ADHD in the family: When your child’s diagnosis leads to your own
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What happens if your child gets diagnosed with ADHD, and you recognize some of the signs in yourself? Should you get tested? What are the benefits of getting diagnosed with ADHD as an adult?
In this episode, hosts Rachel Bozek and Gretchen Vierstra explore the not-so-uncommon scenario of parents realizing they might have ADHD, too. First, they talk with Jessica Covington, a mom of two who didn’t figure out she had ADHD until her son was diagnosed at age 7.
Then, the hosts learn more about getting diagnosed as an adult. They talk to Dr. Roberto Olivardia, a clinical psychologist and host of Season 2 of the Understood Explains podcast. Roberto shares why he thinks it’s important for parents (and even grandparents!) to get an evaluation for themselves if they suspect they have ADHD.
Learn more about ADHD diagnosis in adults from Dr. Olivardia on Understood Explains Season 2
Read Jessica’s story: Being a mom with ADHD is tough, but the journey is still sweet
Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs...
Rachel: ...the ups and downs...
Gretchen: ...of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood.
Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor raising two kids with ADHD. Today, we're talking about the not-uncommon phenomenon of a parent realizing they might have ADHD after they get that diagnosis for their child.
Gretchen: It happens more often than you might think. So, today we're talking about the journey that follows after that initial, "Hmm. Could I have what she has?"
Rachel: Later, we'll be hearing from Dr. Roberto Olivardia, who hosts the latest season of the "Understood Explains" podcast, which is all about ADHD diagnosis in adults.
Gretchen: But first, we're talking to Jessica Covington. Jessica has struggled with attention and focus for her whole life, but she didn't figure out why that was until her son was diagnosed with ADHD at age 7. She then got her own diagnosis, which was followed a few years later with her daughter's diagnosis.
Rachel: We're so happy to have her with us today to talk about the ups and downs of that journey. So, welcome, Jessica. It's so great to have you here.
Jessica: Happy to be here.
Rachel: So, as you know, we are talking about when parents get a diagnosis of ADHD after their kids get one. So, in your experience that you had, your son was diagnosed with ADHD when he was 7. What led to that diagnosis?
Jessica: We had been getting several reports from teachers in elementary school that he had trouble focusing, that he was always on the move, he was very distractible, and didn't finish tasks. So, you know, after hearing enough reports like this, it occurred to me to bring it up with the pediatrician at his next checkup. And the pediatrician said, "Oh, well, OK, it could be a number of things," and gave us some great recommendations to psychologists in the area.
And I contacted a couple of those, and they said, "Well, we can do this full psycho-educational evaluation that will tell us what his learning style is and if there's anything to do about it, what to do."
Gretchen: So, you got the evaluation and then you knew what to do.
Jessica: More or less.
Rachel: So, how did you go from getting the diagnosis for him to getting your own a year later? Tell us a little bit about what led you to think that ADHD might be something that applied to you.
Jessica: One of the first things that I knew upon getting his diagnosis is that we didn't want to frame ADHD as something that was bad or that was a problem. We really wanted to take a strength-based approach. So, I started learning as much as I could from various sources. And so, I was reading as much as I could and talking to other parents and talking to teachers and all kinds of people. Really, anybody I could find that would talk ADHD with me.
And the more I learned, the more it started to sound really familiar, especially when I got kind of lost down this rabbit hole of comparing boy ADHD and girl ADHD. That's how it was framed at the time. Now we know enough to know that it's really a matter of inattentive versus hyperactive versus combined type. But the inattentive and the combined information really struck home with me because it describes so much of my childhood. And so, that got me thinking, and especially when I learned about ADHD being really heritable, I thought, "Hmm, maybe this is a thing."
So, I went to my doctor, to my therapist, and we described everything I was learning and described a bit about my childhood and did some assessments and so on. And she came back to me and said, "I can't believe you made it to your mid-forties without realizing that this was your thinking style."
Rachel: What, from your childhood kind of came back to you in those moments?
Jessica: A lot of it had to do with the misconception that ADHD is a "won't" problem instead of a "can't" problem. So, all those labels that get assigned like "lazy" and "scattered" and "unmotivated" and "undisciplined," and especially the phrase, "You have so much potential. You're so smart. If only you would fill in the blank. If only you would sit down and focus. If only you could turn in your homework. If only you would apply yourself."
All of that really rang true for me. That plus the, especially the descriptions of being really distracted, but also really creative. Spending a lot of that distracted time creating various things in your mind.
Jessica: It all just kind of sounded a lot like me.
Gretchen: So, how did you feel when you finally got this diagnosis as an adult?
