Many parents who are frustrated with their ADHD children come into my office and complain that “No matter what we do, our son (or daughter) doesn’t change. Nothing works.” As I meet with these families, the heart of the problem usually lies with inconsistency. Sometimes parents can create a plan of action to deal with behaviors and stick with it; other times, they are improvising moment by moment. Too often, they get stuck and feel defeated. With all of these different scenarios, the ADHD kids, who thrive on predictability, can end up feeling confused. How can we change these patterns and create more success?
Inconsistent parenting reflects mixed messages and unclear rules that evolve over time and unintentionally. It’s not something people decide to do: it frequently occurs because parents are tired, worn down and out of ideas. Inconsistent parenting can look like this: One school night, you let your 10 year old ADHD son stay up until 11 pm to watch the football play-off game because you don’t want to miss any of the action to put him to bed. Yet, a few days later, when he wants to watch a basketball game with you past 10 pm, you refuse. Here’s another example: You tell your teenage daughter that she will lose her phone for the evening when she doesn’t clean up her room as you both agreed but then you let her keep it when she goes out so you can reach her.
Consistent parenting means having the same consequences for the same behaviors over time—again and again and again. They don’t change and can’t be negotiated. It means that you don’t give your ADHD children and teens consequences that you can’t enforce or remember or don’t want to deal with. ADHD kids need to know what is coming so they can learn from their experiences and start to understand that their actions have effects. This is exactly where their executive functioning skills are weak. It takes time and repetition.
You have to lay the foundation for this consistency by establishing clear guidelines for behavior with your son or daughter that mean something to them and to you. The process is collaborative but ultimately not democratic; you still have the final and most powerful vote because, after all, you are the responsible adult. How can you begin this process?
- Get some paper and a pen and sit down with your family. Start with a fair assessment of the basic rules. Ask your kids what they think the consequences should be for not following them. Sometimes they will come up with ideas that are far more impactful that you will.
- Pick the top 3 issues and create a plan of action for not cooperating. Write everything down.
- Meet alone with your parenting partner (if you have one) and go through this list. Ask yourselves if you can honestly follow through on the consequences and how you can support each other to do so. If you can’t do them, come up with other ideas that you can enact.
- Meet again with the family. Go over the plan. Post it in a place where everyone can see it and refer to it when needed.
- For the next 3 months, meet every two weeks to check in, see how things are going and make any necessary changes to what you are doing that would help things go more smoothly.
As 21st century parents, we want our kids to share their feelings and talk through their problems with us. We encourage them to let out their feelings and believe that this is basically healthy, which it often is. But sometimes this self-expression is inappropriate and we are surprised, even shocked, by what we hear. My clients have frequently reported their dismay when their ADHD sons or daughters (depending on their ages), have said things like, “I hate you!” “You’re a terrible mother. “Don’t you know anything?” “What is your problem?” “You are so stupid.” Then, there’s cursing, slamming doors, eye rolling, or punching the wall. In today’s world, when many parents want their ADHD children to learn to speak up for themselves and strengthen their own voices, it can be hard to know when things have gone too far. The lines between self-expression and disrespect can become blurred really fast. What starts out as a joke can quickly turn mean and what seems like a discussion can turn suddenly into a shouting match. ADHD kids, because they struggle with impulse control, understanding limits and reading social cues can get carried away or inappropriate without always knowing it. What should parents do?
I think that parents first have to assess for themselves what constitutes disrespectful behaviors. We all have our limits: what are yours? In my house, eye-rolling and name-calling were at the top of our list. Telling me what a jerk I am just isn’t okay. You can tell me that you are angry, that you don’t like what I said or what I am doing, but you don’t get to call me names. Likewise, I don’t get to call you names either–no matter how frustrated and fed up I may be. Clear boundaries are essential for ADHD kids who can’t always monitor their
words and actions effectively. They have big feelings and limited skills in expressing them. They need assistance and feedback based on consistent family guidelines. They also need some concrete tools that reduce disrespectful language and actions and increase more acceptable ones. How can you teach your ADHD sons and daughters to share what is going on for them in ways that other people can hear?
Here are some useful tips:
- Consider what really pushes YOUR buttons as unacceptable ways of speaking or behaving. Write down the top 3 offending actions. (If you have a partner, do this exercise together so you can present a united front with your family.) It’s also important to ask yourself if you engage in any of those 3 behaviors. Be honest because respect goes both ways. Believe me, your ADHD son or daughter will be the first person to point out any of your transgressions.
- Think about (and discuss) what types of self-expression you want to encourage. Would you like your daughter to use her words when she feels upset instead of going to her room and crying? Would you like your son to control his body and stop slamming doors? Be specific about these goals.
- Sit down with your ADHD child or teen. Ask them what they consider to be disrespectful–what they do and what others have done to them. Suggest some relevant recent family or school incidents if they are stuck. “Remember when Sam pushed you on the playground and
called you ‘a crybaby?” Share some of your own earlier reflections. Decide together which of all of these ideas and observations you would all like to see changed first.
- Introduce this alternative method of self expression using this formula: “I feel ________ when you ____________.” It may be awkward and corny at first but it’s important to keep using this so it becomes a viable alternative for appropriate sharing. Usually ADHD kids benefit when you post it in a common space like the refrigerator. Refer to it often, especially when things are heating up. If your kids use it, then let them know you appreciate their efforts.