Being the Bad Guy and Telling Kids about Parental ADHD

I recently heard from a couple with several children, one of whom has ADHD.  The husband also has ADHD and is struggling to get his symptoms under control.  He rarely follows up on what he promises to do, which is driving his wife crazy.  She is responding with typical parent/child dynamics - taking over everything he isn't doing, and getting on his case about his failures in angry and belittling ways.  In this context, the husband asked the question "Should we tell our kids about my ADHD?  My wife is concerned that she is always coming across as the bad guy, rather than me."  Hold up there!  Let's discuss both the question and the answer!

First, let's discuss the idea of 'bad guy' as put forward in this question!  Before I do this let me remind everyone that I totally and completely understand how hard it is to live with unmanaged ADHD symptoms.  But the reality is that if the wife is harassing and belittling her husband all the time (no matter WHAT the reason) then she deserves the label 'bad guy.'  She is choosing to behave in a certain (negative) way.  No one is forcing her to deal with her frustration by taking it out on everyone.  Yes, her frustrations are real, but that doesn't get her off the hook for her particular matter how understandable that response is.  The unspoken part about her complaint about always being the bad guy is that she not like the role and she doesn't like herself when she's in it.  The only way to change that is to not choose to be in it.

You (and she) might respond by saying 'wait a minute!  She isn't choosing to have the ADHD symptoms around that keep him from doing what he commits to!'  That's true, but she is, nonetheless, choosing her particular response.  Other options would include:  asking her partner to get a coach in order to create new habits; hiring out some of the responsibilities if they can afford it; calmly explaining how important it is that he seek medical treatment and behavioral therapy; letting go of some of the less important tasks (lessening her own burden, as well has his); refusing to take on the tasks he doesn't complete; giving him only the tasks that impact him so others in the family feel his disorganization less.

And, is the ADHD husband a 'bad guy'...or just someone struggling significantly with a particular disability?  To make up an example for illustration, if he had no legs and couldn't make it up the stairs to make the bed, is the outcome any different from his having significant executive function problems that interfere with his ability to organize himself and make the bed?  Either way the end result is the same - the bed doesn't get made.  But our ability to "see" the missing legs (and imagine the enormity of the task) helps us be empathetic, while the inability to "see" how hard it is to organize a brain impacted by ADHD (and the relative 'simplicity' of making a bed for those without ADHD) leads more readily to resentment and anger.  To take the analogy one step further, both the legless partner and the ADHD partner need "systems" in order to participate fully.  For the former it would likely be living in a one-story house or having an elevator, perhaps using a particular type of comforter that is easy to manipulate, etc.  For the ADHD partner the system might include an audible alarm, a white board in the kitchen, memory training, medication to improve focus, and more.

Moving on to the second part of the question - should we tell the kids?  Yes.  It's hard to understand why a person with ADHD responds the way they do if you don't know about the ADHD.  Kids are just as likely to misinterpret distraction as "my Dad doesn't care about me" as a wife is to think her partner doesn't care.  Not only that, kids benefit from seeing that not everything comes easily - that it's okay to have an issue that you struggle with, and to put hard effort into making an improvement in your life.  Though it often wasn't pretty, my children did eventually benefit from seeing that the hard work my husband and I put into our relationship actually paid off...and that BOTH of us had to do the work.  Furthermore, the child with ADHD in this family will benefit tremendously from understanding he/she isn't alone in struggling with ADHD...even Dad struggles!  They can work together on learning how to use a calendar or alarm to meet their reminder needs, for example, and both enjoy the experience just a bit more because they are doing it together.

I found myself asking (out loud) the very question posed by this couple just the other day.  "Why do I always have to be the bad guy?" is what I asked my husband.  He didn't respond...and didn't need to.  This is a conversation we've had before.  His view is that I care more deeply about the details of how things work in our household (read: I want to control things more).  If I'm the one who cares, then I'm the one who needs to express that I care...and also 'suffer' any consequences that accrue from that.  What I've learned over many years is that there are often (but not always) many different ways to do things - including the 'not doing/saying anything' way.  Many times, though it's hard for me to personally pull off, not doing/saying anything turns out to be a really good approach.  When I don't interfere, kids feel they have more control and power...husbands feel they are appreciated more...I feel less resentful...

There are some things that MUST be said (like "are you using birth control?" and "don't stick your finger into that light socket.")  But there are many more things that really can be let go than I used to realize...and perhaps than you realize, too.

So, yes, tell the kids and have open discussions about what it means to live with ADHD and how ADHD is managed.  Move away from parent/child dynamics.  And understand that it is your own actions, not the situation in which you find yourself, that defines whether or not you are a "bad guy."


