How Children's ADHD Symptoms Affect Parents' Feelings
ADHD in children puts stress on parents. In fact, parents of children
with ADHD report greater parenting stress, less satisfaction in their parenting
role, and more depressive symptoms than other parents. They also report
more negative interactions with their child. This is certainly not
true in all families where a child has ADHD but instead reflects average
differences that have been found.
How do ADHD symptoms in children affect parents' feelings about parenting
and their behavior toward their child? And, does this differ for boys
and girls? These questions were the focus of a study recently published
online in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology [Glatz et al., (2011).
Parents' reactions to youths' hyperactive, impulsivity and attention problems.
Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology. Published online July
Participants were 706 children (376 boys and 330) and their parents from
a mid-sized town in Sweden. They were drawn from a 5-year longitudinal
study which included nearly all youth from 4th thru 12th grade in this town.
Youth were between 10 and 12 at the start of the study and well into adolescence
by the conclusion. This was not a sample of youth diagnosed with ADHD
but a regular community sample.
Three waves of data were collected from parents (over 70% mothers) with
roughly 2 years between each wave. Measures collected during each wave
included the following:
Child ADHD symptoms - Parents rated their child's ADHD symptoms using
a standardized rating scale.
Youth defiance - Ratings of children's oppositional behavior .
Unresponsiveness to Parental Correction - This scale measured how
parents' felt their child normally responded to parental attempts to influence
his or her behavior. High scores reflect parents' feelings that their
child was unresponsive to such efforts.
Parents' Feelings of Powerlessness - This scale measured parents'
perceptions of their inability to change their youth's problematic behavior.
High scores reflected a parent's feeling that he/she was relatively powerless
to change problematic behavior in their child. A sample item from this
scale is "Have you ever felt on the border of giving up - felt that there
was nothing you could do about the problems you had with the youth?"
In addition to collecting the above data from parents, children also completed
scales that measures their perception of their parents' warmth, coldness and
rejection towards them. These scales were collected during waves 2
Because data was collected over a 5-year period, the researchers could test
whether ADHD symptoms predicted parents' perception of child unresponsiveness
and their own sense of powerless several years later. The specific predictions
tested were that: 1) child ADHD symptoms lead parents to perceive their child
as unresponsive to correction; and, 2) feeling that one's child is unresponsive
to correction leads to increases in a parent's feelings of powerlessness.
The longitudinal design also allowed the researchers to test how parents'
feelings of powerlessness may influence their behavior towards their child.
They hypothesized that parents who felt more powerless would be perceived
by their child to display less warmth and more coldness and rejection towards
them over time.
Results from this study were largely consistent with the above hypotheses.
Parents' report of child ADHD symptoms at time 1 predicted increased feelings
that their child was unresponsive to correction 2 years later. In turn, parents'
reports of child unresponsiveness to correction at time 2 predicted increased
feelings of powerless 2 years later.
The authors next tested whether parents' feelings of powerlessness predicted
youths' perception of how their parents behaved towards them. Parents
who reported more powerlessness at time 1 had children who reported more cold
and rejecting parental behavior and reduced parental warmth 2 years later.
The above results were largely consistent across boys and girls. In
addition, these results remained largely unchanged even when taking children's
level of defiance into account, suggesting that ADHD symptoms have a direct
effect on the processes studied.
Summary and Implications
The adverse impact of children's ADHD symptoms on parents' stress levels,
satisfaction in the parenting role, and even depressive symptoms have been
known for some time. Results from this study suggest that it is not
ADHD symptoms themselves that affect parents in these ways, but rather, it
is parents' perception that their child is largely unresponsive to correction
that is most challenging.
Behaviors associated with ADHD appear to influence parents negatively because
they are perceived to be largely outside parents' control, which contributes
to growing feelings of powerlessness. Feelings of powerlessness, in
turn, can lead parents to behave towards their child in ways that children
increasingly view as colder, more rejecting, and less warm. This cycle
was largely similar for boys and girls and would be expected to have growing
negative affects on children and parents over time.
What is somewhat ironic about these findings is that in children with ADHD,
behaviors that reflect inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsivity are believed
to have strong biological underpinnings and are legitimately difficult for
parents and children to control. Thus, it is not surprising that many
parents experience children displaying high levels of these behaviors as unresponsive
to correction, and these feelings are not necessarily inaccurate. What
makes these feelings problematic, however, is that they contribute to growing
feelings of powerlessness in parents, perhaps because the understandable difficulty
parents have 'correcting' behaviors that reflect core symptoms of ADHD can
lead them to feel less confident about influencing their child in other important
An example may make this clearer. If I have a child with ADHD who
is severely hyperactive, getting my child to significantly alter their activity
level is going to be extremely difficult using the typical strategies parents
might engage. It is easy to imagine how if I continue to focus on this,
I will increasingly feel that my child is unresponsive to correction and develop
a growing sense of powerlessness. Over time, this might contribute to
my being less willing to try and exert influence in important areas where
I am more likely to be successful, e.g., helping my child develop a particular
skill or talent or helping him learn the importance of developing reasonable
saving and spending habits.
This argues for the importance of helping parents recognize that although
children may be 'unresponsive to correction' when it comes to the core symptoms
of ADHD that have important biological underpinnings, this does not need to
generalize to other aspects of a child's life where parents are eager to
have an important positive influence. Clearly understanding that getting
children to change core ADHD symptoms is difficult - many would argue that
this is where carefully monitored medication treatment can play a useful role
- may protect parents from feeling increasingly powerless about exerting positive
influence on their child and help them remain engaged with their child in
ways that children experience as warm, nurturing and supportive.
in Attention Research Update is for informational purposes only, and is
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(c) 2011 David Rabiner, Ph.D.