Riding the ADHD Roller Coaster

By Ellen Littman Ph.D with Eve Kessler, Esq.


Having a child with ADHD often impacts the entire family • Educating family members about the condition can help ensure realistic expectations, which will lead to a more positive, less stressful dynamic at home

Ask any parent of a child with ADHD and they’ll tell you that life often feels like a never-ending roller coaster ride. There are days when your child comes home from school demoralized, dejected, frustrated, or angry. He’s had another bad day, which means you and the family are in for another stress-filled evening.

He’s at that age where he needs structure but resents rules; needs reminders but resents nagging; needs limits but resents feeling dependent; is drawn to unhealthy behaviors but resents warnings.

But then there are days—or times during the day—when your child is not anxious or overwhelmed, when he feels good about himself, and when you no longer feel like you’re walking on eggshells. He is active, motivated, focused, creative, and resilient. It’s at those times that his life and your family life are calmer and more productive.

While the ups and downs may not be entirely preventable, ensuring that your family has an understanding of your child’s condition should help create a home environment that’s less stressful.

Check Your Expectations

You can’t expect your child with ADHD to be at the same developmental level as his peers without ADHD. Kids with ADHD have physiological differences that involve a delay in brain maturation and lead to certain developmental delays. The neurological development of non-ADHD peers continues at least through age 25, with the part of the brain in charge of executive functioning—the prefrontal cortex— among the last areas of the brain to mature.

For your child with ADHD, the development of the prefrontal cortex may lag up to five years behind that of his peers. That means your 13-year-old may be functioning more like a 10-year-old, when it comes to maturity, ability to self-regulate and interact socially, and development of life skills. It means your 18-year-old may not be “ready to launch” without clear, direct instruction in the basics of living away from home independently: doing laundry, paying bills, balancing a checkbook, filling a prescription, and shopping for food.

Other Factors

Your child’s ability to engage in age-appropriate behavior may be further complicated by a hypersensitive central nervous system, where instead of feeling comfortable in his own body, noises sound louder, fabrics feel scratchier, and the texture of food needs to be just right.

Also, keep in mind that two-thirds of kids with ADHD are diagnosed with at least one co-existing condition, such as anxiety, learning disabilities, depression, dyslexiaOppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD), or a sleep disorder, which impacts their ability to meet age-appropriate expectations. Make sure to have your child expertly evaluated, both neurologically and educationally, in order to have a comprehensive psychological diagnosis and full academic picture of his strengths and needs.

Although your instinct may be to push your child to “keep up” or “fit in” with his peers, such pressure is the opposite of what he needs to feel good about himself and to thrive.

Listen, Acknowledge, Help

Listen to your child before speaking, acknowledge what’s difficult for him, and help him address the problem. Whether the “problem” sounds important to you or not, your child’s brain doesn’t distinguish well between types of problems or prioritize them appropriately. Because of his inconsistent emotional regulation, he may be thrown into an unwarranted panic mode.

Help him feel good about himself by listening to him and by accepting and embracing who he is, differences and all. He might just need to be heard; he might need soothing words and a long, firm hug; or he might need something more.

For example, if your child longs to fit into a group of peers at school but misses social cues and, subsequently, spirals out of control, allow him to calm down and re-group with down time when he gets home. Let him explain his perception of what happened; then, re-frame his faux pas and laugh about it as a difference, not a problem. Discuss and role play responses he can use the next time a similar situation occurs.

Along with showing respect, compassion and overriding love, teach your child strategies he will need to get through another day and empower him with skills he will need for life.

This article is based on The Impact of ADHD on the Family, a presentation by Ellen Littman, Ph.D., sponsored by Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities, and What the ADHD Brain Wants (and Why), an article by Dr. Littman, published in the Spring 2017 issue of ADDitude Magazine. Eve Kessler, Esq., a criminal appellate attorney with The Legal Aid Society, NYC, is co-founder of SPED*NET, Special Education Network of Wilton (CT), and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids. Dr. Ellen Littman is a member of the Smart Kids Professional Advisory Board. 

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