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Nature vs. Nurture: Is My Executive Dysfunction the Result of ADHD or Failed Parenting?

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There’s a term in psychology you may have heard of: nature versus nurture. It places our genetic inheritance and biological factors — our nature — against our learned responses due to our experiences in life — our nurture — and asks where our behaviors come from.

I’m fascinated by the idea, particularly with regard to my own experiences. For example, we can probably say that my depression carries an aspect of both — there may be an aspect of genetics to my depression, given my parents both experienced it, along with being exacerbated by my experiences with bullying and trauma.

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One aspect that keeps coming up, though, is my experience with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Studies have shown that there may be a genetic aspect to the risk of developing ADHD, but that despite this strong link, ADHD “is also influenced by non-inherited factors.” I’m unsure of any evidence that my parents have or had ADHD, and while it seems nature and nurture may simultaneously play a role in our behaviors, there’s a particular aspect of ADHD that has me questioning which was the chicken and which was the egg.

What Is Executive Dysfunction in ADHD?

Executive dysfunction is a particularly troublesome aspect of ADHD for many. Also present in autism spectrum disorder (for which I’ve also been tested) and a number of other mental health conditions, executive dysfunction causes people to struggle in certain areas, including:

While these are just a few aspects of executive dysfunction in ADHD, they are certainly the ones I find most difficult. I’ve written before about my belief that my mother’s coddling and emotional abuse are responsible for my inability to clean and generally be a healthy, functioning adult. However, when we consider this to also be a factor in executive dysfunction, I’m left to wonder where it all started. Was my mother the instigator of my executive dysfunction, or did she exacerbate something that was already there? If I had been cared for properly and taught to fight against my executive dysfunction more in childhood, would I be a more well-rounded adult, able to cope better rather than spiraling into a pit of depression every time I think about my deficits in “being an adult?”

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I was never taught to regulate my emotions in any way other than gaming. Sure, gaming is one of my favorite pastimes, but it has also meant I’ve fallen behind in other areas, with other pastimes and ambitions. It’s like I lack the self-discipline needed to direct myself to other activities when I just need to switch off.

Similarly, my childhood lacked discipline and boundaries. I was rarely given strict directions to finish my homework by a certain time or do the chores around the house. As a result, homework was often finished in a chaotic rush of last-minute anxiety, chores were uncompleted and done for me, and I found it harder and harder to do anything of my own direction beyond self-soothe with escapism.

Was this ADHD and depression? Or was it the result of failed parenting by an incapable mother? While I’m sure she thought she was doing the right thing by allowing me unrestricted direction, it is also a form of emotional and parental neglect. I should have been better prepared for adulthood.

There’s a wrench in the machine, though. A study, reported by Time in 2014, found that “children with less-structured time are likely to show more ‘self-directed executive functioning.’”

What does this mean for my own executive dysfunction? I’m not quite sure. Perhaps I’m an outlier, and my struggle with executive dysfunction isn’t simply the result of an abusive childhood, or my genetic predisposition toward ADHD, or any other aspect of my psychology. Perhaps I’m a melting pot of all of the reasons I experience executive dysfunction. We humans are complex beings, after all — the product of all of our experiences and genetics. As that famous Walt Whitman line said, “I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Perhaps it doesn’t truly matter why I experience this crushing executive dysfunction, only that I do experience it, and therefore I must meet it head-on if I am to one day beat it. In the meantime, I can continue blaming my mother all I want (and rest assured, she carries at least some of the blame for her negligence), but it won’t change the fact that this is the challenge I have to beat if I’m going to have a clean house, self-soothe in varied ways, and achieve my deepest ambitions.

Getty image by Radachynskyi

Originally published: August 17, 2022
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