Linsy's picture

Being the bad guy

I have read on here a lot about how we choose to react the way we do to a partner's multiple issues with ADHD. However, when a non ADHD partner has been the source of all the ADHD's 'coping' mechanisms - ie forcing her into the role of celibate carer, breadwinner, emotional lightening conductor, cook, housekeeper, child carer and all the rest of it, while refusing to even acknowledge the ADHD behaviour is unhelpful, will lead to a great deal of stress. I ended up so stressed that it took me two years to recover my nerves after he had left the home. The physical symptoms of shaking, fearfulness, hyper attentiveness, nausea etc took a long time to clear, at the beginning with the help of beta blockers. His actions were dangerous, and frightening. He was in practice abusive - as many of the partners described on this forum are. There was hope he would find treatment, but an enabling family prevented it. Now I am alone and fully responsible for every aspect of my children's lives (two of whom have now been diagnosed with ADHD) - I much prefer it this way, as responsibity without agency is terrifying. He undermined and destroyed everything I tried to do, in a kind of extended rage at his own frustrations - made worse by the mirage of his wealthy glamorous parents' lives shimmering before him just out of reach. It was difficult or impossible to 'choose' how I reacted to yet another shock to my system, great or small. I chose to go on alone.

going it alone

It sounds as if you made the absolutely right decision and I applaud that.  As you say, responsibility without agency really truly is terrifying.  It's also incredibly difficult and stressful.

I want to clarify my own response to the "we choose to react the way we do to a partner's multiple issues with ADHD."  My take on it is that before couples understand the full impact of ADHD on relationships (so I'm not talking about knowing about the ADHD here, but rather understanding the full impact of the ADHD on their relationship) we don't so much "choose" our responses as "fall into" them.  The series of responses to being ignored by a distracted spouse, for example, is completely natural - confusion, then frustration, then anger.  The natural response (i.e. the one that is the default response unless someone knows about ADHD impacts on relationship) to having someone be mad at them, is to be mad in return.  This is human nature.

And the "default" responses that people fall into are choices that are both completely understandable and also very destructive.  Hence the reason for such a high rate of dysfunction in relationships impacted by adult ADHD.

The "choice" comes into it once you start to learn about ADHD.  And the "choice" must be made by BOTH partners, not just one.  As I discovered many years ago, I can be really, really nice and accommodating to my ADHD partner...but if he's still distracted and ignoring me I will eventually find "nice" is unsustainable and "angry" moves back in.  You choose your responses as an individual with or without ADHD as part of a LARGER choice, that is the one that the COUPLE makes to work together to alter their relationship to each other and to the ADHD symptoms.  No single person in a relationship can do it alone.  It sounds as if you got to a point where it was clear your ex husband wasn't going to participate.  When this is the case, it is wise to move on and take control of one's life as you did.

Being the bad guy.

I am dealing with a spouse of 27 years that was diagnosed less than 2 years ago as having ADHD and OCD.  I agree with the last blog response in that over years of time and certainly not understanding what was happening, I reach the end of my rope. He does pretty well in the workforce...because I undergirded him and encouraged to do the things he didn't think he could. A big plus is work is structured and requires no feelings. But at some point my disposition changed. And no, I hate feeling that I'm a bad person...I'm not. I am a very good person that can't go on without any kind of affection or meaningful relationship. If I calmly talk to my spouse about 'anything', it is not received at all....the only way I can get through is by continuing to increase the intensity of the conversation until the whole 'bad guy' situation happens.  I truly hate that, you have no idea how much I have hated living this way. He is either silent or middle ground. And I know in his silence is deep anger. I am interested in all he does and since I am not ADHD I can't understand why he isn't interested in what I love. 

I have ordered your book 'The ADHD Effect on Marriage: Understand and Rebuild Your Relationship in Six Steps'. Thank you for allowing me to vent. 

Just discovered this.

I am new to the page.  I discovered it yestereday when I was looking up problems w ADHD in marriage.  My ADHD husband and I have been married for 9 yrs.  We have had a few bad moments when he believes that he does not love me any more and blames me saying that I have no desire for him.  We have a good sex life, but I do find that I mother him and am the one taking care of our home and child all that time and am tired.  I have not been nagging him.  I guess that I realized it does not work.  I knew about the ADHD.  I thought his only symtpoms were the constant moving, changing hobbies, and being on the computer reading forums in his hobby areas.  I actually just thought he was a selfish person.  I have longed for him to put me first before the career (which he is wonderful at) and his hobbies.  Recently he just shut down.  He will not longer tell me he loves me, will not touch me, will not look at me, and is even hateful at moments w me.  I am so glad and a little at peace to find your website and book.  I have been spending a lot of time reading the other posts and seeing our lives in it.  It scares me that he may be ready to leave since he is now hyperfocusing on my flaws and hating me.  I just do not think I have the strength to fight for him to stay.  I am reading the book and posts and trying to figure out how to save my marriage.  At least to try to keep things good for our daughter.  The part that is so painful right now is that he wants to sleep next to me in our bed, but will not look at me, talk to me, or touch me.  This is the worse it has ever been.  I read a few spouses say that they wonder if their ADHD spouse ever loved them.  I believe he did and possibly does.  I married my best friend.  But I just do not know if I can continue to be belittled and feel unloved and wonder if I will come home to him packed and gone.  If he does not come to the understanding of his disorder and try to work on it, I will have to end the marriage for my sanity and for my daughter.  Thank you for the information that you have worked so hard to provide us and thank you to all that post their deepest thoughts.  I hope I can use this info to save my marriage and family.  Please excuse the venting or ranting.  I am just exhausted from this.  Mic