Jessica: If we're really being honest, my very first thought was, "Oh my gosh, it's true. My kids are going to struggle more than neurotypical peers because of my genetic heritage because I pass this on to them." Thankfully, that came and went pretty quickly. It wasn't long before I shifted into the realization that who better to parent kids with ADHD than a parent who has ADHD and understands what it's like to live with such a busy mind?
Other than that, as far as it relates to myself, I just felt a huge sense of relief because I had lived so long with these labels like lazy, unmotivated, realizing that there was an actual explanation for them and a name that I could assign, and a reason that things looked one way to people on the outside of me, but they felt very different to me was a huge revelation and a relief.
Gretchen: Yeah. And I know sometimes talking to some people who get the diagnosis later in life. Did you feel any sense of, "Oh, shoot. If this had been caught though, I would have gotten all these supports and I missed out on all of that."
Jessica: There was a bit of a grief process. I did wonder what my life could have been like up to now if we had known earlier. I've wondered what I could be doing at this point. That didn't last too long. I came to realize that I probably wouldn't be where I am right now without everything that I had been through before. And I'm happy to be where I am now.
Gretchen: That's good.
Gretchen: Yeah. Well, do you have anything else you'd like to share about figuring out you had ADHD once your child did? Any last words for other, for listeners out there who might be thinking the same thing?
Jessica: Oh, wow. The two things that come to mind right off the top of my head are to always assume the best. You know, parents do well when they can and kids do well when they can, and when either of them can't, that means there's something missing. There's a skill or there's a support missing. And so, taking that point of view, I think opens us up to a lot of compassion, allows us to have a little bit more grace for our kids and also for ourselves.
Jessica: And the second thing that came to mind really is how pervasive the shame and stigma are around ADHD. I can't tell you how many people I've talked to that will say, "Well, I know that my kid has ADHD, or I know that I had it, but I don't want to mention it to anybody at my workplace or my child's school, because then they'll be labeled.”
Jessica: And so, for those folks, I would say, "ADHD is an explanation, but the real labels are 'scattered' and 'disorganized' and 'unmotivated' and 'lazy' and 'uncaring'." Those are the things that really cut us to the core. Knowing that we have a different thinking style, really can be something that builds us up rather than tears us down.
Gretchen: Mm hmm.
Rachel: Good advice. That really is. So, thank you for feeling comfortable enough to tell us your story.
Gretchen: Thank you so much.
Jessica: My pleasure.
Rachel: So, Gretchen, during our conversation, Jessica mentioned that without her ADHD diagnosis, she wouldn't be doing what she does now. And I think it's worth mentioning what exactly that is.
Gretchen: Yes. It's so cool. Jessica is now a health coach working specifically with women who have ADHD. If you want to know more about that, go to her website, which is fit-ology. That's F-I-T hyphen O-L-O-G-Y.
Rachel: You know, for Jessica, the road from her son's diagnosis to her own was a pretty smooth one. She had the desire, and we should acknowledge the resources to seek an evaluation. But for some folks, and I'll be honest, that includes me, taking that step may feel like more than we're ready for.
Gretchen: Luckily for us, we've got someone here to help demystify that process and perhaps help us see that a later-in-life diagnosis does not have to be a bad thing and in fact, could be quite liberating.
Rachel: Dr. Roberto Olivardia is a clinical psychologist with more than 20 years of experience evaluating people for things like ADHD. He's also someone who himself, was diagnosed with ADHD as an adult.
Gretchen: He's the host of a brand-new season of "Understood Explains" that's all about ADHD diagnosis in adults. And we're delighted he's joining us today. Roberto, welcome to "In It."
Roberto: Oh, it's a pleasure to be here.
Rachel: So, Roberto, we mentioned at the top of this episode that it's not uncommon to see ADHD show up in kids and their parents. And there's a reason for that, that we haven't really touched on yet, which is the hereditary component. Can you talk about that? What do we know about it?
Roberto: Mm hmm. Well, I find personally and when I talk to families about this, that I hope when people hear that, that they don't feel stigmatized, but in fact, the opposite. That we sort of look at it as like, you know, we can't control how tall our kids are going to be. But the research significantly shows a high genetic transmission.
So, as a parent, there's no question that we want to feel like we are shaping our children's environment and that it's more nurture than nature. And I've, being in this field and learning this work and having two kids, I recognize that children are born into this world with a certain wiring. And then our job as a parent is to parent that wiring. So, the nurture is huge as to how we interact. But the nurture is not designing the motherboard. The motherboard has been designed.
Gretchen: I love the analogy you made about the wiring, right? That we have to parent to the different kinds of wiring. And so, speaking of the parents, getting back to the parents, have you seen this often, this domino effect where a child gets diagnosed and that leads to a parent figuring out that they have it, too? And if so, how does this usually go? How does this usually go about?
