, having the energy to focus on the good times, enjoy each other company and leading a rewarding and meaningful life.
- Read and continuously engage with ADHD related resources, information and support options (such as websites, support groups, research information, professionals who have a special interest in ADHD) to help you identify what is an ADHD- related symptom and what is not and how to best manage each symptom as a carer/partner/family member/friend. This will help with understanding and managing this complex condition and navigate the challenges in the relationship.
Note: make sure the information comes from reliable sources and research-based organisations. For suggestions, see the article: ‘Getting Diagnosed with Adult ADHD’
Life with ADHD person in your family will have its challenges and frustrations, for sure. Therefore, it is important to have the right tools to help you manage the challenging situations. The good news is that there is support out there, so do reach out.
Author: Ilana Gorovoy, B.Arts (Psych), B. Arts (Hons.)(Psychology), MPsych (Couns.)
With a Master’s in Counselling, Brisbane Psychologist Ilana Gorovoy draws on therapeutic approaches such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Existential and Strengths-based approaches, Person-Centred and Positive Psychology, to assist her clients to become conscious of their strengths and difficulties, design and reach their goals, live a life of meaning and purpose, and reach their full potential.
To make an appointment with Brisbane Psychologist Ilana Gorovoy, try Online Booking. Alternatively, you can call M1 Psychology on (07) 3088 5422.