When Mom or Dad is Neurodivergent Too

with Terry Matlen, MSW

Seeing that ADHD and autism can be genetic, it stands to reason that there are many neurodivergent parents raising neurodivergent kids. Terry Matlen is one of them, but she’s also an expert on ADHD, especially in women. In this episode, Terry shares the feelings of guilt and inadequacy she felt raising her kids, because she struggled with many of the daily tasks due to her ADHD. She also offers some simple strategies to help make things like preparing meals and cleaning up more manageable when you may be struggling with executive functioning skills yourself.

Resources in this Episode

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My Guest

Terry Matlen, MSW
Terry Matlen, LMSW, is an internationally recognized expert in the field of women with ADHD – a psychotherapist, consultant, author, and coach. She is the author of The Queen of Distraction and the founder of addconsults.com and QueensOfDistraction.com . She offers consultations and coaching online and can be reached at [email protected]

Thanks for joining me!

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Terry Matlen 0:03
First of all, we do have to change our expectations. So your house is not going to look like anyone else's house. And that's okay. We have to make it okay instead of wallowing in guilt and embarrassment and not having people over that whole thing.

Penny Williams 0:19
Welcome to the beautifully complex podcast, where I share insights and strategies on parenting neurodivergent kids straight from the trenches. I'm your host, Penny Williams. I'm a parenting coach, author and mindset mama, honored to guide you on the journey of raising your a typical kid. Let's get started.

Welcome back to the beautifully complex podcast. I have with me today Terry Matlen, who is an expert in ADHD, especially ADHD and women. And we are going to cover a topic that I have had a lot of requests for, which is, what do you do if you're the parent and you're also neurodivergent, you also have ADHD, you might be on the spectrum, you have a lot of anxiety. Terry, as a woman with ADHD, has, of course focused on this as a parent as well. And it's going to share a lot of great insights. And she has some wonderful strategies as well. So let's welcome her Terry, will you start just by letting everybody know who you are and what you do?

Terry Matlen 1:26
Sure. Thanks, penny for having me, on, I'm always happy to do projects with you. So I'm a psychotherapist and an IT consultant and an author. I wrote two books. The last one was the queen of distraction. And I run a website at EDD councils that calm in Queens of distraction.com, where I help women basically not always, but mainly women with ADHD who are looking for some support through consultations and coaching. Amazing work. You've been doing it for quite some time now too, which is awesome. So many supportive women out there I know are thinking you. Let's start by talking about some of the struggle, I think, what do you struggle with when you have a kid who has neuro differences, but you also have some similar challenges as well. I think that's a great starting question. And as your listeners must know, because that's why they're here is that is really hard. It's really hard for a mom and or a dad to help a child who has similar kinds of struggles that they have. So I am a mom, an older mom now with ADHD and I have a young adult daughter with ADHD and some other special needs and coming into parenthood. I did not know a thing about ADHD. Even though I'm a psychotherapist back in the day.

We didn't know about ADHD, we called it something else. I won't get into the history. But all I know is that life went along fairly okay until I hit a wall when I hit the kids. And then when my daughter began, it became obvious that she had her own situation, her ADHD, I basically fell apart because I just couldn't keep up with the daily struggles of how do I take care of my needs, which at that time, were also unidentified, I was not diagnosed with ADHD, I didn't know what the problem was, I just thought I was to put it boldly. I thought I was a loser. How come I wasn't able to do what other moms were able to do without even thinking about it. So for instance, putting on a meal for three and then became four of us was a nightly nightmare. And yet, my friends, my neighbors, my family didn't think twice about it. And then, you know, you bring in a child who, in my case, and in many of our cases who have kids with neural diversities was a picky eater. So both of my kids were actually picky. And if I couldn't get dinner on the table, just in general, how could I do it with two kids and one who had special needs, again, when I say special needs, in her case, ADHD and other stuff. So you'll begin to feel your self esteem get clobbered, which is what happens to me and what happens to many women moms, that I work with it, it becomes what's wrong with me.