For Mic

Mic - as you try to figure out whether or not you can stay in this marriage and as you wish that you and your husband might understand the role of ADHD, I would suggest you consider taking my live couples seminar (by phone - so you can do it from home.)  The next session starts Oct. 1.  Most of the couples who sign up are really struggling.  It will give both of you much more perspective on what is going on, plus will allow plenty of time to ask your own questions as well as hear the questions of others.

The lying in bed next to you but not acknowledging you sounds like a form of punishment.  Is there another bedroom in your home (or perhaps an air mattress) on which you might consider sleeping?  While it might be sad to be somewhere other than in your own room, it also will give you a bit more control.  You'll be able to go to bed when you want, sleep soundly, and not be forced to deal with his overt rejection each night.  At one particularly difficult time in my own relaitonship I moved to a different room.  It really helped.  Not only could I read some of the books on marriage that I wanted to in peace, but my husband noted that I was elsewhere and that I wasn't going to just "take" everything he was throwing at me.  As for the kids, I simply told them that I was having trouble sleeping in my own bed and needed to be elsewhere for a while to get a full night's sleep.  That's as much as they needed to know.

We are on the same page

On Friday nights, our daughter sleeps in our room on a couch (a little special for her).  But tonight I am going to have her sleep w me and have cuddle time and let him have a night of peace else where in the house.  I have spent the day thinking of ways to give him space.  And yes, I know it is how he punishes me.  In the past he punishes me by pouting.  This time it is just worse.  I think bc he knows that I am tired of the pouting act.  He gets stressed about finances or work and I get the blame for everything. 

I was reading about your couples seminar.  I just hope I can get him to want to understand his ADHD, what it is doing to us and to him, and for him to want to get it under control.  Only time will tell. 

Thanks so much for the advice.

How are you doing?

This is such a terrible way to live.  My husband is horrible scary and more. Insults me daily, yells, screams and now does not even want to chip in the $100. per week for food and bills.  That is all he gives me.  I pay for everything else.  His money is spent on his own hobbies.  It is horrible.  I am at my limit.  I am exhausted.  I hope you are remaining strong though for yourself and your daughter.

Another bad guy....

I enjoy your blog.

I am also a bad guy here. My husband and I have been married 20 years and have a teen age daughter.  he has ADHD  (but not diagnosed officially) and has taken supplements for it.  (SAMe, other natural things) 

He no longer takes those. He takes anti-depression meds and tells me he is full of rage for some reason.

I have always suspected the ADHD was part of this. He struggles with jobs that require team work and respecting authority. He usually ends up complaining and hating any corporate job.  He and my daughter are both creative and I suspect she  has ADD too.

They team up against me and call me the nag (hence bad guy) when I try to get them to be serious and discuss things or help out.  Family discussions don't happen unless they lead them.

I have pulled back...stopped talking as much. Taken a night job.

They don't want to be told anything that they consider critical like a reminder about something or a warning. I sometimes see things that can go wrong ahead but they don't even want to consider this.  This has put us in dangerous situations at times. (driving, money, etc) Jealousy is strong too when we are around others.  They dislike peers who have more.

There is little structure in my home now that my husband works from home and my daughter home schools. I have no say anymore about what happens here. It scares me but I am letting go and have taken a  job to get out of the house. 

I feel like a stepmother instead of a mom. My daughter no longer respects me.  She sees her dad treat me with disrespect and knows he won't correct her either.  It is as if I am the child and she is the wife.

He use to want me to run the house and take care of her needs and education but since he worked from home, that all changed. Now he is here all day and he comes and goes.  She is not structured at all but I am not allowed to discipline her or I am told that I am a nag and he will do it.

I am worried about her future.  I am already gone in my mind.

Linsy's picture

Get daughter out of house too?

Sorry to but in, but depending on your daughter's age, shouldn't she be at school/college? home schooling is not a good idea for distractible people, they just zone out. Who is teaching her? Is she passing exams? They need structure and discipline, plus you would have the support of her teachers. I do suggest that you take this situation in hand. I had to get partner out of house, so I could make sensible decisions about the children's education without his sabotage. Children come first here, her future is in your hands. Be strong, I sympathise! It will take a huge effort (and toll on you) but looking back you will be glad you did it.

