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Why Being a Neurodivergent Parent is Especially Tough

If you identify as neurodivergent, or wonder if you might be, it’s likely that you find some parts of being a parent especially hard.


True, parenting is hard for everyone. But there are particular aspects of neurodivergence that can exacerbate the hard bits. You are not imagining it! 

With more and more of us exploring our neurodiversity and receiving neurodivergent diagnoses in adulthood, how we experience parenthood and how we can be the parents we want to be is an issue that is on our minds more and more.


So, let's dive in to understanding what we're dealing with.





A brief note about words


Just before we get going, when I talk about neurodivergence, I am talking about diagnoses such as autism and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), in which we know there are neural differences in how the brain is "wired up". Other diagnoses such as Tourette's Syndrome, dyslexia, dyscalculia, and dyspraxia, as well as intellectual disabilities, also fall under the neurodiversity umbrella.


To be specific, "neurodivergent" refers to a person whose brain wiring is different to the majority - what we call "neurotypical". "Neurodivergence" is just that: a neurological divergence away from what is most common. (I actually have my doubts that the majority of the population IS neurotypical once you take all the different types of neurodivergence into account but that's a post for another time!).


Neurodivergent people tend to think differently to neurotypical people, which can often be an advantage but may also result in challenges. In neuroaffirmative language, we now think of differences rather than the "disorders" described in diagnostic manuals.


"Neurodiversity" and "neurodiverse" refers to the whole range of "brain wiring" in a population, including both neurodivergent and neurotypical individuals - a person themselves cannot be "neurodiverse".


Ok, back to the main topic!



Neurodivergent parents & neurodivergent children


The very first thing to acknowledge in relation to parenting and neurodiversity is that if you are neurodivergent yourself, you are more likely to have a neurodivergent child (and vice versa), due to genetic heritability. This is why many parents are now receiving diagnoses later in life, after realising their child is neurodivergent and that they have a lot in common.


Research shows that parents of neurodivergent children have significantly higher levels of stress, even if the parent is not neurodivergent themselves. While of course neurodivergent children are just as wonderful and frustrating as neurotypical children, they may require more specialist parenting techniques to support them with behavioural, sensory, and emotional difficulties, which can be challenging on top of all the usual parenting demands.


Neurodivergent parents therefore often get a "triple whammy" - it's harder to be a neurodivergent parent, it's harder to be the parent of a neurodivergent child, but it can be even more tough to be both. On the other hand, there can be also benefits related to better understanding your child and their needs when both you and your child are neurodivergent.





How neurodivergent features can interact in parenting


In this article, I want to offer validation to the experience of neurodivergent parents, who sometimes feel as if they are "making a fuss" when they say they find parenthood more difficult than other parents.


Let's take a look at how some of the common features of neurodivergence (specifically in autism and ADHD) can indeed make the experience of being a parent extra tricky.



Sensory sensitivity


Sensory issues are very common in both autism and ADHD (although are only part of the diagnostic criteria for autism). If we are sensitive to noise, light, touch, and smells then I think we can all see how the sensory experience of parenting is likely to overload us frequently and easily.


It's often very difficult to reduce the sensory input associated with parenting tasks because many of them are non-negotiable. Not only this, but it can be difficult to predict how and when the overload is coming, and when we can escape. This may be even harder if your child is neurodivergent and needs lots of sensory or propriaceptive input.



Need for time alone


Many neurodivergent people need time alone to recharge from social, physical and sensory contact, and to avoid a boom-and-bust cycle. This is very difficult as a parent of any young child, and may be worse if your child needs a lot of support and physical closeness. If you are lacking in support with your parenting, as we discuss below, getting a break can be even harder.


In fact, as a parent of a neurodivergent child you may well find it difficult to use all kinds of other strategies that you have previously used to help manage your levels of overwhelm.


Prioritising self-care of any kind can be tough when you lack time and space.



Need for sleep


Neurodivergent people often struggle to get good quality sleep, but also find a lack of sleep exacerbates any challenges they may face in the day (e.g. executive function difficulties, see below). Exhaustion from masking during the day and managing multiple mental and physical demands may mean you need more rest.


If you already struggle with sleep, parenting is likely to make this worse, especially in the early years - I think many of us can relate to this! However, if your child is neurodivergent then they may also have difficulties with sleep, and these tend to persist beyond early childhood, which can make matters even more difficult for you.



Emotional regulation


Neurodivergence is associated with emotional regulation difficulties, especially under stress. Hello, parenting - the most stressful job in the world! Most neurotypical parents struggle with emotional regulation, so no wonder we find it even more challenging as a neurodivergent parent.


One huge trigger for emotional dysregulation for any parent is when our child is dysregulated too - this is because our brains are wired to see their distress as a threat, and our brain can shut off our thinking mode in order to go into the (dysregulated) fight/flight/freeze response.


Neurodivergent children tend to struggle with their own emotional and behavioural regulation more than neurotypical children, and so neurodivergent parents have to cope with even more frequent situations that trigger their own dysregulation.


Neurodivergence is associated with emotional regulation difficulties, especially under stress. Hello, parenting!

Coping with uncertainty


Uncertainty and lack of control can be very challenging for neurodivergent people, and yet parenting is inherently unpredictable and uncontrollable. It is riddled with unexpected situations, and it turns out that little beings are difficult to direct! A neurodivergent child’s behaviour may seem even less predictable and controllable than other children, which can make matters more tricky.


The ability to be flexible with parenting styles and strategies is crucial when parenting a neurodivergent child, but sometimes this flexibility can be hard for neurodivergent parents. Parents with autism can find deviating from a plan difficult and anxiety-provoking, especially when already under a great deal of stress.



