ADHD and Divorce

We are pleased to present a guest post by Psychologist Judith Glasser, Ph.D., a local Psychologist with over 30 years of experience.  For Dr. Glasser’s bio, please scroll to the end of the post.

Life with a family member with ADHD can be stressful; wonderful in some ways, but stressful in others. People with ADHD often have a great deal of energy and enthusiasm for life.  However they also lose things, forget things and are impulsive and distractible. This combination of difficulties can lead to being late for events or forgetting to pick up a child at school. It can also mean that sometimes things get said in impulsive ways that would be better off not said. All of these kinds of behaviors can lead to hurt feelings.

 The fact that ADHD is genetic means that frequently more than one member of a family has this disorder.  If a parent has ADHD this means that the household may not run smoothly. Running a household requires organization and time management which are oftentimes problematic for people with ADHD. Adults with ADHD can have difficulty at work, which can lead to many job changes resulting in frequent moves and/or financial stress. Of course raising a child with ADHD can be a significant struggle. Recent research confirms what many people have suspected; that raising a child with ADHD increases the chance of divorce in a family.

Parents in troubled marriages often wonder whether they should stay together for the sake of the children.  A strong body of research shows that exposure to parental conflict is harmful for children (e.g., Cummings and Davies, 1994); conflict can be particularly difficult for children with ADHD, who thrive in calm, structured environments. Cummings and Davies conclude that whatever will reduce the conflict in the family is best for children. If parental separation and divorce reduces conflict between parents, this may be the best option. However, high-conflict spouses often continue their conflicts following a divorce, as they fight over money, parenting schedules, and child rearing patterns.  This kind of ongoing unsolved conflict is most harmful for children.

Divorce is challenging in the best of circumstances.  Many children do quite well in the long term.  However in the short term it is not uncommon to find that grades drop and there is an increase in aggressive behavior in the year following a divorce.  It makes sense to use a divorce process that minimizes the chances for increased conflict especially for children who are already experiencing challenges. There is good research that suggests that when mediation is used, conflict is reduced. When families resort to litigation with opposing attorneys however, conflict is increased (Robert Emery, Ph.D. The Truth About Children and Divorce, 2006).

As divorcing parents who have children with ADHD develop parenting plans, the following considerations are important to keep in mind:

• Children with ADHD often have difficulty with executive functions, such as planning, organization, time estimation, time management, and handling transitions (switching activities). This means that traveling back and forth between homes may be more difficult for these children than for other children of similar ages.  Children who have a tendency to forget books at school may have a problem leaving necessary items at the other house. It may be necessary to have two sets of books and clothes for children with ADHD. Tutors and ADHD Coaches need to be available in both locations.  The use of technological aids is probably more important for these children, such as lap top computers with access to Google Calendar that sends email reminders of homework assignments.


• The need for consistency between homes is greater for ADHD children than for other children because ADHD children need more external structure and support. As much as possible, there should be a common set of household rules and daily patterns in both parental households. This includes bed times and the amount of screen time that is allowed.

• Both parents and children will likely need high levels of support.  Parents need help in staying focused on their child’s needs, rather than their own needs. Parents especially will need support to assist them with co-parenting. Such support might include parent counseling and/or parenting coordinators. There are many decisions to be made on behalf of children with ADHD, including such decisions as whether to use medication, which kind of treatment to participate in, and there are many educational issues that confront such families. A system needs to be put in place to assist parents with making these difficult decisions so they can stay out of court.


•Many families can benefit from online family calendar/communication technology, which facilitates scheduling between the two parental homes and allows homework begun in one home to be accessed and completed in the other home.


•The cost of specialized services for children with ADHD should be considered as parents make decisions concerning child support and spousal support. Children with ADHD may need specialized services such as psychiatric care, individual, group and family psychotherapy, tutoring, coaching and private school. These are expensive and need to be considered in the financial agreement.


In some situations divorce may be the best solution for a high conflict marriage. The potentially harmful impact of divorce upon vulnerable children with ADHD can be minimized by promoting cooperative co-parenting relationships and developing parenting plans that thoughtfully address the needs of children with ADHD.



Judith M. Glasser, Ph.D. has been in practice as a clinical psychologist in the Washington DC metropolitan area for almost 30 years. She works with children and adolescents and their families doing testing as well as therapy.  She and Carol Robbins, Ph.D. co-authored a chapter in a book edited by Goldstein, S., Naglieri, J. A., & DeVries, M. (2011) entitled Learning and Attention Disorders in Adolescence and Adulthood: Assessment and Treatment (2nded.).


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