The AD/HD Parent

We’ve heard a lot about kids with ADD or AD/HD, but what about parents who suffer from an attention disorder? Here’s a look at how it affects moms and dads and how they cope.

By Janet Strassman Perlmutter

What parent doesn’t sometimes feel muddled, forgetful, overwhelmed or even irritable in the face of parenting?

We manage children’s schedules, as well as our own. We prepare meals amid ringing phones, questions about homework and maybe a skirmish or two over whose turn it is at the computer. And we juggle to fit in the never-ending chores of running a household – food shopping, paying bills, laundry, lawn care and so much more. It’s normal to feel flustered – or even flooded – in light of all that, isn’t it?

Do you ever wonder if your disorganization or distractedness is an attention deficit disorder? Wait a minute! That’s a kid’s issue … right?

The fact is, there are lots of misconceptions about ADD, formally known as attention deficit/hyperactive disorder (AD/HD). Among those fallacies is that it only affects children.

Research conducted internationally by the World Health Organization and regionally by Russell Barkley, Ph.D., author of Taking Charge of ADHD, both came to the same conclusion: AD/HD, originally understood as a childhood disorder, is found in one in 20 adults. Separate studies show that if you have a child with AD/HD, there’s a more than one-in-four chance that you have it, too.

How Can You Tell?

Before you turn the page, thinking “Well, I’m not hyperactive,” a bit of explaining is in order regarding the term itself. Attention deficit/hyperactive disorder is a complicated name, and not very descriptive for all its wordiness. Not all those diagnosed with AD/HD have the hyperactive type of the disorder. And not all experts agree that the disorganization and distractability, hallmarks of the syndrome, are due to inattention. Some experts suggest it is over-attentiveness to small details that underlies this difficulty.

Barkley points out that while the criteria for evaluating AD/HD is the same in adults as in children, the appearance differs in some ways by virtue of their different stages in life. With young kids, he explains, a description of impulsivity and hyperactivity might be “jumps on furniture,” whereas with adults you see more driving accidents.

AD/HD in adults can prove especially challenging as a parent. Edward Hallowell, M.D., co-author of the best-selling book about attention disorders, Driven to Distraction, clarifies that it is a disorder of the brain’s “executive function,” or planning abilities. So, Hallowell observes, “it will affect the tremendous number of organizational demands” of being a parent.

AD/HD, as defined in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, encompasses the “Inattentive Type” marked by forgetfulness, distractability, difficulty following through on tasks and trouble organizing oneself – a person who appears “spacey” or “daydreamy” – as well as the “Hyperactive Type,” which includes excessive talking, impatience, impulsivity, restlessness and difficulty engaging in quiet, leisurely activities.

Hence the “/” between “attention deficit” and “hyperactivity.” It can be an either/or diagnosis: An individual can meet the criteria for either Inattentive Type AD/HD or for Hyperactive Type AD/HD. It’s not uncommon for people to be diagnosed with the “Combined Type,” showing a history of both features.

Dahlia, an educator, and her husband, Hank, who works in the computer industry, provide examples of both types. As their three children, one by one, were diagnosed with AD/HD, they began to recognize the symptoms in themselves and each other.

Dahlia has the hyperactive type, like her kids. “Having lots of energy when I was raising three active little kids was an asset,” she says. But there was a downside, too. “I’d be shooting from the hip,” she recalls, “and I’d say inappropriate things.” Parenting with AD/HD is harder, she concludes, “because you need to be incredibly patient and I just couldn’t be.”

Dahlia contrasts this with her husband, who was diagnosed with the inattentive type. “He analyzes everything,” she says. “He thinks about things for a long time.” And, according to Dahlia’s description, is painfully slow to make decisions.

Then and Now

History is a big part of this diagnosis. If you were a well-organized kid who handed her homework in neatly, accurately and in a timely manner, you probably aren’t an AD/HD adult. According to the diagnostic criteria, adults with AD/HD first showed signs before the age of 7 and they continue to find that these characteristics perpetually interfere with their meeting expectations at work, home, school or in relationships.

That’s probably the greatest difference between the person who has the intermittent bad day – when you just can’t check anything off your to-do list – and the person with AD/HD who chronically finds it difficult to complete a task. It’s a matter of degree – How much do these characteristics interfere with your success as a parent, spouse, employee or student? – and consistency – Are these issues that have dogged you for years?

When today’s parents were children, AD/HD was less commonly diagnosed. It’s not unusual for parents to realize only when their own child goes through the AD/HD evaluation process that the diagnosis may apply to them too. Those with the inattentive type of AD/HD – the dreamy, spacey version (often, but not only, found in girls) – are less likely to get diagnosed as kids than a hyperactive person who may be harder for a teacher or parent to manage. So a person could easily reach adulthood thinking of themselves as “a space cadet,” never considering that there could be a physiological issue at play.

Take Kim, a nurse practitioner and mother of three, as an example. She has one son diagnosed with AD/HD and now she wonders if the diagnosis applies to her, too.

“I flit from thing to thing,” Kim explains. “I’m working on the computer, then I get up to do laundry, then I go up to the kids’ room. I get done what needs to get done, but not in a linear fashion.”

Like many with AD/HD, Kim describes collections waiting to be organized all over her house, including boxes of photos in the hall, piles of clothing to be sorted, and a file cabinet with family papers awaiting her attention for a dozen years.

“I start going through the piles, then I find something I wanted, like the kids’ bathing suits, and then I’ll stop,” she says. “I wish I could be more efficient.”

If You Wonder, Act!

Hallowell encourages parents who wonder if they have AD/HD to see a psychiatrist, psychologist or clinical social worker to have a proper evaluation.

“Don’t just get a book of tips and go on your own,” he urges. “And don’t be afraid of the diagnosis. It’s good news.”

The good news is that it’s a very treatable condition and once a person recognizes that their underachieving, inconsistency or general fogginess are part of a neurobiologic condition, they can get appropriate help – and more easily address the self-deprecating inner-voice that the psychiatrist commonly finds among undiagnosed adults with AD/HD.

“It’s not that you’re a dingbat, a loser or a spaceshot,” says Hallowell, who discovered at age 31 that he too has AD/HD. “It’s a genetic disorder,” he says about the condition that elicits lots of derogatory labeling and, often, a lot of shame.

But after years of being branded as confused, disorganized, impulsive or inefficient, it can be hard to drop those negative images – even after a medical explanation is found. No one interviewed for this article wanted to be fully identified, possibly a reflection of the kind of judgments people with AD/HD live with or their concern about others’ reactions. (Out of respect for these sources’ concerns and privacy, the names of the parents with AD/HD quoted in this article have been changed.)

Where Did This Come From

Barkley, a professor in the department of neurology and psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina, says that AD/HD emerges from genetic causes about 80 percent of the time. The remaining 20 percent are caused by head injury, very low birthweight in babies, lead exposure or the effects of drinking or smoking in pregnant mothers.

AD/HD is not a result of laziness, too much sugar or overexposure to TV or video games, no matter how often those and other undocumented causes take the blame. But it is true, Hallowell says – as he will explains in his book, Delivered from Distraction: Getting the Most out of Life with Attention Deficit Disorder< that exercise and good nutrition are keys to managing AD/HD.

“Junk food makes attention deficit disorders worse, and a balanced diet seems to help,” Hallowell reports.


  • Managing the Condition
  • Resources: Organizations & books that can help
  • Do I have AD/HD?
  • Janet Strassman Perlmutter is a clinical social worker and a freelance writer.