ADD and Marriage Problems: What to Tell Your Kids

If you are in a marital crisis, do you say anything about it to your kids?  While the answer to this question is extremely personal, I think there are some rules of thumb.  Some of these are based in my personal feelings about how you foster trust in relationships, including the parent/child relationship.  I would love to hear what you think and your own approaches.

My overarching philosophy that underlies all of the ideas below is that trust is built upon honesty, albeit honesty that is appropriate to the age of the child in question.  In the worst-case scenario, it seems far worse to me to try to “hide” your marital discord from a child (could you, really, in any event?!) and suddenly pull the rug out from under him by announcing you are getting a divorce, than it is to have the child understand that you weren’t getting along for some time, tried hard, but just couldn’t make it work.  How would a child ever learn to trust what someone was telling them again, if his parents weren’t even honest with him?  No, I do not, philosophically, believe that children need to be shown some sanitized version of relationships.  Rather, I think that they can, to varying degrees as they age, accept that relationships can be complex and observe that effort needs to be expended to keep relationships healthy.

So, that said, here are my rules of thumb about how to talk to kids about your relationship:

The younger the child, the less answer he is looking for.  A four year old who asks “why do you and mommy fight so much?” does not need a lesson in marital relations.  A simple “we are having some trouble getting along right now, but are trying to work it out” is enough.  On the other hand, if your teen throws “Why don’t you just get divorced?!  You seem to hate each other!” in your face, he deserves a more thoughtful response.

Keep it simple, but thoughtful.  I’ve always believed that kids have a “bullshit-o-meter”.  Though they may accept what you are telling them, mine, at least, always can tell when an adult is glossing things over.  I think it shows respect to be honest and thoughtful, without going into a lot of detail.  Or, put another way, when they ask questions, they are probably looking for confirmation that what they think they are seeing is real, and reassurance that you are trying to deal with your problems.  They are not looking for a blow-by-blow recap of why your spouse is a monster.

Keep your explanations as positive as possible.  I would not tell a child I was considering consulting a divorce lawyer to try to decide whether or not to get a divorce.  This would create anxiety, without providing much reassurance or, in fact, any real direction (you might decide not to use the lawyer, or get the divorce, for example).  But I might say “your father and I are having a tough time in our relationship right now.  We are trying very hard to work things out if we can.”  This acknowledges your issues, tells the child you are trying to work things out, and also suggests you may not be able to, without bringing in the concept of a lawyer.

Make sure they know your problems are not their fault.  Kids sometimes personalize family issues.  Make sure that they understand that your issues are adult issues with each other, and that you love them unreservedly (and always will).

Keep from blaming, and personalizing, ADD.  This is tricky because much of the conflict in your relationship may be around ADD symptoms.  But in a household where at least one adult is diagnosed with ADD, then often at least one child is diagnosed (in part because usually the kids get diagnosed first).  This means that any personal invectives hurled at each other about ADD can also be taken personally by an ADD child who overhears them.  For example:  “You are so lazy – I can’t believe I ever married you!” yelled in anger not only unfairly attacks the adult by not acknowledging some of the challenges faced by people with ADD, but also could make a child wonder “but I have trouble doing things, too!  Will my mother reject me, too?”  Or consider, “I just want you to not have ADD – then I could love you!”  While your spouse may understand this as shorthand for “I want you to get your ADD symptoms under control so our life together is easier,” a child would not necessarily get this (not having been part of your other conversations).  He would only see that ADD=unlovable.

It’s okay to admit you are having problems, and that you are sad, angry or upset.  Your child already knows this through observation of your behavior.  In fact, I personally think it is better for your children to see you “own” your feelings, rather than hide them.  This sets an example for them to “own” their own feelings and, hopefully, share them with you.

Every once in a while, check in.  You want to make sure your child has an opportunity to discuss her feelings with you.  Particularly with middle and high schoolers, look for opportunities to ask "are you okay?" or "I know things were kind of tense around here last night.  Do you have any feelings you want to talk about?"  Make sure this is done in private, and that you don't take advantage of that privacy to push your own agenda.  Listen, and listen some more.

Keep your relationships with your children healthy, but don't rely on them as a surrogate for your marital relationship.  If you are having a tough time with your husband, it may be tempting to focus all of your attention on your kids (particularly if they are very young).  Relationships with kids, are often more straightforward than difficult relationships with spouses.  But if you spend all your attention on your child, you are not allocating enough time to do positive things with your spouse.  In fact, I've seen numerous examples where women (usually) so devote themselves to their child's needs that their spouse becomes very resentful.  Ultimately, not spreading your love around can put pressure on your child and undermine your marriage.

Your child is not your friend or your therapist.  Therefore, do not go to him/her for advice or reinforcement.  It does not help your child if you say “don’t you think Daddy was awful when he….(fill in the blank)?” or "I can't believe your mother forgot to pick you up from school again today!"  This is asking the child to take sides – a big no-no.

