Children with ADHD and Marital Stress

Terry Matlen, ACSW Health Guide
  • Parenting, as most if not all parents know, is difficult even in the best of circumstances. There is no way to warn a young couple just how stressful adding a new family member can be. In the early years, there is the around-the-clock parenting that is physically wearing: feeding, diapering, soothing, rocking and making sure all of the baby's basic needs are being met. Parents intuitively understand that those early years are pretty much dedicated 100% to caring for a helpless infant/toddler.


    The excitement of having a new baby, though stressful, (hopefully) pulls the young couple together so that they can get through the daily exhaustion as a team, knowing full well that this wonderful, sweet and cute baby will be growing up all too soon.

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    But what happens when that child turns out to have ADHD? Many mothers recognize their child is overactive while still in their womb. They describe infants who are difficult to calm and comfort. Babies with ADHD often cannot fall into a regular sleep routine, making parents even more exhausted than those with babies who learn to sleep through the night at four weeks. As the baby grows, so do the problems, especially if the child has the hyperactive/impulsive type of ADHD.


    Parents find that all of their focus is on tracking their child, making sure he's safe. They cannot take their eyes off him for even a minute. When he becomes school aged, more problems arise- academic, behavioral and often social. By this time, there might be more children born into the family and then complete chaos often occurs.


    How does having a child with ADHD affect the parents' marriage?


    According to a recent study by psychologists Dr. William Pelham Jr. and Dr. Brian Wymbs of the State University of New York-Buffalo, 23% of parents had divorced by their child's eighth birthday if he had been diagnosed with ADHD, compared with 13% of similar parents in such factors as age, education and income whose child didn't have the disorder.


    In the study, 282 families whose children were attending a summer treatment program for children with ADHD symptoms, were followed. The children were ages 11 to 28 at the time of the follow-up.

    The researchers compared those marriages to those who had adolescents and young adults with ADHD and found that the rate of divorce was higher when the children were eight or younger.


    "ADHD creates the greatest difficulty for parents in early childhood. If your marriage survives that, the rate of divorce doesn't continue to be higher after they're 8," Pelham says. The study is published in the October 2008 Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology.


    Andrea Chronis-Tuscano, a psychologist at the University of Maryland points out that since ADHD is usually inherited, one or both parent may have it too, only adding to the problem. Her studies found that if children have ADHD, their mothers are 24 times more likely than other mothers to have it, and fathers are five times more likely.


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    Yet, there is some disagreement among researchers that ADHD causes higher rates of divorce. Though many parents report unhappy marriages, there wasn't a higher divorce rate for parents of children with ADHD, according to a large Canadian report released last year. Then why did Pelham's group have a higher divorce rate? Sociologist Lisa Strohschein who led the Canadian study at the University of Alberta, pointed out that the parents from his group sought out treatment, meaning those children might have had more severe symptoms.


    Families with ADHD children are not the only ones with marital strife. Recent statistics show that when a family has a child on the Autistic Spectrum, the divorce rate sky rockets to 80%.


    Nearly all couples experience added stress when they have a child with special challenges, thus it's important to consider marital counseling with a clinician who has a good understanding of the issues surrounding raising these often very challenging children.

Published On: October 28, 2008