How Do We Tell 'Normal' Anger from 'ADHD Anger'?

In a recent class I was asked this interesting question by a non-ADHD husband (who also happens to be a therapist) - "All couples experience anger - so how do you tell anger that is related to ADHD apart from normal anger?"  Great question!

He is right, some anger is normal for any relationship between two adults.  In fact, a relationship in which no anger at all is expressed is probably not healthy - it is an indicator that someone is stifling him or herself.  Creating a good relationship isn't about getting rid of anger, it's about learning how to fight productively.

But that doesn't answer the question about what constitutes anger around ADHD.  The answer to that is to be found at the Venn Diagram intersection of two things - first, ADHD symptoms and second, chronic or explosive anger.  (You remember Venn diagrams?  Those are the charts with the overlapping circles - the area of overlap is what we're interested in here!)  Note that I mention chronic anger here.  If the anger you are concerned about is a one-time thing, it's probably not ADHD-related anger.

ADHD symptoms are easy to identify, once you know what to look for:  distraction, poor memory, disorganization, hyperactivity (if you have the "H"), difficulty planning, etc.  You might not have all of these symptoms in your relationship, but you'll have some if ADHD is present.  Anger in these relationships comes from two areas:  biological and environmental (i.e. in response to what's going on around you).  Here are some examples of each type:

Biological

  • You've always had more emotional responses to events than others (not just around anger, but also around other emotions as well)
  • You have a long history of explosive anger that comes at unexpected times (some with ADHD have this, for example, leaving their spouses feeling as if they are walking on eggshells).  Your doctor suspects your anger may be part of your brain chemistry

Environmental

  • You are more tired or stressed than normal, which limits your ability to inhibit negative responses (i.e. you lose your patience)
  • There is a chronic irritant in the environment around you that you are tired of dealing with over and over - so you anger easily around issues related to that irritant.  These "irritants" might include unmanaged ADHD symptoms or chronic anger or nagging from a partner

Anger in itself is not a symptom of ADHD.  However, it is often a response to the presence of unmanaged or under-managed ADHD in a relationship.  Take a look at the anger you are concerned about, and create that Venn Diagram in your head.  If anger intersects with ADHD symptoms, then that is the anger that does not need to be part of your relationship.  Lessen the symptoms, get better control of your lives, and the anger diminishes, too.

My answer to the man who asked the original question was a shorter version of this post.  "Every relationship has anger.  But much of the anger around ADHD doesn't NEED to be there.  Some good part of it is there only because ADHD - and responses to ADHD - are not yet optimally balanced."