Stress Relief for Families with ADHD: The Value of Mindfulness, by Mark Bertin MD

The concept of stress relief has far greater implications for families with ADHD than it might seem. That’s because parenting a child with ADHD is demanding, with its impact on parents often underappreciated.

There is a common insinuation that ADHD is not “real.” Some people think parents just need to get their kids under control—an unfortunate belief that misses the fundamental truth about ADHD.

In fact, ADHD is a medically-based developmental disorder that disrupts the cognitive skills required to manage not only attention, but also the details of everyday life.

It’s no surprise that parents of children with ADHD have a high risk of burnout.

Their children often have behavioral or academic difficulties, and sometimes both. But that’s only part of the situation. The larger skill set affected by ADHD, called executive function, potentially impacts any habit or activity requiring coordinating and long term planning.

Because of this larger situation, kids with ADHD are often slow to become independent with daily routines—even getting dressed and out the door may become a major exasperation. They can have poor interpersonal skills, difficulty with sleep, or endlessly fight over screen time. Some parents find themselves managing ADHD straight through their child’s adulthood. These challenges often result in the need for stress relief for both parents and children.

Managing ADHD inflicts a sense of uncertainty on parents. They frequently feel like their parenting skills and their children are being judged by everyone from family members to neighbors to other parents. They may question themselves when nothing seems to be working, or working fast enough, for their children. It all plays into the reality that parents of kids with ADHD are at higher risk for experiencing anxiety, depression, and marital strife; questioning their abilities as parents; and experiencing less enjoyment around family life.

For all these reasons, ADHD is hard not only on children, but on parents. When we’re overly stressed, we’re less likely to be at our best, to problem solve flexibly, or manage difficult situations skillfully. This is why a necessary step when dealing with ADHD is for parents to value their own health and resiliency. Kids come first in many ways, but for the sake of those same children, parents’ well-being matters too.

Stress relief when living with ADHD doesn’t just mean that parents feel better (which is a useful goal in and of itself).  Managing stress allows parents to be at their best when managing all of the wide-ranging impact of ADHD.  That’s the reason I wrote Mindful Parenting for ADHD: A Guide to Cultivating Calm, Reducing Stress, and Helping Children Thrive to offer guidelines that focus on a child’s strengths as well as weaknesses and for parents to build practical plans for managing ADHD, while also aiming to reduce stress for the whole family. 

Mindfulness: Stress Relief Made Simpler 

Mindfulness is one of the most straightforward, proven ways to manage stress. Much like physical exercise improves the body, mindfulness affects mental health. The science validating its effectiveness has been increasing exponentially over the last several decades, including imaging studies showing positive physical changes in the brain. In part, mindfulness allows people to train themselves in ways that make stressful situations easier to manage, including the ups and downs of ADHD.

Being “mindful” doesn’t mean sitting in silence, or always being calm, or even anything specific to meditation. When we’re more attentive and less distracted, more responsive and less reactive, and less locked into mindless, habitual ways of living, our life gets easier—with mindfulness, we work on all of that. It’s about valuing and building whatever skills we feel make our life easier to manage.

Stress Relief for Families with ADHD: The Value of Mindfulness, by Mark Bertin MD

With ADHD, mindfulness creates a stable platform for everything else that needs to happen. When parents feel relief from stress more often, it makes planning life simpler, from handling challenging behaviors to communicating with school staff over difficult situations. Getting out of ‘autopilot’—our tendency to fall back on learned routines under stress—often allows more creative problem solving. Mindfulness may also directly improve skills related to ADHD, from building attention capacity to emotional regulation.

Mindfulness impacts the sense of judgment that ADHD amplifies for anyone living with it. There’s self-judgment, driven by knowing exactly what one ‘should’ be doing, but falling short because of the disorder. There’s community judgment from outsiders who may or may not understand the complex impact of ADHD. It’s hard enough living with ADHD without all this excess baggage. Mindfulness builds compassion in ways that address these frustrating additions to the world of ADHD and provides much-needed stress relief for parents and children.

Fully addressing ADHD means meeting the needs of whole families, as ADHD impacts far more than it seems on the surface. Executive function skills affected by ADHD are required in managing behavior, emotion, academics, and daily living skills, as well as communication and social interactions. Mindfulness and prioritizing taking care of one’s self as a parent can be a major step towards managing ADHD in a whole new way.

Getting Started with Mindfulness 

For most people, joining a structured program makes a mindfulness practice more likely to stick. Mindfulness classes are available around the country, and many psychologists integrate mindfulness into therapy. Books and online apps are another way to begin. Various programs and apps for young children and teens may help them learn how to live more mindfully too.   Whatever the method, it is important to set long term intentions, as one might approach a goal around physical fitness. Mindfulness is attainable and practical, and so is the stress relief it provides in everyday life.

Photo credits: Blue Orange StudioA. Herreid

Published: June 28, 2016