Roberto: It happens a lot. I've actually seen where grandparents get diagnosed with ADHD when their grandkids are diagnosed. Which is powerful. It usually, I would say the scenario that I've seen many times has been, you know, parents bring in, you know, a child or a teen and, you know, we might be talking maybe initially about the symptoms that get in the way. They're failing classes or maybe they're breaking curfews or engaging in a lot of impulsive behaviors. They're addicted to video games or screens, and the parents can't relate to that. So, maybe they're like, "I wasn't one, you know, we didn't have screens."
Roberto: And so, they can't relate to that. But then when I give this larger comprehensive explanation about ADHD and dopamine, the neurochemical that's implicated in reward, which we know ADHD is implicated with either less dopamine or less availability of dopamine. And talk about how for your child, it could be video game addiction, but it could be gambling, it could be food, it could be cannabis.
And then I start listing and usually one parent will look a little guilty and the other parent will be looking at that guilty-looking parent saying, "Hmm. This sounds really familiar." And then I'll talk about not just the problematic symptoms but also the sensibility of ADHD. Like when you have ADHD, I think of it for myself also is, I'm just oriented to my environment by what is going to stimulate me because I get bored so easily that it is just, it almost feels like a do-or-die situation. But when that scene happens in my office and then I said, "Oh, it sounds like this is resonating." And then sure enough, the parent, and sometimes it's both parents that can have ADHD, but usually it's at least one that will say, "Hmm, you know what? I never thought of that."
So, then it usually is meeting with that parent and kind of reviewing their history and one, validating their experience, helping them get the support that they need, and then understanding that what we knew 10 years ago, let alone 20, let alone 30 or more years ago, it's just not where we're at today with the level of knowledge we have. So, for them to understand that it's sometimes it's not anyone's fault that it wasn't recognized. It’s just the information, the data, wasn't there.
Roberto: And then bringing it back to the child to say, "Now, if you can understand this more, you will understand your child more. And this could be a great connection." And a lot of times that gets integrated in the treatment for the child to see that mom or dad or caregiver can relate to them.
Rachel: So, I'm a mom to two kids with ADHD, and it has occurred to me on many occasions that some of what they struggle with looks really similar to things that I've struggled with and that I do kind of face in the day-to-day. And I have thought about getting an evaluation to the extent that I've talked about it with my doctor. And it's actually interesting because when it has come up, it's always kind of like, "Oh, OK, well you could do that." Like there isn't this real encouragement. Like "That would really be a good idea, and here's why."
So, I haven't made getting this official diagnosis a priority in the past. And it feels really overwhelming. And so, I think a lot of parents and myself included, have put it on the back burner and just kind of been like, "Well, I've been dealing with this till now. Maybe I just need to suck it up and focus on how to make it better for my kids because that's what I've been doing so far." Does that sound familiar to you?
Roberto: It sounds very familiar. I mean, one of the things that I'm, you know, was proud to be collaborating with Understood in a podcast that's coming up, Season 2 of "Understood Explains" talks all about adult ADHD and the diagnostic process. And in one of the episodes, we talk about why bother? You know, why get a diagnosis? Why would that be important? It's a totally legitimate question. A very valid question.
And for me, the encouragement in that is, helping people, one, understand themselves. And then the other piece, too, is it can be an incredible just tool of connection with your child because at some point having ADHD, you know that you're different in some ways. And some of that I just tell people, "Look, we have to embrace it. We have to do things sometimes in very bizarre ways to get things done."
And as a parent, if you yourself, you might look back in your history and say, "Oh, yeah, that's why I used to do this weird, you know, method of remembering something. And everyone would be like, 'That's weird.' But what I was doing was a working memory strategy and didn't realize that that was the case." And then you can share that, you know, with your child. I mean, both of my kids are in high school. I have a son who's going to be graduating high school in a couple of months, which, oh my gosh, I can't even say that without tearing up. And I have a daughter who's a sophomore. And we talk all the time about how difficult it was for me to regulate my attention.
So, when they're saying that they're bored sometimes in class, I get it and then it's "OK, what can we do?" Because now we understand there's a lot of research as to what helps stimulate that kind of level of attention. And then part of it is also what I want parents to also take from it is to pat themselves on the back because there are things that I did do when I was younger that I'm like, "You know what? That was pretty smart of me to do."
I didn't always know why I was doing it, but I was managing a lot of those ADHD symptoms kind of intuitively. And I want parents to feel like, "Hey, you know, I could take all of that knowledge, I turned out OK," and even if there are bumps in the road, I'm not saying everything was perfect by any means, but it could be a great conversation for your child.
Rachel: I want to talk a little bit more about the parenting when you have ADHD, whether you had a diagnosis before kids or with your kids or a couple of years later. Once you are a person who's parenting with ADHD, what would you say the biggest challenges are?
