How You Can Help Your Kid with ADHD by Understanding a Theory by Relationship Guru’s John & Julie Gottman

John and Julie Gottman

What is the “Distancer and Pursuer Dynamic?”

This dynamic, from the work of Dr. John Gottman, Julie Gottman and Terry Gaspard, affects all of one’s relationships over a lifespan. In this post, we address specifically the impact on family relationships when a child or partner has ADHD.

How Do John and Julie Gottman Explain this Dynamic?

When emotional flooding takes hold, children, teenagers or adults with ADHD tend to lock onto an argument, behavior or opinion. Held captive by emotional dysregulation, they often “pursue” parents, partner or friends – long after the other party has asked for a break.  This might take the form of arguing, texting or following in an effort to continue the argument. Escalation often pursues in all parties, especially in the individual with ADHD, particularly when the other party does not respond.

 [Read more, Children with ADHD: Does it Ever Get Better?

Building social capital is critical for strong relationships. ADHD can get in the way.]

Pausing Does Not De-escalate the Situation

Parents or children often try to use strategies such as pausing in order to attempt to de-escalate an argument. But this strategy rarely works with clients with ADHD because they of the continued engagement. The person with ADHD often continues the pursuit, demanding resolution, further discussion, or answers. Hence, the onslaught 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 their level of emotional control.

Who Is the Distancer and Who is the Pursuer?

Terry Gaspard, The Remarriage Manual, pioneered research into the Distancer and Pursuer dynamic often cited in couples work of Dr. John Gottman.

According to Gaspard: The Distancer is the person who withdraws physically or emotionally and tries to end the conversation. They are often emotionally unavailable or desires 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 is exacerbated because the Distancer does not 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 couple’s relationships fall into this push-pull cycle. This cycle is also prevalent in parent 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, insecurities, hyper-focus, self-regulation, trauma, intensity of emotions, or emotional flooding.  

Why Do People Withdraw?

There are varied reasons for why people withdraw but many involve intense emotions, arguments, disappointments and the relationships dissatisfaction.

9 Strategies to Cope with the Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic:

As with most heated conflicts, it is rarely beneficial to try to reach a resolution when tempers are flared. The Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic is driven by emotional regulation; or rather the lack thereof.  Parents are often baffled – and disturbed – by this dynamic and don’t understand what strategies to employ.

Time Out –

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

Create a Phrase –

Use this phrase – that you agree upon prior, when not in conflict – to recognize the distancer-pursuer dynamic.  

Recognize Your Role –

Calm yourself enough to witness whether you are in the distancer or pursuer mindset.

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.

Identify What Happens After Time Out –

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

Address Your Self-Talk –

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

Register the Intensity –

It is important to identify your emotions and the intensity. Take a break daily to build your mindfulness.  

Add Safety Plans –

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

Talk about Pursuer-Distancer Dynamic and help the parties witness the cycle.

The Parent-Child Relationship

Of all the relationships, this should truly be 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.

Social Skills in Action

More actionable advice, exercises and videos can be found in the Store

Building social capital is critical for strong relationships. ADHD can get in the way.

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