How To Get Through To Your ADHD Kid — When It Feels Like Nothing Else Has Worked

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ADHD Parents Help Their Kids

One way a parent of a child with ADHD can improve communication with their kid is to learn about the "Distancer and Pursuer Dynamic."

What is the "Distancer and Pursuer Dynamic?"

According to the Gottman Institute, it is the emotional interplay between a person (a pursuer) who urgently seeks confrontation to resolve issues and a person (a distancer) who avoids confrontation by retreating. Mentioned prominently in the work of Dr. John Gottman, Julie Gottman, and author Terry Gaspard, this dynamic affects all of one’s relationships over a lifespan.

That includes communication in family relationships when a child or partner has ADHD.

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How To Help ADHD Kids Using the "Distancer and Pursuer Dynamic"

When emotional conflict arises, those with ADHD tend to lock onto an argument, behavior, or opinion. Held captive by an inability to regulate their emotions, they often "pursue" parents, partners, or friends — long after the other party has asked for a break. 

This might take the form of arguing, texting, or physically following someone in an effort to continue the argument. Escalation is inevitable, especially in the individual with ADHD, particularly when the other party does not respond.

Pausing does not necessarily de-escalate the situation.

Parents or children often try to use tactics such as pausing in order to attempt to de-escalate an argument. But this rarely works for people with ADHD because of the attempt to extend ongoing engagement.

The person with ADHD often continues the pursuit, demanding resolution, further discussion, or answers. The argument or discussion becomes a living illustration of the Distancer and Pursuer Dynamic.

The Distancer and Pursuer Dynamic is further exacerbated by each party’s anxiety, history of trauma or rejection sensitivity, or level of emotional control.

Who Is the Distancer and who is the Pursuer?

Gaspard, author of "The Remarriage Manual," pioneered research into the Distancer and Pursuer Dynamic and is often cited in Gottman's work. 

According to Gaspard, the Distancer is the person who withdraws physically or emotionally and tries to end the conversation. They're often emotionally unavailable or desire space to process and cope with the situation.

The Pursuer is the person who tries to continue the conversation, connect and communicate. They often feel abandoned and desire closeness.

The Distancer desires calm and distance. The Pursuer desires closeness.

Often, this dynamic creates conflict because the Distancer doesn't know or share how much time or distance they need. This leaves the Pursuer feeling abandoned and the cycle continues.

Research by Dr. John and Julie Gottman shows that many relationships fall into this push-pull cycle. This cycle is also prevalent in parents and children, teens and young adults with ADHD relationships.

For people with ADHD, the root cause of their Pursuer or Distancer tendencies may link back to rejection sensitivity, attachment patterns from past caregivers (fear of abandonment), insecurities, hyper-focus, self-regulation, trauma, the intensity of emotions, or emotional flooding.  

Why do people withdraw?

There are many potential reasons why but most involve intense emotions, arguments, disappointments, and dissatisfaction in relationships.

And as with most heated conflicts, it's rarely beneficial to try to reach a resolution when tempers are hot. 

Parents are often baffled — and disturbed — by this dynamic and don’t understand how to resolve repeated conflicts. That's where an understanding of the Distancer and Pursuer Dynamic comes into play.

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Here are 9 ways to use your knowledge of the Distancer and Pursuer Dynamic to achieve better communication with an ADHD kid. 

1. Make space for time out.

Set an alarm for a specific amount of time for a break — no more than 10 minutes — and agree on this time.

2. Create a phrase.

Use this phrase, something you agreed upon prior to an escalation of emotion, to recognize the Distancer and Pursuer Dynamic.  

3. Recognize your own role.

Calm yourself enough to witness whether you're in the Distancer or Pursuer mindset.

4. Be kind.

Recognize that there may be many triggers in play. Do your best to reassure the Pursuer.

Help the Pursuer with the abandonment issues by communicating that you respect them and want to work things out.

5. Identify what happens after time out.

The Distancer should honor their commitment to return at the agreed-upon time, but they're not obligated to "re-engage" or return to the argument.

6. Address your self-talk.

If you find that you are thinking hateful thoughts, remove yourself even further if necessary. Remember, you love this person.

7. Register the intensity.

It's important to identify your emotions and their intensity. Take a break daily to build your mindfulness.  

8. Add safety plans.

Unfortunately, arguments may escalate physically. If this is a concern, make arrangements in advance on how to protect yourself and your children.

9. Talk about it.

Talking about the Distancer and Pursuer Dynamic helps the parties witness the cycle.

Of all human relationships, the parent-child dynamic is truly a unique bond that every child and parent can enjoy and nurture.

It nurtures the physical, emotional, and social development of the child.

Creating a lifelong, successful relationship lays the foundation for the child’s personality, life choices, and overall behavior.

This is why it is so important to establish strategies for effective communication early on, and knowing about the Distancer and Pursuer Dynamic is a positive step forward.

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Caroline Maguire, M.Ed., ACCG, PCC founded and facilitates a comprehensive SEL training methodology (#ConnectionMatters) for adults, parents, clinicians and academic professionals on how to develop critical social, emotional and behavioral skills, in themselves and in others. For more information, visit her website.

This article was originally published at author website. Reprinted with permission from the author.