A recent study found that ADHD makes some parents more tolerant towards children with ADHD but makes others less tolerant.
In general, children with ADHD have more conflict with their parents, and parents with ADHD have more conflict with their children. When parent and child both have ADHD, though, things get complicated.
In one scenario, the similarity between parent and child makes it easier for them to get along. What scientists call the similarity-fit model predicts that parents and children who are similar (in this case, who both have ADHD) will tend to get along better.
So getting back to the study, the researchers found that ADHD father-child relationships followed a similarity-fit model but ADHD mother-child relationships followed a similarity-misfit model. That is, fathers and children with ADHD got along especially well, but mothers and children with ADHD had more conflicts than average.
Bad news for mothers with ADHD everywhere?
Not necessarily. Let me mention another study.
A different team of researchers looked at the same topic in 2010 and got exactly the opposite results. In their study, ADHD mother-child relationships followed a similarity-fit model and ADHD father-child relationships a similarity-misfit model. In other words, moms with ADHD got along quite well with their kids, dads with ADHD not so much.
One possible reason for the contrasting results between the two studies is that a lot of cultural factors influence the dynamics of parent-child relationships. Here, one of the studies was done in Canada and one in the UK, so there could be important differences in parenting attitudes between those societies.
Or there could be other factors that altered the way ADHD symptoms played out in the two groups of families.
It doesn’t really matter because my point is more general: ADHD can make you more tolerant of other people with ADHD, or it can make you less tolerant.
As part of the music education work I do, I train volunteer high-school musicians who mentor young students learning music for the first time. I’ve found that the number-one quality that predicts how successful these first-time teachers will be is whether they’re able to empathize with students who aren’t learning well, including students with learning disabilities and students who for whatever reason just aren’t progressing as fast as expected.
For many inexperienced teachers, the instinct is to assume that students who’re struggling just are purposefully disengaged. I’ve had a student tell me “my tutor gets frustrated and doesn’t explain things well” only to have the tutor come up to me the following week and say “my student isn’t trying.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t just a mistake inexperienced teachers make. Pretty much anyone who’s gone through school with ADHD knows what it’s like to be wrongfully accused of “not trying.” Good students can be bad teachers if they don’t have a good grasp on what it’s like to struggle in school, and bad students can be good teachers because they understand that different people learn in different ways.
When I was in high school, I tutored a kid with ADHD in math. I hadn’t been diagnosed yet, but I was so fed up with school by that point that I was able to recognize and not judge the fact that he was in a tough position where the way he learned wasn’t a good fit with the structure of school. This is one of the experiences that sparked my interest in teaching.
Still, his trouble focusing could be frustrating too, and I can see how things could’ve gone in a different direction and ended with me vowing never to step foot in a classroom as a teacher again. Teaching – and, I imagine, parenting – children with ADHD can take patience, and people with ADHD aren’t always paragons of patience.
Looking at it from the other direction, neither of my parents has a formal ADHD diagnosis, but I’d guess at least one of them is strong candidate. In many cases, I’d suspect this similarity has worked to my advantage. In some cases though, I think parents don’t like to see their own flaws reproduced in their children, whether this intolerance is conscious or subsconscious.
So what determines whether ADHD makes us more or less tolerant toward in a given situation?
I’d bet that how tolerant we are toward other people with ADHD is often a reflection of how tolerant we our toward our own ADHD. The more we accept and gain insight into our symptoms, the better prepared we are to accept and gain insight into the symptoms of others.
Most of what we do to live better with ADHD is about our selves – making changes in our lives, adjusting our attitudes, altering our brain chemistry. But learning to be more tolerant of others with ADHD in our everyday lives is an outward-looking change that can be empowering.
First, you can use this tolerance to have a real impact on someone else’s life. If you’re a mentor, coach, teacher, parent, etc. for someone with ADHD, this acceptance can make a profound difference.
You won’t ever regret it if you use this tolerance to reach out to other people with ADHD. I’m still proud of the work I did tutoring that kid with ADHD back in high school.
Second, gaining a better understanding of how ADHD affects other people’s lives will help you develop more insight into how it affects your life. Seeing something in other people can shift your perspective when you’re too close to accurately see that thing in yourself. Again, getting to know that student with ADHD in high school helped me see myself as a student more clearly.
In the end, having ADHD can make us all more tolerant or less tolerant of others with ADHD depending on context. But going out of the way to make sure the more tolerant times outweigh the less tolerant times is absolutely worth the work.
What d’you think? Are there situations where your ADHD has made you more or less empathetic toward others with ADHD?