In her book, Teenagers with ADD and ADHD: A Guide for Parents and Professionals, Chris Zeigler Dendy discusses the challenges teens with ADHD — and their parents — face. Her insights are based on her personal experiences and those of the many parents, teens, and experts whom she has interviewed.
In this excerpt from the book, Ms. Dendy describes the unique issues faced by single parents raising teens with ADHD.
What unique issues do single parents face?
Divorce is a fact of life in the world today and may have a negative impact on many teenagers with attention deficits. The exploding divorce rate (approximately 50 percent) has resulted in roughly 40-50 percent of all teenagers living with a single parent, typically their mother. Adolescence alone is a difficult adjustment period for many young people. If the teen has an attention deficit, plus parents who are divorcing, it is an even more stressful time in his life.
Researchers tell us that divorce is harder on youngsters with attention deficits than it is on their peers. So single parents face a special challenge raising these teens. Although experts aren’t certain why, children with attention deficits who live with a single parent are more aggressive than those living in a two-parent family. Having the sole responsibility of raising a teenager with this disorder is an exhausting job, especially if no family members live nearby to provide support and help. This doesn’t mean single parents cannot be good parents. However, the job of raising these teenagers is usually easier when two parents work together and give each other some relief from the stress. Two-parent families who move a lot and have no relatives nearby also miss the extra support an extended family can provide.
Exhaustion and lack of support are often huge problems for single parents, especially when their teen has undiagnosed coexisting problems:
“The turning point for me as single parent came when I was trying to hold down a job and keep my son in school. Those two things together were about the death of me. I was exhausted physically and emotionally but I never got a break from the stress of raising him. At times, I just needed to be away from him, to get my emotions under control — so that I didn’t do any harm to him or myself.
“Once I was feeling so overwhelmed, I locked myself in my room and found myself praying, ‘Am I the right parent for this child?’ I couldn’t open the door until I got an answer to that question. I finally realized that I was the only hope for this child. No one else could do it for me. I had to do whatever it took to help him, in a world that just didn’t understand him. I prayed to God to give me strength because I was absolutely at the end of my rope.
“Here’s my advice for other single parents: Never doubt that you have what it takes to stay the course. In fact you may be the only person who can or will.
“Looking back on this incident now, I can laugh about it. I so badly needed just a little time alone, that’s why I put myself in ‘timeout’ by locking myself in my room. But even then I couldn’t get any peace. He was banging on the door and screaming at the top of his lungs, ‘Mama, let me in.’ It’s hard to believe he was only five years old. Much later I came to understand why he was so challenging; he had both ADHD and bipolar.”
The isolation and rejection by others are incredibly painful for these families.
“When Jeremy was small, I was so isolated. Nobody wanted my child to be around their child. We were both excluded. He was not invited to parties or invited over to play. He was not picked for teams. No one seemed to understand. These were just little things, but it was so hurtful for me as a parent to watch that happen and to feel helpless to do anything about it. Feelings of helplessness and hopelessness will eat you alive. I struggled on a daily basis with feelings of being excluded and nobody wanting us. That was such a lonely and terrible place to be. Occasionally, I even felt like I was on the verge of a mental breakdown.
“There was no place I could go and be accepted except at CHADD (Children and Adults with ADHD) meetings. That was the only place I felt I could just be myself and not be judged. They had been there too; they understood.”
“Single parenting is ‘doable’ when you have a support system of family, friends, and professionals. But when access to resources is denied because of finances, location, or availability, isolation and depression can become your worst enemy. This was one of my biggest struggles.”
The mother-son or father-daughter relationship may be extremely intense and difficult during this period for several reasons. First, the teenage male with ADD or ADHD is becoming a man and that means behaving like husbands and fathers do. He may want to be the male head of the household in his father’s absence. Consequently, he may feel threatened by men dating his mother. He may be possessive for fear the man may take his mother away from him. After all, he has already “lost” one parent. Competition with the “other man” for his mother’s attention is likely to occur. Similar problems may occur if the daughter has an attention deficit and her father is dating or decides to remarry.
In addition, the teenager with ADD or ADHD may act like his father did, or even look like him, and some of the problems the divorced parents had may be played out between the mother and the son. If the divorce is recent, then the teen may struggle with depression and anger as well as with the attention deficit.
Parent relationship with an ex-spouse
After a divorce, the relationship between parents can be strained and at times outright hostile. It takes a special effort from both parents to make it work positively in the best interests of the child. There are numerous potential areas for conflict: disagreements over diagnosis, medication use, the level of structure, and discipline.
“It was always a huge adjustment for Jeremy when he came back home from his Dad’s. His dad had a very loose environment and there was absolutely no structure. Jeremy could do anything he wanted to do there. Then he would come back home where we had schedules and routines that he desperately needed. His dad was always ‘fun’; I wasn’t. I felt like I was always the ‘bad guy.’ My ex-husband didn’t believe anything was wrong with Jeremy, because they acted just alike.”
Single parents who begin dating again after divorce or the death of their spouse face a difficult situation. Frequently, the people they date do not understand the teenager or attention deficit disorder. Consequently, they think that increased discipline will solve all problems. These “significant others” face major conflicts and disappointments if they are rigid or expect the teen to respond to traditional discipline and instantaneously obey their requests.
“People I dated during my ten years as a single parent would try to tell me what to do to ‘straighten Lewis out.’ They just believed his behavior problems were my fault because I was a single parent.”
Conflicts between the parent and “significant other” about child-rearing practices and discipline are almost certain to arise. If a long-term relationship develops, educating the friend about symptoms and treatment of attention deficit disorder is important. Here are some ideas that may help:
- Provide some easy reading materials about teenagers with ADD and ADHD. Start out with something brief and easy to read. Relevant sections of this book may be helpful. Excellent fact sheets are available from chadd.org. In addition, A Bird’s-Eye View provides an easy, but scientifically accurate “Cliff Notes” read for adults and teens.
- Attending CHADD or other support group meetings together should be extremely helpful.
- Try making a special effort to include the teen in some activities with the two adults.
- Scheduling special alone time with just the parent and teenager is also helpful.
- Avoid saying anything negative about the absent parent. To maintain strong self-esteem and cope successfully with his parents’ divorce, the teen needs a strong relationship with both parents.
These steps should make the teenager less anxious and more accepting of the new person in his parent’s life. Remember, it often takes a very special and understanding person to cope with a teenager with an attention deficit, especially when the teen is not his own.