ADHD getting you in Trouble with Loved Ones? Strategies for Improving Interpersonal Relationships

Special thanks to Casey Wheeler for this guest post on improving your interpersonal relationships when you have ADHD.

If you have ADHD, then you can probably tell dozens of different stories about getting in trouble as a young child. You got time outs for not sitting in your desk. You were scolded for talking impulsively. You were criticized constantly by your parents who thought you were lazy, immature, or selfish.

Unfortunately, “getting in trouble” doesn’t end with childhood if your attention disorder persists as an adult. Now, however, the stakes are higher. Adults can be infinitely more understanding towards children than they can be towards other adults. You’ve doubtlessly felt some strain in your adult relationships whether with a spouse, significant other, parent, or employer as a direct result of your ADHD. As an adult very recently diagnosed with ADHD, I can say without hesitation that I’ve struggled to maintain balanced relationships with others. Apparently, I can be exasperating.

While it’s certainly not your fault that your behavior has been misinterpreted by others, you’ll feel and relate so much better with others if you take responsibility for your own emotions and behavior. You can ask for understanding from your loved ones, but no matter how well-intentioned they are, they can’t always give it to you. Here are some strategies I’ve employed to improve my interpersonal relationships:

Don’t feel sorry for yourself.

Especially for those of us who suffer from ADHD, we’ve had our fair share of criticism. When the criticism persists into adulthood, our first reaction is to feel discouraged, to feel sorry for ourselves. In some ways, it almost feels good to feel sorry for yourself, because you feel this sense of moral outrage at being wronged by others. I can tell you for a fact, however, that when that justified feeling subsides, you’re left with an empty sense of self-pity. It puts you in reaction mode in your dealings with others. Always having to defend yourself through self-pity becomes exhausting, and it breeds resentment in others.

Take any useful bits of criticism you receive from others and discard the rest.

When others criticize you, they’re either right, wrong, or somewhere in the middle. When assessing criticism, stop, think, and try to determine what your loved one is actually trying to get across to you. For example, say your spouse yells at you, saying, “You forgot to take the trash out AGAIN. You’re so forgetful. How could you be so selfish, when you know I have so many things going on to worry about, and taking out the trash is your ONLY responsibility?”

Sound familiar?

Here, the first step in dealing proactively with criticism is to slough off the words, phrases, and ideas that don’t really matter—the words that your spouse is using simply because she’s tired and frustrated. This includes labels like “forgetful” and “selfish.” Once you take this emotional wording out, all you’re left with is her central, neutral request—to take out the trash and to remember to do it regularly. This is not criticism. It’s a perfectly legitimate request, albeit more difficult to accomplish for those who suffer from ADHD. Still, once you’ve taken the barb of criticism out, you’ll feel much more inclined to do what your spouse asks of you and to try harder.

Communicate that you’re trying your best to listen.

For those of us who suffer from ADHD, we often do the “blank face.” While we may be listening to what our loved ones are saying, we give the appearance of being off in our own little world. For you, this is a normal habit. For others who don’t have ADHD, it’s construed as rude, selfish, and uncaring. Your suffering at being misunderstood should definitely be acknowledged, but the suffering of others around you who feel that you don’t care is just as real.

I couldn’t believe how much heartache I caused my wife whenever she’d be telling me a story, sharing with me something intimate, and I always did my “blank face.” The fact of the matter was that I was listening; my reaction time was just slower, and my body language didn’t indicate that I appreciated what she had to say. If you have ADHD, it’s very important to constantly, explicitly acknowledge to those speaking to you that you are listening to them. You can communicate this by either reminding them, “I’m listening,” or you can ask questions throughout that indicate you’re listening. On the other hand, if you’re having an ADHD moment and your attention actually did drift off, communicate this, too. Say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch what you said. Could you say that again?” Remind your loved ones that you’re trying. You’d be surprised by what a difference it makes to simply communicate.

Have a sense of humor. Surround yourself with those who have one, too.

Ultimately, the only way to get through ADHD hardship is to have a sense of humor. Make fun of yourself. When you take yourself too seriously, criticism becomes something negative and discouraging. Surround yourself with others who can laugh at themselves, too. Of course, you can’t always choose your loved ones, but being in the company of people who can laugh, who understand that no one is perfect, that all we can do is try, will do more to alleviate your ADHD than anything.

Good luck!

Casey Wheeler is a freelance writer whose interests include psychology, education, and personal development. You can check out more of Casey’s writing at


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