Children and Teens

Family Challenges with ADHD

How ADHD affects family functioning

Russell Barkley, PhD, a leading ADHD expert, describes a "vicious cycle" that he often sees in ADHD families where a child's ADHD-related behavior is both a cause and an effect of family problems. It goes like this:

  1. Parents, facing their own problems, see a child's behavior get worse.
  2. Parents respond with more punishment and less encouragement.
  3. This hurts the child's self-esteem and causes more behavioral problems.
  4. These problems lead to more fights with the parents.
  5. This reinforces the parents' view.
  6. The cycle restarts.

And that's just the simplest case. When one or both of the parents also has ADHD, marital problems, financial difficulties, or rivalries among the siblings, the cycle is more complex. Research has shown that families with an ADHD child are different from non-ADHD ones, in that there may be different relationships or parenting styles. This does NOT mean that ADHD families are worse than their non-ADHD counterparts, rather that families may face more challenges.

For example, the extra time and energy that an ADHD child requires must come from somewhere else. Often it is siblings who lose out. This can make them jealous. It can also delay dealing with these siblings' issues. Both of these problems require even more time and energy.

Children with ADHD also tend to get into more fights with siblings. This happens for two reasons. First, ADHD children tend to argue more than non-ADHD ones. Second, children may get tired of their ADHD siblings' impulsive or inappropriate behavior. Children may not understand that ADHD is nobody's fault.

The result of these problems can be frustration, stress, and exhaustion for everyone.  In addition, ADHD is primarily caused by genes. As a result, families often have more than one member with ADHD.  Sometimes it’s a parent and child; sometimes it’s two siblings.  Multiple-ADHD families face even greater challenges than single-ADHD ones.  And, children who have the hyperactive type of ADHD will have very different challenges from the inattentive ADHD child.

While all this may seem overwhelming, there is hope.  It’s important to remember that ADHD is very common.  Between three and six percent of children have it.  Families all around the world have dealt with ADHD successfully.  They have created their own routines and designed their own systems. To do this, parents will need to learn as much as possible about ADHD and its treatment.  This will include new behavior management techniques, as well as a basic understanding of the legal rights of children with ADHD.  One or two inappropriate behaviors at a time can be targeted both at home and school.  This will help to keep the parents from becoming overwhelmed since ADHD children can have so many behaviors. It is also important to take one day at a time, but also to prepare yourself with knowledge and a plan for the next potential challenge.  Being prepared decreases stress and will help to prevent the family from staying in the “vicious cycle.”


  1. Barkley, R. (2000). Taking charge of ADHD: The complete, authoritative guide for parents (Rev. ed.). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
  2. Johnston, C., & Mash, E. (2001). Families of children with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder: Review and recommendations for future research. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 4, 183-207.
  3. Lasky, S. (2006). ADD & the dysfunctional family. The ADD Resource Center. Retrieved May 17, 2012, from 
  4. Rief, S.F. (2005). How to reach and teach children with ADD/ADHD (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  5. Honos-Webb, L. (2005). The gift of ADHD: How to transform your child's problems into strengths. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
  6. Robertson, M. (2007, February). Lost in the shuffle: The inattentive child without hyperactivity. Attention! Magazine.