Boys With ADHD and Their Dads

By Anita M. Schimizzi, Ph.D.

A couple of months ago, I wrote about a study that looked at moms and children with ADHD.  Some readers responded with wanting more information on the role of dads in their child’s ADHD.  Well, I found an article in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology that studied dads and looked at the impact that their early relationships with their children have on later ADHD symptoms.  And, yes, the study suggests that the early father-child relationship does indeed seem to be related to middle-childhood ADHD symptoms.  (The study looked at the maternal role also, but I am going to focus on the paternal role here.  The citation is below if you’d like to read the whole study.)

The study took place in New Zealand and included 93 preschool boys that were placed in a “hyperactive” group, control group, or in another comparison group where symptoms were present but less severe and, thus, gave the researcher the ability to look at a wide range of ADHD symptoms.  According to the author, only boys were included both because of logistics and because they tend to have more observable behaviors linked to ADHD than girls.  Eighty-nine fathers participated.  Data was collected using parent observations, interviews, and questionnaires, as well as teacher questionnaires.  The study spanned three years, starting when the boys were an average of four years-old.   A second round of data was collected two and a half years later when the boys were an average age of seven.

The author, Louise Keown, looked at three areas of paternal responsiveness (sensitivity (e.g., being tuned into the son’s needs), intrusiveness (e.g., controlling son’s play), and positive regard (e.g., warmth and affection toward son)) and the presence of later ADHD symptoms.  The results took into account early ADHD and behavior problems.  In other words, the results looked at how fathers’ parenting impacted middle childhood ADHD above and beyond preschool problems in this area. 

Here’s what the study found.  Fathers that were characterized as more sensitive and less intrusive with their preschool sons had sons that were later found to be less hyperactive and impulsive at school, according to teachers, and more attentive at home, according to fathers.   Further, higher levels of paternal positive regard in early childhood were related to their sons showing lower levels of inattention at both home and school in middle childhood, according to teacher and maternal reports.

In her discussion of the findings, Keown discusses the importance of fathers learning how to sync up with their sons to give them what they need in any given moment.  For example, a son that gets frustrated and angry with trying to build a block tower that keeps tumbling down will likely have a different response to a father that reprimands him for the outburst as opposed to validating the son’s emotions (e.g., “Wow!  It’s so frustrating when you try to build a tower that keeps falling down.”).  Another example could be a preschooler that starts running around like a maniac at a birthday party because he is over-stimulated and rather than giving him some time and space away from the chaos to get settled again, his father tells him to slow down.  While the cues may be subtle, it is important to learn how to read them.

Keown also discusses the finding of paternal intrusiveness and hyperactivity-impulsivity at school.  She argues that fathers that disrupt their son’s activities and limit the amount of control that sons have over play may also be limiting their opportunity to learn how to self-regulate their behaviors.  In other words, sons that are controlled by an outside force may not learn to control themselves from within.

Last month, I posted on mindful parenting.  The results of the current study can also be applied to this concept.  When dads can step away from their agenda and allow a child’s activity to unfold, supporting them as necessary, it sends the message that the child’s desires are important and that there is a safety net in place when they need it.  Also, nothing can replace the important father-child interaction in a given activity.  The kind where you work together in a rhythm that feels good to both parties. Not only can this be a rewarding way to spend time with your child, but it can also be an opportunity for learning more about your child’s cues and how to meet him where he is.

This post is certainly not meant to criticize fathers.  On the contrary, I hope that fathers will recognize the importance of their relationship with their sons (and daughters!) and find the information to be useful.  Additionally, it is hoped that parenting partners and professionals can support fathers in their relationships with their kids in a way that reduces the chances of heightened ADHD symptoms in middle childhood and beyond. 

Thanks for reading!  -Anita

Source: Keown LJ (2011). Predictors of Boys ADHD Symptoms from Early to Middle Childhood: The Role of Father-Child and Mother-Child Interactions. Journal of abnormal child psychology PMID: 22038253

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