ADHD, Defiance and COVID: What can you do instead of yelling?

There are so many facets to kids with ADHD. Yes, they are creative, passionate and smart.  Yes, they can also be distractible, energetic, impulsive, intense and strong-willed.  And yes, COVID is making things that were previously challenging harder in many ways and adding new hurdles. When your child or teen is angry and they push back at you defiantly, situations deteriorate quickly. You are probably dealing with these moments more now than ever before. With all of the frustration, disappointment and isolation children and teens are feeling these days, it’s even harder to self-regulate. Your son or daughter may fly off the handle, disrespect you verbally, and refuse to listen to what you have to say. What are your options in these volatile times other than yelling, taking things away or banishing them from your sight? How can you maintain stability in your parent-child relationship and in your home?

Nobody really likes meltdowns, explosions and arguments, regardless how defensive or nonchalant your child or teen may seem. Kids with ADHD have told me repeatedly that they feel bad about themselves after these outbursts and many parents also regret what they’ve said or done. But, in moments of high emotion, people naturally stop listening and quickly move into fight or flight mode. Whether or not you have ADHD, you’re not listening, you’re reacting: rationality has flown out of the window. Instead of being surprised every time there’s defiance, explosive anger or disrespectful behavior, it’s more useful to expect that these will occur and rely on a strategy for when they do. It’s the resistance and the combativeness that wears families down.

My PAUSE program–Plan to Accept Understand Set Limits and Encourage –lays the foundation for making different choices and fostering stability at home. Here’s how it works:

PLAN: You’ve got to focus on making a plan to cope with the pattern of anger for yourself and your child rather than deal with its changing content. Otherwise, you’ll be playing Whack A Mole nonstop.

In a quiet moment, make a list of what you can easily do to stay grounded. If you are dysregulated, you won’t be able to respond effectively and help your youngster calm down. Whether it’s going to the bathroom to collect yourself for a few minutes, getting a glass of water or opening a window, break up the action in a non-threatening way. This re-centering needs to be your first, reflexive step to slow down the fast-paced action. Once you’ve clarified this for yourself, sit with your son or daughter and ask them what helps them regroup and how much time they need for this. Write down their options and post the list in their room or in the kitchen.

ACCEPT: Stop trying to convince your child or teen of anything. Rather, accept where you both are in a given moment. Remember, they stopped listening the moment that they became activated. What they want is to be seen and heard by you. Acknowledge what they are saying with reflective listening. “I heard you say this, is that right?” When they feel that you are paying attention instead of correcting them for cursing at you or justifying why you called the school about their F in English, they will start to settle. It may be tense and uncomfortable but you can do this.  You’ve probably handled a lot of other unpleasant situations. 

UNDERSTAND: As tough as it can be, empathy is what’s called for when kids, especially those with ADHD, are distressed. Their feelings have overwhelmed their thinking brains and their weaker executive functioning skills simply cannot manage their heightened emotions. They are acting out because they lack the resources to do anything different in those moments. Neurodiverse kids need caring adults to dig deep and find some compassion rather than exploding about how they should get their act together.

When a child is resistant, oppositional and intransigent, many parents feel desperate to regain authority and establish stability by taking things away from their kids. While punishments may offer short-term relief, they don’t bring long-term success. Avoid saying things like “I’m taking away your phone for 3 days. You can’t talk to me that way.” Turn it around and say “You have not earned the privilege of using your phone with that language. When you can go for 3 days without cursing, you’ll get it back. That’s the agreement we have.” Relying on appropriate incentives is what shifts negativity to cooperation.

SET LIMITS: Our goal is teaching kids with ADHD the executive functioning skills they need for self-regulation, social behavior and productivity. It’s a natural part of living to become angry, to want to get your own way and to avoid disappointment but it’s not okay to be aggressive about these. Punishment doesn’t teach any lasting skills and rules by fear. We want our kids to be motivated to make other choices. Logical consequences, on the other hand, allow you to set limits and use meaningful incentives as motivators. You place “have-to’s” before “want-to’s.” The trick is staying steady in the face of your child or teen’s displeasure and following through. Limits are meaningless if they are not consistently followed. In a family meeting or a quiet moment, make collaborative agreements about actions and words that are unwelcome.

ENCOURAGE: Once the storm has passed, focus on the present moment. What needs to happen NOW to move beyond its wreckage. This is not a time to teach any lessons. The situation is still too raw for your child or teen and such a conversation may trigger the outburst all over again. You may want to address your underlying concerns and let them know how they have messed up. Will this serve them to learn the skills they need and strengthen your relationship? They need encouragement rather than blame at this moment. Talk about the next move to get on with things instead. Later that day or some time tomorrow, casually wonder about the take-aways from what happened. Was there anything each of you regret? How would you like to deal with that type of behavior in the future? This opens conversation, explores options and fosters collaborative engagement. 

Be patient with yourself and your family as you transition to this model. Everybody has a shorter fuse right now so it may take longer to get this going. That’s okay. It’s one step at a time!

 


Want to learn more?  Read more about ADHD