And that's a very awful feeling for any parent to have when you are trying to do your best. So let me just insert one thing. Anybody who's listening to your podcast, Penny means to me that you have an audience of good parents, you may not feel like you're a good enough parent, but by virtue of you wanting to learn more about how to be a better parent, yes, how to help yourself how to help your kids, and you're listening to these podcasts that Penny offers. says to me as a psychotherapist, you care and you're doing your best and don't be so hard on yourself.

Penny Williams 4:53
Yes, I tell parents on all the time you're here you're trying to learn more. You know you're having a conversation with me, or you're taking it online training about this, like you're doing everything you can, you have to give yourself some grace. And you can't do it all at one time, which I think so many of us want to do.

Terry Matlen 5:10
Exactly. And one of the points I want to make up front is that it's important to get to a point in your lives. And it took me quite a while to recognize and accept that we need extra help that our families are not typical families, just like our neurodiverse kids are not typical kids, our families, if you'd cluster all of us into a family, we're different. And because we're different, we need to reach out and get extra help that other families most often don't need to do. So one quick example. I wish I had learned it earlier. But my kids were still kind of young. And I realized that even though I was a stay at home mom, this was a really difficult task for me as a woman with ADHD. So I early on kind of early on, reached out and got like high school kids, college kids to come in and help me. So I wasn't overwhelmed and my child who wasn't needy in the ways that my younger daughter is needy, I could then spend time with her. And that make her life so difficult. That's one thing that really hit me hard all these years, is that there's not, I don't want to use the word disabled, because that can make things sound really intense. In my case, it does fit because my daughter is disabled along with ADHD. But what does it do to the non disabled or non affected siblings, or sibling, or your spouse or your partner, it leaves a big dent in how we hope to have what we think is a normal kind of family.

Which by the way, there is no such thing. So we need to throw that out the window as well. Yep. But we come into this thinking, you know, okay, I'm gonna go to college, okay, I'm gonna get married. Okay, I'm gonna have 2.3 kids, whatever. We really have to throw that out the window, say, Okay, this is what I have. Yeah. So how do I make it work for me? Not? How do I make it work for my best friend who might have some opinions about how I'm parenting, which I'm sure all of you listeners have heard plenty of this toxic help that we hear from generally people who mean well, but they just don't get it. Yeah, I was just talking to someone recently who we were talking about having kids who are neurodiverse, and how, no matter how hard people try to understand and help, they don't get it. So we have to be our own advocate, and advocate for kids and an advocate for our families and an advocate for a non affected family members.

Penny Williams 7:44
Yeah, siblings get so lost. And we had that same experience. And my daughter is a young adult, and she's still struggling with some of the trauma of growing up with a kid who had public meltdowns and, you know, couldn't always control his behavior. And so it's really vital that we pay attention to the siblings and the other family members to then make sure everyone feels equally loved and important. One quote that came to mind as you were talking, it's one of my favorites. I think it's Roosevelt who said that comparison is the thief of joy. As long as we compare our parenting and our family to others, we're gonna feel bad. We just are we're gonna feel bad, right? And that really goes for neurotypical families, too. Like, we just really have to stop comparing ourselves all of us to each other, and make life a little bit easier. But yeah, you really do have to sort of, you know, only expose yourself as much as you can handle, I think, to the realities of, you know, maybe more neurotypical families,

Terry Matlen 8:49
And that leads into self help, which is absolutely necessary as a parent of a child with differences that we just over focus sometimes because we have to, it's not that we choose. And that's another thing, a lot of people don't understand that we hyper focus on the needs of our children, and we exclude our own needs. And that needs to change. Because if we can't help ourselves, we can't help our kids is something you probably have talked about many times.

Penny Williams 9:19
Yep. Yep. Self Care is vital. When we're not feeling our best, we can't do our best for our kids. And it's so ironic that we sacrifice ourselves so that we can do the absolute most we can for our kids, but it actually makes us do less than we would be able to if we just took care of ourselves too. Absolutely. Let's talk a little bit about like the day to day I get so many parents who are also neurodivergent who say things like I know I'm supposed to help my kid with routine or with organizing, but I can't do it myself. So what do I do? Or, you know, I know I'm supposed to say calm and my kid is reactive. But I'm reactive to Oh, and it creates an extra complication. I think these parents are also super hard on themselves, because they sort of know what they should at least try to implement. And there's barriers for them to that as well.

