In a recent survey, approximately 33% of respondents reported that ADHD is caused by ineffective or “bad” parenting. This finding is not necessarily surprising, but it is very concerning. One of my major concerns is that there clearly is a misunderstanding about what ADHD is and how it is caused. We have come a long way as a science, and blaming parents for their children’s mental health problems was a notion that was put to rest a long time ago. Clearly, we have a ways to go for the general public to reach the same conclusion that “bad” parenting is not the cause of ADHD.
The simple answer about the cause of ADHD is that there is no simple answer. As a science, we do know that ADHD is familial; that is, it runs in families. It’s likely that there is a genetic link, but genetics alone do not account for ADHD. You see, families not only share some of the same genes, they also share the same environments. And, what is found in the environment could have major impacts on ADHD. For example, we know that factors such as lead and other toxins can significantly increase the risk for ADHD. So, it stands to reason that children within a family all have elevated risk if there is a common risk factor in the environment. In all of my research and clinical work, I have yet to find that bad parenting plays any role in “causing” ADHD. Such claims ignore the massive amount of scientific data that clearly demonstrate that the brains of ADHD children (and adults) are different in structure, size, and processing compared to persons without ADHD. And these differences can be found in children of all types of parents, not just “bad” parents.
Ultimately, I don’t find much usefulness in blaming parents. It acts as a significant barrier to progress since parents are critical in the treatment process. I commonly tell parents, “You didn’t cause this problem, but you are a major part of the solution.” We need parents to serve as the primary change agents and advocates for children with ADHD. But, if we start off the relationship by blaming them, it’s not likely that we will get very far in helping them support and advocate for their children.
Ironically, blaming is often what is done to children with ADHD. They are called “lazy” and “unmotivated” instead of understanding that they have a true neuropsychological problem. Blaming a child with ADHD for not being able to complete a task is analogous to blaming a child with a broken leg for not wanting to participate in gym class. The problem with blaming children and parents is that we tend to not help those who we see as responsible for their problems. Thus, we don’t need to help that child with ADHD because he is “lazy.” Instead, we’ll just wait for him to stop being lazy and then the problem will be solved instantly. We don’t need to help that bad parent of a child with ADHD. Instead, just wait for them to discipline that unruly child and the problem will be solved instantly. Blaming is effortless and lacking in empathy and creativity. There is absolutely nothing empathic or courageous about blaming someone for their own problems because it requires nothing on the part of the blamer except for some degree of judgment.
Instead of blaming, another option is to understand, encourage, and empathize. These approaches tend to help facilitate change much better than blaming. And change is what is needed in helping a child with ADHD. Most people would probably assume that parenting a child with ADHD is the same as parenting a child without ADHD. But how do we account for parents who have a child with ADHD who is struggling and a child without ADHD who is doing well. If a parent is a “bad” parent then he/she would have two “bad” children. The answer to this riddle is that parenting a child with ADHD is not the same as parenting a child without ADHD. The principles may be similar, but it’s a whole different ball game. If you don’t believe me then go find yourself a parent with a child with ADHD—given the high prevalence rates, you are bound to know someone. Ask that parent if you can watch their child for a weekend (off of medication if the child is on any) and when that weekend is over—if you survive the entire weekend—then make up your mind about whether ADHD is a true mental health problem or just bad parenting. I suspect that I already know what your answer will be.