Anxiety


A related issue is the level of worry and anxiety that comes along with parenting. Parenting is a highly anxiety-provoking role for most people, because of the level of responsibility we face for the people we love the most every day.


Neurodivergent people are more prone to experience anxiety than neurotypical people, so it makes sense this would be an issue for neurodivergent parents. If your child is also neurodivergent, you may worry about them more, because of the challenges they may face in life.



High self criticism / low self compassion


Research suggests that low self-compassion and high self-criticism is more common in neurodivergent people, and this may be for a number of reasons, including traumatic experiences in childhood. Parents - especially neurodivergent parents - may have never learned how to be gentle and accepting of themselves when things are difficult.


Parenting challenges us at the best of times with feelings of guilt, shame and self criticism. Parents of neurodivergent children often feel judged by others when typical parenting strategies don't "work" or when their child seems different to others.


You may find yourself blaming yourself for your child's difficulties, and for what you see as your "failings" or limitations. In my clinical experience, this is actually most common pre-diagnosis, when parents feel their child's behaviour is "caused by" their parenting "mistakes", rather than reflecting a type of brain wiring shared by many, many others. Reducing this guilt and shame, and moving towards a positive understanding of strengths and self-identity, is one of the core reasons I often recommend neuroaffirmative diagnostic assessments (where appropriate).



Past trauma


As mentioned above, many neurodivergent people experience multiple traumatic experiences growing up in a world that didn't understand them. There are a generation of parents now who grew up in a time when neurodivergence was rarely recognised or supported.


Research suggests high self-criticism and low self-compassion is more common in neurodivergent people, and this may be for a number of reasons, including traumatic experiences in childhood.

It can be very challenging (understatement!) as a parent to be faced with the pressure to break intergenerational parenting cycles (and societal cycles) for your child, whilst coping with your own past memories, and current challenges, related to neurodivergence. Seeing your child struggle with similar things that you did can trigger difficult and overwhelming feelings that can be hard to process. Yet, many neurodivergent parents find this also really drives their advocacy of their child.



Lack of support


If you find social relationships and communication difficult, it may be especially hard for you to build a social network or ask for help when you need it as a parent. We all need a "village" to support us with bringing up our children, but it is often simply not available.


One problem is that you may need support and help even more than other parents if your child is neurodivergent. Worse, it might be even harder to find. There is still a huge lack of pre- and post-diagnostic support for the neurodivergent community when they need it, and while public understanding is growing, there is still a way to go.


You may also feel isolated or excluded from certain social activities or settings if your child finds them difficult to take part in, and you may find it harder to meet other parents who "get" what you're going through. "Rejection sensitivity" associated with neurodivergence can make this situation feel even harder.


Keeping up with existing friends can slip to the bottom of the to-do list when there's so much else to cope with, which can compound feelings of isolation.



Executive functioning difficulties


Managing organisation and the mental load is a huge source of stress for most parents, but if you struggle with executive functioning as a neurodivergent parent it can become almost impossible. "Executive functioning" refers to the cognitive skills controlled by the prefrontal cortex (I like to imagine a tiny executive in there), such as organisation, planning, time management, multitasking, emotional and behavioural regulation, prioritising, starting and finishing tasks, keeping track of what you're doing, and focusing attention.


If your child is also neurodivergent then you may have additional appointments and advocacy tasks to complete for your child, and child may be less able to help themselves with daily tasks that you both find hard (e.g. packing school bag, remembering tasks, completing chores).


Managing organisation and the mental load is a huge source of stress for most parents, but if you struggle with executive functioning as a neurodivergent parent it can become almost impossible.

Difficulty doing boring things


Neurodivergent people may have trouble focusing their attention on tasks that seem boring, mundane, or that they are not interested in. Unfortunately, many parenting tasks are like this!


Showing interest in our child's play can be tough when it is not something we ourselves can connect to (imaginary play perhaps) - but if our child play is especially repetitive, rule bound or a niche interest, it might be even more difficult for neurodivergent parents. Is this something you have noticed?




Does this resonate?


Of course, this list is not exhaustive. Every parent's experience is different, and I don't want to give the impression that neurodivergence is all doom and gloom! Far from it, there are so many strengths and fantastic sides of neurodivergence that we can bring to our parenting and to ourselves.


As I mentioned above, sometimes having a lot in common with your child is a magical way to understand and support them, and to understand yourself, too.


You are perhaps more likely to have insight into what your child might need, such as quiet time alone, to leave a party early, to reduce what's expected of them, or to calm down with a deep pressure hug. Even if their needs are different to yours, being able to tune into their difference and know that it is ok, is a truly wonderful foundation for a parent-child relationship.



What can I do to make things easier?


It's not always easy to make things easier, is it! But understanding and then validating our challenges is always the first step.


Recognising what we experience is real, and that are not alone, can be a powerful step forward. Then, taking time to reflect on how the strengths associated with neurodivergence - such as creativity, a sense of justice, a keen sense of empathy, or whatever resonates for you - can help hugely in our parenting journey, and our connection with our child.


Looking out for communities of parents with similar experiences can be another great way to build connections, share ideas, and feel more supported.


We will explore specific strategies to taget some of the potential challenges outlined above in another post. If you have any tips to share, let us know below!


In the mean time, check out my other blog posts for ideas on how and why to develop your inner self-compassionate voice as a parent.


 

If you'd like to join me and other parents navigating parenthood, including the challenges brought by neurodivergence, and learn practical skills for yourself and your child, check out The Guilty Parent Club.


Or, if you'd like to work with me 1:1 to explore current challenges or past experiences, you can book a free 15 minute consultation here.


You can follow me on Instagram @drjothepsychologist for regular tips for parents.


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