Not positioned for positive happenings

From what you describe in this posting you are not positioning yourself to succeed in this relationship (nor is he - that goes almost without saying!)  It is human nature to disengage, but you end up being treated only as others wish to treat you, not as you ask them.  When you disengage you lose your "power."  My experience suggests that you need to engage (rather than disengage), but engage differently.  I don't know enough about your specific situation to give you suggestions about what that looks like, but typically it is persistent but respectful, focusing on what you yourself need from those around you rather than what they should do (which they interpret as what they should do for you...something they seem to resent.)

For example - with chores - don't create a list of things everyone should do (though it's organized to do so).  Sit down as a group and jointly create a list of what needs to be done.  "Nothing" as an answer isn't realistic - no one lives in a home in which "nothing" has to be done.  Everybody participates in making the list and then divvying up the work.  Include stuff you might take for granted - shopping, fixing meals, laundry, cleaning out the car, picking up the closet etc etc.  These things all count.  Then ask each person what they wish to do on the list...etc etc.

This takes a lot longer, and it can be painful at first if your partner or child is unwilling.  But it is okay to stand up for yourself and say that a household does not run by magic and each person must contribute his or her fair share.

Also - don't take on reminding them of things - that is their responsibility.  If they don't get their jobs done by the next chore meeting, then after a while you have a discussion about how things aren't getting done as maybe something else needs to happen.

This is a LONG process and a tiring one, but disengagement doesn't set you up to be happy (as you are finding out when you feel like the step mom).  Nor does it set up positive change.

I am giving my next live course starting October 1 - you might consider signing up for it (as a couple) and let me deliver the bad news, instead...if he is slow to want to sign up, ask him if he would just try it - for you because you are asking.  It's 'only' information, not a commitment to do anything other than learn some new things...  The sessions are recorded, so if the time is inconvenient because of your night job you can listen to the recording a day or two after and submit your questions in writing instead of live...

Wanted to update my situation

I just wanted to update you about my situation.  My ADHD spouse and I had a long talk Sat night.  He told me he wanted a divorce.  I cried, I begged, I screamed ... I couldn't believe he said it.  He said that I just do not love him as much as he loves me.  WHAT??? I pointed out that I run the household and raise our daughter w no nagging and or complaints.  He is not focused on that.  His focus is on sex ... the 3+ times a wk he gets sex.  Says I am not into him the way he is me.  I told him I believed it is his ADHD and tha the needs to read the book and look at this website.  He needs counseling.  I told him if he moves out, he does not come back.  He left last night.  He refuses counseling or reading the book or website.  The confusing part for me (being non-ADHD) is that he is in tears and hurting over this decision, but still walks away.  We are not bitter or fighting.  We want to raise our child in a good environment.  I only hope at some point he gets counseling.  Myself and my child will be getting counseling and I want to make sure if she has ADHD to get control bf it spirals out of control like her father.  I am just really angry w his PCP.  How dare you give out Adderall wo making the patient get counseling.  So, for now, it looks like ADHD wins again at tearing a relationship down.  I can only fight so much bf I am just exhausted.  I love him and miss him, but his focus is elsewhere ... like it has been for years.

I'm so sorry

I'm very sorry your husband is choosing to give up rather than accept that he needs help and to participate in improving his and your family's lives. I wish you and your daughter the very best as you recover and rebuild. Good job seeking counseling and being aware of your daughter possibly inheriting the condition. 

Bad Guy

I can't speak for others but only for myself. I'm the challenged one in our case and I always hear that I'm the "bad guy". I think most people (including my wife) don't understand that ADHD is a struggle. My struggle is that I'm pulled in directions that I don't choose. Due to this, at the end I feel defeated, discouraged and upset at myself. Now imagine someone else also getting upset and reacting towards that. All of a sudden the self resentment doubles and there is no escape from it. I think it is oxymoron to expect a cancer patient to live a life the way a well individual would live (exaggerated comparison). I understand the full extent of my disability and how it impacts my surrounding but hate constantly being reminded of it. Discuss the challenges all you want but don't play the blame game. Why don't we get mad at a cancer patient for having cancer? This sounds a lot like Hitler's view on disabled people. Is the gas chamber next? I don't think so, as even though I'm struggling I'm a capable individual. It just takes me a longer run to get to my destination.

Furthermore, when we discuss a disability with family it is to receive empathy, love and reassurance. It is for a family to come together and defeat the strong hold of the disability, not to defeat the person with the disability! Irony is that a spouse who can't control their own reaction is demanding the significant other to overcome their disability. I don't prescribe to this "bad guy" point of view. We all need to work on ourselves rather than trying to change someone else. We are all disabled one way or another.

Thanks for allowing to present my thoughts and experience.