Genetics Built My ADHD Family Tree: Neurodivergence Through Generations

A phone call from my mother changed everything.

We had always been close, but our relationship was rocky – lots of anger, frustration, and assumptions on both sides.

After a quick hello, she told me how she had read an article about older adults with ADHD. My irritation at being interrupted fizzled as my mom read the list of symptoms to me: lateness and “time blindness;” difficulty with organization; big feelings; difficulty planning and executing tasks; hyperfocus…

I froze, and my mind whirled. Of course she has ADHD — and how had I, her therapist daughter, missed it? I was stunned, and then overwhelming guilt washed over me. All these things that had felt so personal from my mom over the years, and often so inconsiderate – and that I had been so reactive to – were almost all symptoms of ADHD!

Branches of the Same Tree?

“Mom,” I said, “This absolutely sounds like you. Can you talk to your doctor? I need to think about this more.” She agreed, then spent some time reassuring me that, while she might have ADHD, I don’t. After all, I’d finished grad school, I had a great job, an impossibly busy family schedule, and a small private practice. There was no way I had ADHD, and I agreed — at first.

I went home and thought about it more. A lot more. I was already familiar with ADHD due to my work, and I’d wondered for years if my daughter might have it. Her busyness, distractibility, disorganization, and grades were all potential signs. But I never showed any signs of ADHD, right?

[Symptom Test: Could You Have Adult ADHD?]

After a week or so of reflecting on my life, my thoughts had shifted. I was a bright and sensitive child, disappearing for hours into imaginary worlds. I also picked up and dropped hobbies on the regular. My room was a mess, my desk at school the same. I did so well academically that it didn’t matter that I rushed through my work and then zoned out.

Then I hit high school, and it became impossible to manage the complexity of social relationships and a varying schedule while staying on top of my tasks. In university, I regularly had urges to leave class mid-lecture, and I sometimes acted on that urge, wandering the halls until that disquieting feeling that kept me from sitting still went away. Background noises and interruptions irritated me, but I thought that was just me being an impatient, overly sensitive jerk.

All in the Family

 That fall after my mother’s phone call, my daughter was diagnosed with ADHD and started on medication. To say it changed her life is an understatement. She said the noise in her had brain stopped, and that she was now able to focus on school and her extracurriculars. She medaled in both of her sports that year, her report cards were completely different, and her friendships blossomed. All of the tools she had learned in therapy finally clicked, and I watched her put them into practice every day.

I was diagnosed with ADHD and started medication a few months later, which also changed my life. I couldn’t believe it at first. I had been using mindfulness, dialectical behavior therapy skills, lists, planners, and other tools and systems for years, and now I understood why I was often so exhausted. While I still use these tools, medication settled something inside that has allowed me to flourish.

[Read: “Let Me Tell You How ADHD Runs in My Family”]

But the biggest change ADHD brought was in my relationship with my mom and daughter. Knowing that my mom struggles with time because of ADHD — that it’s not because she doesn’t care — allows me to stay grounded when it happens. I recognize that interruptions aren’t personal, and I let others know when I need uninterrupted time. Most profoundly, our diagnoses have given us a lens into understanding each other’s idiosyncrasies and that something might be ‘an ADHD thing.’ For my daughter, it’s negative thoughts. For me, it’s irritation. And for my mom, it’s needing to say or act on each thought, lest she forget it right away.

For my mom and me, in particular, our present diagnoses offer a lens into our past challenges. We’re able to forgive each other and know that we weren’t just doing life wrong. That it wasn’t because we didn’t love each other – it was just undiagnosed ADHD getting in the way.

Managing ADHD Across Generations

If you’re part of an intergenerational ADHD family, here are a few tips from us – three generations of women with ADHD. I hope some of them are helpful for your and your family, too.

  • Learn as much as you can about ADHD. Whether you watch webinars, read books, or listen to podcasts, find reputable sources of information and soak them up. Explore what tools fit for you and put them in action.
  • Keep in mind that what works for you might not work for other family members with ADHD. We all have our individual personalities and temperaments, and ADHD might express itself differently even within your nuclear family.
  • Practice self-compassion. We all struggle, and those of us with ADHD are bombarded with negative messages that often become our internal self-talk. Self-compassion can slow things down, allow us to be kinder to ourselves, and set an example for our children.

ADHD Family: Next Steps

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