In a past blog, A Child’s ADHD Can Stress Your Marriage, John Grohol, Ph.D. cites an Washington Post article stating an increase in divorce rates among people who have children with ADHD. One person aptly comments that it also could be because one or more of the parents have ADHD and it’s not diagnosed making the marriage more difficult.
Having children with ADHD or special needs is challenging and requires extra responsibility that taxes the family system. There is simply more effort and time required on the parent and child’s part which makes people more tired and when people get tired they tend to get irritable. When irritability is not taken care of, people get hurt, put their walls up and close down. When partners are closed down and aren’t able to feel or detect one another’s feelings anymore, empathy flies out the window, and connection is right on its tails.
Without connection, there is no relationship and so this leads to higher rates of separation.
The quote from the Washington Post that highlights this issue says:
Regardless of whether they had children with ADHD, […] the parents asked to work with difficult children were four times as likely to exchange negative criticism and questions, or to ignore each other and trade nonverbal barbs, than the parents in the other group.
And regardless of whether they were dealing with easy or difficult children, parents who had ADHD children at home were three times as likely to be negative toward each other as parents who did not. Put another way, the parents of children with ADHD simply had less ability to respond to challenges with equanimity; they appeared to be psychologically worn thin.
How can we cultivate the ability to respond to challenges from a more grounded place instead of reacting from a state of imbalance? Psychiatrist and Holocaust Survivor Viktor Frankl noted:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
As parents, there is so much to do and so much responsibility, it’s easy to get worn thin. Part of the problem is that when we’re feeling stressed or irritable, we get kicked into auto-pilot and become reactive with negativity to the child or the partner by being short, shouting, or calling names. Unfortunately, this reactivity causes more harm than good. So what can we do?
Sometimes we can use our bodies as physical barometers to let us know when we’re imbalanced. We may feel tension in the shoulders, tightness in the face, a knot in the stomach, or even our hands clinching into fists. We can learn to use this as a signal that there is a feeling there. When we notice this, we are present. We can now take a moment to just acknowledge how we’re feeling. You may notice irritability or sadness about feeling overwhelmed or maybe a judgment screaming in your mind “I’m a bad parent.”
When we’re able to be more present, even for moments, to our thoughts, feelings, and sensations, we become more grounded and lift the walls within ourselves, we soften and create the space for openness and compassion to emerge. We also lengthen our perception of the space between the stimulus and the response so we can respond more skillfully instead of react. We may choose in this state to communicate with our partners about how we’re doing. So much battle occurs between couples because of lack of communication and disconnection. When we are present to ourselves, we make space for the ability to convey how we are doing, which then opens the door for communication, connection, and the potential for empathy which is what is most needed. Having children alone can be stressful, but having a child with special needs can be particularly taxing and it is a good practice to remind yourself of this and take some moments to care for yourself and even appreciate your partner.
When we can be more mindful of how we are doing moment-to-moment, we can also begin to become more attuned with the child who in turn will be able to sense that. The child can sense if the parent is overstressed and disconnected which makes the environment feel turbulent. When the child senses the parent is more grounded and open, this is calming and makes space for stronger attachment to the parent, which is critical.
Please share your thoughts and questions below, your additions here provide a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.