Terry Matlen 10:16
Well, my number one recommendation, and it's an obvious one, but one that people still need to hear, because it's not done in my experience is that first and foremost, we have to get the appropriate treatment for us. And for our Yes, number one, because without that in place, all of this is very, very, very difficult. So if you think as a parent that maybe I have ADHD, maybe I'm on the spectrum, I'm not sure, please go find out so that you can then get the appropriate treatment. Once you get that in place. Trust me, it'll be easier to help your child, because then you'll know what needs you have, you have to remember to get your needs taken care of. Once you do that, you'll be in a better place to help your child. So I know that your listeners really want the nuts and bolts.

So let me go into because that's an interesting one, when you talk about staying calm when you and your child are reactive types. And that was the case and continues to be the case with me. And I'll give you an example of something that just happened last night. I was at my older daughter's house, she does not have some any special issues going on other than typical stuff. My younger daughter who has all the things I just mentioned, we were all together, and we had dinner, and my youngest one who was in her 30s Now, was not paying attention was looking at her iPhone, and she fell down one step fell down and twisted her ankle. Now, she reacted as a much younger child might react, she exploded into shrieking and crime. First, she was startled. And when you have ADHD or you're on the spectrum, we have anxiety or anything like that, if you're an over reactive kind of person to begin with, you are going to overreact by the startle of what happened, you're standing and everything is fine. And then the next thing you know you're on the floor to you're in pain. Three, you don't know how bad this injury is. And four, you have a problem with moderating your emotions. So that is what happened last night, and my daughter's on the floor. And she's crying and screaming and wailing. And she was terrified. So I had a choice. And now a lot of adults might say, Oh, it's nothing just get up, you'll be fine. Or, you know, you're making a big deal out of nothing. Well, that doesn't does not correlate with what their needs are. So I am an overreactor person. So I see her on the floor. And I think oh my gosh, oh my gosh, oh my gosh, we have to get into the house. We gotta do that. Yeah. But the way that helps her the most is for me to first become aware of my reactivity.

Okay. So I realized how I can be in it. Take a deep breath. I took a deep breath, and I analyzed the situation went to her and calmed her down Now intuitively, another adult might have said to a 30 year old Oh, you know, but I just said, You'll be okay. Come on. Now you're overreacting and stop acting like a child. She can't help it. She cannot help it. So we need to be aware of the reactivity, the problems with trying to think of the word of, I can't write it the moment of keeping it together this overactivity. So I touch her, I hug her. I calm her down, I lower my voice. And I talk slower. And I look into her eyes. And I give her the okay to feel what she's feeling. Instead of dismissing these real feelings that she cannot control. I accept them and her. So we got her some ice. We calmed her down. It took her quite a while to calm down, but that's her. So it's also knowing your child's style. Is your child overreact of like what I'm describing what works for your child distractions, sometimes that works for her humor for my daughter is a huge band aid to get her through these emotional times. I don't remember doing that lesson because her injury might have been significant.

We're watching this she might have a broken ankle after all. But in the moment you don't really know. So know their style of what gets them out of that dark, scary mood. It can be tenderness, it may be hugging, it can be given, depending on their age, a stuffed animal, it could be giving them their own space where they can calm themselves down. It could be handing them a device to distract them. So I mean, in a nutshell is it's figuring out the style of your child and knowing yourself again, a good reason for you to get yourself evaluated. Interested in self understanding of what your reactivity is about? Yeah. So my husband and I have very different styles very different. In some cases, he's better with her than I am because he is not a reactive person. He's the opposite. He's very analytic. Right? I am more emotional. So, yeah, start thinking about how you react to your child during episodes of reactivity.

Penny Williams 15:25
Yeah, and know that you may have the same diagnosis as your child. But you may be very different still. I could see some parents sometimes who maybe have ADHD, for example. And they really say, Well, you know, I had ADHD, and I was able to get my math done as a kid or whatever. And you're just different. Everybody is so different. It's very complex. Any of these neuro divergent conditions, or whatever you want to call them are very complex, and everybody is very different. And I think that's something that we really have to think about too, in the way that you're saying, you know, you have to understand yourself and understand your kid. And make sure that you understand that it can be wildly different, even with the same diagnosis.

