New research highlights unique pandemic challenges of families dealing with ADHD

April 20, 2023

An assistant professor with the Faculty of Education at Western University, Dr. Barbara Fenesi served as the study's senior author.

While the COVID-19 pandemic was disruptive for all families, new research finds that families raising children who have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) were especially vulnerable to the impacts that came with it.

Published recently in the open-access journal PLOS ONE, the research focuses on families in Ontario and gives voice and nuance to their experiences by applying a qualitative lens, a new approach in studying this issue.

To do so, researchers held virtual interviews with 15 families that have at least one child with an ADHD diagnosis. Parents and children were interviewed separately.

“It became instantly apparent in conducting these interviews that these families were immensely grateful to have their experiences acknowledged,” said Dr. Barbara Fenesi, the study’s senior author.

An assistant professor with the Faculty of Education at Western University, Fenesi produced the research alongside co-authors Alexis Winfield and Carly Sugar, who are both graduates of the faculty’s Masters in Counselling Psychology program.

“For many parents, the interviews were the first time they discussed how they felt about the pandemic … For many children, it was the same,” Fenesi added.

Increased child anxiety, social disconnection, and deteriorating parental mental health

While each family had a unique experience, three recurring themes emerged in the interviews: Increased child anxiety, feelings of social disconnectedness, and deteriorating parental mental health.

Tied to the reports of child anxiety was a fear of contracting COVID-19 or loved ones contracting COVID-19. Attachment issues were also reported, with one mother telling researchers, “(my child’s) not able anymore to sleep by himself in his own room.”

Difficulty navigating online learning from home and a lack of structure and routine played a role in increasing child anxiety as well.

Social isolation guidelines stemming from government responses to the pandemic contributed to a sense of social disconnectedness among participants, who said they felt lonely, as well as cut off from family, friends, and regular life.

A lack of social support led to deteriorating parental mental health, as children lost the ability to have sleepovers and socialize with friends.

“All of the people who gave us a break and gave our kids a break, are not there,” said one parent in an excerpt from their interview with Fenesi’s team.

Parental duties became difficult to manage, especially for those who began working from home while caring for their children. Struggling to fulfill these duties created a sense of guilt, adding to a growing list of pandemic-related stressors.

Parent-led schooling and a lack of information regarding school guidelines led to increased frustration and stress for parents as well.

Lastly, as seen in their children, an increase in parental anxiety was reported, largely stemming from fearing the unknown aspects of COVID-19 and general anxiety surrounding their parenting skills under pandemic conditions.

Unpacking the impacts with systems theory

To understand these mental health impacts, researchers applied systems theory to their findings, the first study on the impact of COVID-19 on families dealing with ADHD to do so.

Here, the theory provides a way to understand the interconnected elements that affect a family system. In this case, the family system refers to families raising children with ADHD.

“Our work showed that the pandemic caused massive fractures to component elements of the family system by disrupting connections to family, friends, peers, educational support, places of employment, therapy groups, and extracurricular outlets,” said Fenesi.

“While these fractures were experienced by families around the world, systems theory points to an inherent vulnerability among families raising children with ADHD, making the impact of additional stressors significantly worse in these households.”

This inherent vulnerability is exposed in other higher-stress situations often experienced by these families that mirror many of the circumstances created by the pandemic. A few examples include greater employment instability, more financial difficulties, lack of therapeutic and educational support, negative parent-child interactions, and greater parental discord.

“The supports that these families need extend beyond the added constraints of what the COVID-19 pandemic created,” Fenesi added.

A need for safeguards and further research

A lack of educational support was one of the most common challenges faced by the families interviewed, which is especially problematic given that “children with ADHD require targeted support during their learning to thrive,” Fenesi said.

Be it the pandemic or any other scenario that leaves a similar impact, schoolboards, colleges, and universities could prepare for the worst by leveraging their network of teachers and faculty to offer coordinated support for those struggling the most, according to Fenesi. A similar measure includes having tutors matched with children on a need’s basis.

The importance of extracurricular outlets and structured routine is made evident by the challenges faced by families who lost them and Fenesi sees a solution in having schools or community centres provide more online or socially distanced activities.

To cope with the impacts of social isolation, creating an environment where children can discuss their feelings or simply socialize is paramount and is something that “could be facilitated by scheduling time in the school day for students to chat with one another through virtual breakout rooms or in-person group activities,” Fenesi said.

She adds that programming for both families and their children could also help in creating a sense of connection, on top of fostering routine and extracurricular engagement.

Within the family, Fenesi suggests parents try as best as possible to create routine and structure each day, however she admits, “this is undoubtedly so much easier said than done.”

There are still many voices yet to be heard when it comes to gauging how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted families raising children who have ADHD.

Fenesi says more research is needed as there is a wide range in the socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial backgrounds of these types of families. As each family’s challenges are unique, so too are their needs.

In the meantime, when crises break down the pillars of stability holding up the wellbeing of these families, Fenesi says, “community organizations and broader societal structures need to organize and provide greater supports to those who need it the most.”