Professional help is always an option.  Don’t forget that a family or individual therapist can help a child work through the emotions he is feeling about his family situation.  Position this help as a healthy outlet for his feelings, not someone you go to as a last resort.


up2lisa's picture

How to Correct a Misinformation

These tips are great and ones I live by...before and after my ADD Marriage. One tip I could use is how to correct misinformation given by the ADD spouse to the child. Sometimes it is like watching a car wreck about to happen and saying…oh, that was a good driving technique, for smashing a car. I want my children to think their Dad is the greatest and most wonderful dad in the world, but his ADD is increasingly making it hard to cover for him. Our eldest now turning 11 is getting more and more knowledgeable. She now is able to distinguish what makes sense and does not. When do I have “the other … TALK” the talk about “Daddy’s condition.” And in the mean time, how do I support a healthy perception for her father in the midst of his ADD episodes. L

Correcting MIsinformation

This is a great question, and I will give you my own personal answer.  I would be interested in hearing if others agree with it.

I think that the best approach is to talk about ADD as one way of being, a way that your mind works.  Every person has strengths and weaknesses, and I think it is good for children (and adults) to both search for the good (and reinforce it) and accept that all people have weaknesses, too.  In our family, having this conversation was very easy to do because my husband is a very mathematical person, excellent with computers and logic and not all that good at the personal relationships stuff for a long time (he has worked hard on this now and is very good finally).  I, on the other hand, am not good with the math/logic side of things, but will try any artistic endeavor, love to write, and do many things instinctively.  So when it got around to talking to our kids about how to manage the fact that the people in our family all have different ways of perceiving things, of doing things, and of acting, it was pretty easy to find some contrasting examples to support the "people are all different, and everyone has strengths and weaknesses" story.  (As you think about how you might talk about strengths and weaknesses, make sure to include strengths, as well as weaknesses.)

I don't think you talk about "Daddy's condition" at all - that makes it sound as if he has a disease, which he doesn't.  What he has is a way that his brain is wired that is different from yours.  This means he will naturally do things differently, and that it takes a lot of effort on his part to sometimes do things that we take for granted.  Encouraging empathy and support is a stronger path, in my opinion, than suggesting that something is wrong or that he is sick.  If she pushes you with a "why does he do X when it seems so stupid?" you can tell her that it can be very hard to change the way that your mind works to do things differently.  You hope that he'll be able to, but in the meantime he does things the way he does things.

By encouraging your child to accept her father for who he is, you open up an avenue for her to have a better relationship with him.  Hopefully, she'll be able to look at him and decide "in what ways do I want to rely upon him?"  She may choose not to rely on him to pick her up from school at an appointed time, since she can see that he's not so good with time management, but she might very well rely on him to be a great night-time story reader (I'm making these examples up, but you get the idea).

In general, if you can teach your daughter to find the humor in some of her father's foibles, I think she will be better off.  You, also, might feel better on a daily basis.

Accepting her father doesn't mean she should enable him by "becoming a parent to him" when she is with him and you aren't around.  You can communicate to her that fixing her father's issues is her father's job, not hers.  In addition, you want to make sure that his ADD doesn't endanger her in some way.  For example, talk with her about not getting into a car with a drunk driver, even her father, if you think this might be an issue.  Make sure she always wears a seatbelt (the accident rate for people with ADD is higher because they are more easily distracted) and make sure she feels comfortable in talking with you about anything that makes her either particularly happy about her father (kids in divorce are sometimes slow to do this because they don't want to disappoint the listening parent by seeming to support the other one too much) or anything that makes her anxious.  When she does talk, make sure not to criticize either her or him, but try to stay neutral or positive.  If she gets lots of grief from friends over her father's behavior, practice what she can say to them that is supportive of him, and finishes that conversation.  ("His brain works differently than yours, that's all" is one response that might work.)  Finally, make sure that she has her own cell phone with key numbers of neighbors and family in it so that if he forgets to pick her up some day or something unexpected happens, she can call him or someone else as a backup.

Melissa Orlov

Teens and an ADD parent

My husband is severely affected by ADD - when our son was in his mid teens we began seeing some real problems with his respect for his father...not the "usual" teenage rebellion stuff, but honest disappointment that what he wanted to learn from his father, hunting, tracking, building, you know, "guy stuff" just wasn't something his well-meaning father could deliver. So, with hubby's OK, I counseled our son to get what he needed from other men. We were lucky. Our son was honest enough to admit the core issues of loss, DH didn't have ego issues, and I was freed to encourage him to emulate the positive qualities of his father. Consequently we have a highly successful 26 year-old son, who has learned what he wanted to learn, and honors his father while recognizing his limitations. Sometimes we joke that it's too bad I couldn't have taken my own advice...and yes there are days when that's not quite so funny... Bottom line is that information is power. It's powerlessness and misinformation that leads to bitterness and rebellion in our children. Understanding difficult issues is different than excusing them away or denying their existence. Be truthful, be honest....your kids will reward you with the same.


marriage problems that involve kids is real tricky some choose to tell them the truth some choose to lie, but each case is different