Terry Matlen 16:10
And in the, in the area of ADHD. So my daughter has severe hyperactivity, impulsivity issues, whereas I am an inattentive, a woman with ADHD. So it's a very difficult mix, when I could just sit and stare and you know, read a book, and she can't sit for more than a couple minutes. Yeah. So yeah, you're right. There's different forms of all these things and how they present.

Penny Williams 16:35
Let's shift gears a little bit and talk about some strategies for the day to day, I think that being a parent can be more challenging when you are neurodivergent. yourself. And I know that you have worked out a lot of strategies over the years for yourself that you also help other women with as well. And I hope you can share a few of those with people.

Terry Matlen 16:59
So to start off with, first of all, we do have to change our expectations. So your house is not going to look like anyone else's house. And that's okay, we have to make it okay, instead of wallowing in guilt and embarrassment and not having people over and that whole thing. So jumping into the area that I had a real tremendous, and I alluded to it earlier is meal planning. So when I developed this, and it's in my book, it's called the P O S P like and Paul P. O 's plan or starve plan, plan or star Packer. And so what I advocate for is to get yourself some index cards and sit down and don't make a big, elaborate number of meals, but you want to take on one side of the index card, a typical kind of meal that you feel that you can handle, not what someone else can handle, but what you can handle. So an example might be. And this also brings into some thoughts about simplifying meals in general. But on one side of the card, you would say at the top, maybe roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and green beans. So in an ADHD household like mine that would meet many times, run into the market to buy a ready made roast chicken, because most markets have that now, some markets even have ready made mashed potatoes or they you can find it in the freezer section.

And then same with green beans, I don't care for you know, canned green beans, I don't think is a healthy alternative. But frozen green beans that you can put in the microwave is a great alternative where a bagged salad, simplifying but writing down the name of the meal on the card. And on that same card the ingredients that you need. So just the things that I listed, then flip it over and write down the steps. So one could be you know, go when you have ADHD. In my case, I can't speak for everyone because I know a lot of women with ADHD who are excellent clerks who are excellent planning their meals, I'm not one of them. So on the other side would be listing the ingredients and then on the back would be what you need to do. And it can be very concrete number one, go to x market, whichever market you go to pick up the ready made chicken, if everything is already at that particular market, then you just write down bag of frozen green beans, and whatever else you know management's really mean mashed potatoes. If you're cooking something, let's say it's that same kind of meal and you decide what you're going to cook, you have time and you're heads together enough to do this, then the back of the card might look a little different. So you need to buy, let's say a package of cut up chicken.

Actually you'd put that in the front and I still actually would go with frozen green beans because cooking fresh green beans can be a little time consuming if you're plucking off the tips of each of those green beans and so on. When you write down the steps that you're going to take, so you have a card that gives you one idea you would do maybe it depends on as you as you know what's comfortable for you, you might just do five of those, you might do 10 of those. And then what I do is I make a little notation on the tab. After you've done this for a while you remember, so I might have a little red dot, and any card that has a red, that might mean, I don't have time to cook. So those cards would be the Quickie ones that I just mentioned earlier. And then I make duplicates. So one package of these stays in my purse, and one can be at home. Now, if you have a kid who's picky, like I had, then you make it into a game and you say, Okay, it's your turn, Tommy, to choose a card from the pack that you want for dinner tonight or tomorrow night, that helps you with the decision making, because that was one of the big problems. What should I make for dinner? Yeah, then it becomes when I go to the grocery store, I get overwhelmed with the sounds. With all the options of things you can choose with, what do I do with a child? Do I bring my child or not bring my child? Well, my Montreaux back then is, if at all possible, do not bring the child. So it really can solve a lot of problems. And more that, you know, we can get into it even more. But those are the basic ones making choices, make it at least one of your two or three kids happy with your choice for the meal, making it fun. There's even another way that I talked about with meal planning thing, but we probably should move on to another tip. But this gives you kind of an idea.

