“4 ADHD Defense Mechanisms – and How to Break Them”

As a psychotherapist, an ADHD coach, and someone who lives with ADHD, I understand fully how the shame, stress, and anxiety of our symptoms and challenges – from procrastination and forgetfulness to time blindness and impulsivity – cause many of us to develop defense mechanisms. We seek to protect ourselves, especially when ADHD causes us to be consistently inconsistent and disappoint the people in our lives, by developing coping strategies that sometimes cause us more harm than good.

The following four defense mechanisms commonly develop among individuals with ADHD:


Blaming as a defense mechanism looks like making others responsible for the occurrence of an ADHD symptom and its consequences, as seen in the following examples:

Your child forgets that an assignment is due. The due date was posted and announced, yet they blame the teacher for not being clear enough about the deadline.

You arrive late to an event. You didn’t give yourself enough time to get there, yet you blame traffic or the slow driver in front of you for showing up late.

[Read: 7 Self-Defeating Behaviors That Aggravate ADHD – and How to Fix Them]

You forget to pay a bill. You blame your partner for mixing the bill with other papers, even though it was in your court to set a reminder for yourself to pay the bill – and put it on autopay.


Responding in angry, confrontational ways that deflect from the issue rather than address it marks this defense mechanism. The following are examples of defensiveness:

Your teen arrived late to school and missed their first period class. You try to talk to them about it, but your child tells you to mind your own business or lashes out. Tensions rise.

Your partner mentions that you still haven’t cleaned out the garage like you said you would do for months now. You quickly get angry and deflect. “Well, you haven’t cleaned out your closet in a long time either,” you say. A fight breaks out, and everyone feels miserable.

[Read: Why You Lash Out — Sometimes for No Good Reason]


Minimizing occurs when you respond to complaints or disapproval about your ADHD symptoms by minimizing their effects on yourself or others. For example, you meet a friend half an hour later than you both planned. You notice that your friend is visibly upset, but you downplay your lateness, telling your friend “it’s no big deal.” Your friend gets even more upset, frustrated that you don’t seem to care about them or understand the effect of your actions.


Not being truthful is a defense mechanism that causes lots of distress for families who are terrified about what it means about their child or partner’s character. But lying or stretching the truth, like other defense mechanisms, often come up in an effort to avoid shame and conflict. It’s also a method to save energy and avoid fatigue. (Living in a neurotypical world, after all, is exhausting.)

How to Break ADHD Defense Mechanisms

Let go of defense mechanisms by humbly owning up to ADHD symptoms as they arise.

  • Know your strengths and areas of need. When do these defense mechanisms come up the most? What actions, no matter how small, can you take to manage the problem area?
  • Apologize if you upset someone. As painful as it may feel to own up to an ADHD symptom, an apology shows others that you’re aware of how your actions – even if unintended – affected them. Be genuine in your apology. Say, “I’m sorry I made you wait. I should have gotten in the shower an hour earlier. I will work on that. I will text you ahead of time and let you know if I’m running late.”
  • Seek to improve, not to perfect. If paying bills on time has always been a tough problem area, then a good goal would be to reduce how many bills are paid late in the next month. Aiming for improvement, not perfection, will take the pressure off and allow you to make more strides.
  • Perfection doesn’t exist. ADHD symptoms and traits do not make you a bad person. Be kind to yourself and remember that there are many fabulous parts to you. Embrace your gifts and humbly acknowledge the frustrating parts and commit to working on them.

If you are the parent of a child or teen with ADHD, help them adopt the above strategies and heed these tips for parents, families, and partners:

  • Take an empathetic lens. ADHD is a neurological condition that makes it hard to live up to the expectations of a neurotypical world. It’s why shame and defense mechanisms develop so quickly. Treatments and supports like medication, therapy, and coaching can help your child or spouse better manage symptoms and day-to-day challenges.
  • Create an accepting environment where it’s safe to talk about ADHD and defense mechanisms. This encourages honesty and problem solving.
  • Remain calm when bringing up an issue. Do not explode in anger or insult. If your partner left out a piece of wood with rusty nails near your dog’s walking area (as my ADHD husband once did), say, “I noticed you left out a piece of wood with sharp nails outside. That was upsetting and dangerous because it could hurt the dog. Please be more mindful of where you place items.”
  • Be curious when symptoms go unmanaged. Together, think about how they can be better managed in the future. Look for improvement rather than expecting the issue to never happen again. Your child, for example, may still have moments where they conceal the truth to avoid punishment as a result of an unmanaged ADHD symptom. Your job is to create an environment where you won’t get upset if your child isn’t telling the truth, and work with them to manage the ADHD symptom in question.

ADHD Defense Mechanisms: Next Steps

Susan Ciardiello, Ph.D., LCSW, is a psychotherapist and ADHD coach. She is the author of ACTivities for Group Work with School-Age Children and ACTivities for Group Work with Adolescents. Learn more about Dr. Ciardiello by visiting her website at www.drsusanciardiello.com

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