Roberto: Hmm. It could really vary. So, probably the biggest challenge would be the executive functioning piece. I mean, being a parent — for any parent out there, and all of us can relate — there's a lot of details to keep track of when you have, you know, children. So, even as infants, you know, when they eat and they sleep and we know that, you know, sleep, which can already be dysregulated for people with ADHD, is going to be further dysregulated. Neither my kids slept through the night until they were 15 months old. I mean, they're their father's kids. There's no question.
Rachel: I think my daughter was like 7. So.
Roberto: Yeah, I mean, there you go, right? But yeah, definitely having like an executive functioning component of just organizing, like, appointments, activities. I hear a lot, you know, unfortunately for moms who have ADHD, who feel who are very, very hard on themselves and harsh because they might compare themselves to the other moms who organize the big sale and who, you know, who are so on top of it, and they're like, "Yeah, I'm not one of those moms. Like, I can't do that."
And first of all, it's like, so what? There's a reason some people volunteer to organize a bake sale. You don't have to be one of those people. That doesn't make you a bad, you know, parent. So, first it's, I guess, questioning kind of those things. But the other thing is just managing like household duties, like washing the dishes and like all of the things that even before having kids could sometimes be challenges for people with ADHD, cleaning the house and all of that, it's just your time obviously gets scrunched even more so with kids. So, it's all of those kinds of things. It's establishing systems of regularity, of when you pay the bills and that sort of thing.
And then just self-care in general of definitely making sure that you're eating well, that you're sleeping, that you have support, that you have some outlet for physical activity. And these are all things, again, that typically are issues before having kids. So, it's not that having kids suddenly causes it, it just exacerbates them because there's just less time.
Rachel: Yeah, I feel like I see that every day. Like "I need, I just need two more hours today, like I need today to be a 26-hour day."
Roberto: Yeah. I can relate.
Rachel: So, are there ways that you feel like you're a better parent because you have ADHD?
Roberto: I feel so. I mean, I really encourage, you know, this model and this philosophy, and it's one I truly believe that, you know, with any neurodiversity or I mean, I would say even issues like anxiety, for example, I think of these things like a coin, you know, there's the heads and the tails. You just can't separate them. So, I attribute a lot of challenges, dark moments, not so great things, to ADHD.
And I credit the best moments and ways of how I am and my personality and how I'm wired to this ADHD brain. So, to me, it's just embracing and recognizing, well, if I am someone who gets bored very easily, it would have been for me just because it was so scary, the idea of being in a career, for example, that I or a job that I didn't like, I can't even imagine it. I mean, it would be so intolerable that I had to do something, I and I love what I do. Like, I love what I do. And I love that I can be a model to my kids to say, "You can get to the place, if you're tuned in to, what do I like? What am I good at? What don't I like?" Where I am today is exactly what I manifested.
And I credit, you know, that ADHD brain, you know, my creativity. And with parenting too, it's, you know, a lot of parenting comes down to being creative, how to help your child redirect, how to empathize, you know, with them, how to help them ground and regulate themselves. You know, ADHD is such a misnomer because it's not that we have a deficit in attention. If anything, sometimes we're paying attention to too many things. But frankly, as a parent, that can come in handy. It's stimulating. It's never boring. It's never boring being a parent.
Gretchen: All right. One last quick question. Just, I know you already mentioned this, but we didn't get to cover everything obviously related to being an adult and getting diagnosed. And so, there is a podcast for that at Understood. Can you give us the brief explanation of what "Understood Explains" Season 2 covers?
Roberto: Yes. So, "Understood Explains" is a wonderful podcast series, and this season, Season 2 is about adult ADHD and getting diagnosed and all of the ins and outs of it, some of the stuff we talked about today, the feelings of it, how to find a specialist, how to get good, adequate testing. We also, I share personal anecdotes. There's some humor in there, but I know people will walk away with a real comprehensive sense of, "OK, this is what the diagnosis process is." We demystify it, we destigmatize it, and just really pack in a lot of great information. So, I'm super excited about it coming out and I hope people will listen to it.
Gretchen: Awesome. Well, we had such a great time talking with you today and we learned so much. Thank you for being on "In It" with us today.
Rachel: Yes. Thank you so much.
Roberto: Oh, my pleasure. It's always a pleasure.
Gretchen: You've been listening to "In It" from the Understood Podcast Network.
Rachel: This show is for you. So we want to make sure you're getting what you need. Email us at [email protected] to share your thoughts. We love hearing from you.
Gretchen: If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.
Rachel: Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at Understood.org/mission.
Gretchen: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Briana Berry is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music.
Rachel: For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening.
Gretchen: And thanks for always being "in it" with us.
Gretchen Vierstra, MA
is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the “In It” podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.
is co-host of the “In It” podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents.