Stop reacting and start responding!

Boy confronts his motherIt’s been a long day and you finally make it home from work with a car full of groceries which have to be unpacked and then, somehow, magically transformed into a tasty and nutritious meal. You trudge into the house, bags in each hand, and your ADHD son rushes towards you, waving a pink piece of paper in your face. “You need to sign this so I can go on the field trip on Friday. It’s really important, my teacher said so. Can you sign it now?” You are amazed that he not only can’t see that you have no hands to sign anything but that he also doesn’t offer to take one of the grocery bags and help you. You can feel yourself about to lose it. What should you do? You can react and and shout at him, “What are you doing? Can’t you see that my hands are full?” In all likelihood, you will get a bigger reaction in return. OR, you can respond by saying, “Hey, I can see this is important but my arms are full. Why don’t you give me a hand and then we can take care of it right away?” By doing this second option, you will probably avoid a blow-out and maybe even get some cooperation along the way.

A man is accused of somethingThe big difference between reacting and responding is how you manage yourself. Did you ever have one of those moments when you say something in frustration and wish that you could suck it back inside to make it go away? We all do! Most likely, those words are part of a knee-jerk reaction–a time when your emotional brain has hijacked your thinking brain. As adults, our developed pre-frontal cortex (located behind your forehead)–the seat of the thinking brain, can re-establish control and figure out how to put those emotions back into their place. Our ADHD children and teens, whose pre-frontal cortex is still maturing (until at least age 25), need extra assistance with managing emotions. Our self-management behaviors and our ability to talk about their choices and actions can show them how to do this.

Responding requires you to acknowledge what your child is expressing,
either verbally or non-verbally, in a non-judgmental way. It’s not dismissive and it doesn’t exacerbate tension or stress. It relies on patience, clear communication and paying attention to what is going on around you. This is why responding can be so challenging for people with ADHD. When someone responds, they validate whatever is going on and then create time for a solution. This can be especially tough in ADHD families when things happen very quickly–often escalating within seconds. You have to slow things down that are moving too fast–either for yourself or for your child or teen.

Here’s how you can do MORE responding and LESS reacting:

1. When people react, they act first, think second and breathe last (if at all). When we respond, we breathe first, think second, and act last. Switching the order of our actions and thoughts in this way offers the opportunity for things to be done differently. Do this yourself first a few times to see how it feels. The, you can start to talk your ADHD son or daughter through the steps in moments when they could use the help.

Daughter Greets Mother On Return From Work2. Responding does not involve blaming or name-calling. Use “I” statements and teach your kids to do this too. For example, “I get scared when you don’t come home at the time we agreed because I don’t know where you are” or “I don’t like when you call me ‘stupid.’ We don’t talk to each other like that in this family.” These words reflect your sentiments about yourself and offer an opening for your child to reply more thoughtfully than defensively.

3. Try to practice active listening. “I heard you say that this permission slip is important to you. It’s important to me too and I will sign it once I have fully arrived home.” This recognition is reassuring to your child and teen and lowers his or her anxiety that their needs will be met. ADHD kids often worry that they won’t remember things and don’t expect others to either. This anxiety often fuels their insistence that things have to be done now and their frustration when they have to wait. Restating what you perceive as their concerns and offering a plan for dealing them helps them calm down.

I invite you to try this approach and see what happens. Reducing the frequency of reactivity in any ADHD family will create more calm in the midst of our busy, demanding lives and relationships.