Penny Williams 21:27
Yeah, and you're speaking my language there. I'm a very type a person, Uber organized. And I stink at meal planning and cooking, because I have no interest. And I think that's the key between like people with ADHD who like to cook and do good with meals and who don't, I hate cooking, and just not wired for it or something. I don't know what the problem is, but I hate it. And so every day, my husband texts me at three o'clock because I work from home and says dinner. And then we have this horrible, like a stressful conversation about what we're going to have and what he has to stop and get. And it's so stressful every single day. And just yesterday, I said alright, I'm not doing it this week. And I just made a list of like, 10 different meals in my notes app on my phone. And I'm like, Alright, every day, I can pick something out of that list. And at least I have ideas to choose from. And it's really about Yeah, thinking ahead when you have zero interest in the task, but it's still a task you have to take care of. Right and, and keeping it simple. We have a lot of the ready made chicken, the ready made mashed potatoes, we do a lot of that stuff. We've gotten an airfryer because it's quicker and easier. And you know, you just figure it out.

Terry Matlen 22:42
You're mind kind of people Penny.

Penny Williams 22:44
Yeah. I think that, you know, for anyone who's overwhelmed or stressed out, Simplicity is key. Don't overcomplicate, don't give yourself more decisions than you need. I have a kid who has a hard time making a decision, and has started using the Google. I don't remember what it's called. But it basically flips a coin for you. Takes the decision right out of there. I guess like sometimes we'll be in a restaurant. I'm down to two things. I don't know, the Google coin gets flipped. The choice is made off we go. And it just takes that stress out when it's not something that's super important, right? Like you wouldn't flip a coin on Google to choose which car to buy, maybe. But for things like what am I going to eat? It works. It works. And it takes that stress away.

Terry Matlen 23:32
You'll have to tell me where that is. I took me two weeks, a couple years ago when I bought a car. It took me two weeks just to decide on the exterior color. Yeah, yeah. Two weeks, and I drove my family crazy. I even brought them well, like this won't be like that. Yeah, making decisions is really hard. But I can jump into another problem area that a lot of moms have talked to me about and that's keeping the house tidy. When it's difficult enough for us as moms to keep up with the house. How do we teach our kids? How do we make it work. And again, it's knocking down the notches of perfection, make it just good enough for you so that, like I keep saying we're not going to have the typical house. So here's one tip of getting kids to put away their toys and put away their clothes is to make it fun. And it can be hard to do when we're stressed out. And we don't want to deal with it. And we just are angry with the whole world. But one way is to get a timer and if you have more than one, it could be one child or three kids or five kids whatever and make it into a game and say whoever can pick up their toys from the floor first and throw it into him. I can get into a lot of real specifics here but I'm going to make it more general. Whoever can get their toys in the basket or back in the rooms where they belong. gets an extra whatever like 15 minutes or staying up late or something like that, you know, figure out what is it that that child will be motivated in getting this done by making it fun and as the parent you know you can do Do the same thing. And you can be a role model. And you can tell your kids, you know, it's hard for me to, it's not just you, or you or you, it's me too. So let's put our heads together and have fun with this.

Penny Williams 25:10
Yeah, figure it out together. Yeah.

Terry Matlen 25:12
And another one that I'm sure a lot of listeners have heard is visual cues are almost imperative, almost imperative, at least in the ADHD world that I come from. And it's putting up poster boards everywhere with breaking down the steps. So if it's impossible, to get your child to clean up the room, don't expect them to just do it, it's almost always necessary to help them out, especially when they're younger, but not always it gonna be their whole life. So my young adult daughter, she can't do it on her own, she needs help, because it's overwhelming for our brains. And that goes into executive functioning, which we probably don't have time to talk about. So here's one way of doing this. So you get a poster board, and you write down every step. So in our case, I might say a number one, look at the floor. Yeah, when you have a child who's got ADHD, and they walk into the room, and it looks like a bomb blew off, you don't know where to start. And I, as an adult with ADHD, don't know where to start. So you break it down visually, or you can break it down by importance, visually, for me is good, because I get overwhelmed so easily by visual clutter and real clutter. So I might say to my kid, let's look at the floor. That's number one. Number two, let's pick up your clothes from the floor and just put them in a pile. Okay? Number three might be, let's look at that pile of clothes and make it make sense, you know, have a rhythm to it. Let's look at the pile of clothes, pull out the clean clothes, because sure enough, there's going to be clean clothes in that pile. And let's hang them up or put them in a drawer for let's go through the rest of the clothes and sort them and put them in, you know, dark, or however you do your laundry, whites, darks, cold water, warm water, hot water, however you do it. And once that's done, you take a break, it's very difficult for anyone to stick with a chore that's so not pleasant, boring and difficult. And to do it for any length of time. So you take frequent breaks. So you put all these things on bulletin boards, or a whiteboard, whatever works for you.

And then you go on to the next line. Okay, now for me, it might be my kids often bring in snacks, food, whatever into the room, I would have a house rule, no food in the room, but it never lasted, it just seems to keep happening. Same. That's where you have to build in some flexibility. In my case, it was okay, you can have drinks, and you can but you can't have whatever. So flexibility is key. So we might go into that next step, let's go back into the room and just find all the food and carry it down into the kitchen. Don't do anything with that stuff, just put it in the kitchen, because otherwise, you'll end up in the kitchen for 20 minutes or half hour, you don't want that want to go back to their room and keep going. Then it could be just paper. Let's find all the paper strewn about and put it in a file. Don't do anything more than that for now. So it's doing things that don't overwhelm you and your child. Yeah, that's so important. Yeah, in many cases, this might still be overwhelming. So if you have the budget, I highly recommend that you bring someone in to help you whether it's someone who comes to the house once a week or every two weeks, and at one point my daughter, her room was in such bad shape. I couldn't deal with it because once it was cleaned, because of her severe hyperactivity, impulsivity, within half an hour, it was blown apart again. In order to save my sanity, I had to hire someone to just really just to focus on her room, her closet, her and her room back here at home, she's no longer at home, she had a bathroom, and I just couldn't deal with it. So I found someone.

Penny Williams 28:53
And there's no shame in asking for help. There's no shame in hiring somebody to help you with something, there really isn't?

Terry Matlen 28:59
No, it'd be like akin to if you have an injured leg and you have to wear crutches. Sometimes for life, if you're in a wheelchair, you know, these are special needs that all of us at some time or another might face or as we age, you know, these things are part of our lives. And there's no shame in that. Why is there shame and how our brains work? I don't understand that. I do understand it. But we need to shift out of that. This is my brain. My brain needs extra help.

Penny Williams 29:26
Absolutely. Yeah, we've already come to the end of our time together. It went by in a blink of an eye. I want to make sure everybody knows that. There are so many more practical tips that you share in the book. It's the queen of distraction, but there's so many good tips when I read it and I don't have ADHD. I learned some things I use some of your strategies from that book because we all have different strengths and weaknesses and we all need help with some things and I was just amazed at how super practical and super simple that you keep at. And so I really encourage everyone to pick up a copy of the book. In the show notes for this episode, I will have a link to the book, Terry's website, social media, all kinds of stuff ways that you can learn more from her and connect with her and work with her. And that'll be in the show notes at parentingADHDandautism.com/189 for episode 189. And typically, we close up with some action items, but Terry's already given you a bunch of action items, we're certain to make sure that we got as many in as we could in a short amount of time. So thank you again, Terry, so much for being here. And I think helping you know, parents who also have some neuro divergence, understand that it's okay, you know, it's okay to do things differently. It's okay for your family to be different. I think that's one of the biggest gifts of what you shared today.

Terry Matlen 30:58
Well, Penny, it's a pleasure. I enjoyed talking with you and I bled that this could be helpful to many parents out there.

Penny Williams 31:05
Yeah. Thank you so much, and I'll see everybody on the next episode. Take good care. Thanks for joining me on the beautifully complex podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe and share. And don't forget to check out my online courses and parent coaching at parenting ADHD and autism.com and at thebehaviorrevolution.com

Transcribed by https://otter.ai