ADHD and Negativity: Why ADHD kids and teens say “No” and how to help them communicate

Girl teen looking annoyed as she sits on the couch while her parent responds to her ADHD and negativity by pointing their finger at her.As a parent of a neurodivergent child with ADHD, you might struggle with understanding symptoms of ADHD and negativity. It seems like you’re constantly catching your child or teen with a negative attitude. It’s ‘No’ to this and ‘No’ to that! You might wonder if this is normal during childhood and adolescence or more so for kids with ADHD. Let’s explore these ‘No’s’ and see whether they’re simply an expression of negativity or something more.

Jared and his family’s summer schedule frustration

Recently, I was talking with Jared, an eighth grade boy who was complaining about being bored now that school is over to his mom, Savannah and me. “There’s nothing to do except gaming, and you only let me do that for two hours in the morning and two in the afternoon. What else am I supposed to do?”

Boy with ADHD looking frustrated after saying no while at the kitchen table and his parents confused and frustrated in the backgroundHis mom gently suggested going back to some activities that had previously interested him before COVID—piano lessons, basketball, tennis or making movies with his friends. “No, no, no. I don’t want to do any of those!” His mom turned to me and said, “I used to do this to my mom. There’s never a right answer.”

I wondered aloud if his ‘No’s’ actually meant, ‘Forget about it,’ or, ‘I’m not sure and need to think about it.’ Tennis and making movies were hard ‘No’s.’ Piano and basketball were more of an, ‘I’ll think about it.” I asked him why he doesn’t just say that and he shrugged, “I don’t know…I just can’t think about all that stuff at once.”

We talked about how saying ‘No’ flat out like that gives him space to think about something without any pressure. The ‘No’ seemed to be less of a problem with ADHD and negativity, and more of a request for space to think. The gears in my mind immediately started turning.

The impact of ADHD on negativity

Due to working memory and processing speed challenges, kids with ADHD and negativity challenges are often feeling overwhelmed—emotionally, cognitively or socially. They simply lack adequate amounts of dopamine and norepinephrine in their brains to help them process and recall information efficiently. Over time, becomes hard to keep up with all of the activity around them.

These are mostly unconscious cognitive processes that kids struggle to articulate. Instead, what most kids tell me is that they simply feel flooded and agitated. They lash out and regret their words and actions afterwards. They might also be coping with anxiety or symptoms of rejection sensitive dysphoria. These challenges that commonly occur with ADHD can appear as negativity.

Negativity in public vs. at home

Mother pointing her finger at her child with ADHD and ODD who has their arms crossed and saying no to a taskKids and teens with ADHD try to muddle through and manage these feelings at school and with friends. However, they don’t feel obligated to make the same efforts at home.

Jared once told me, “I’m not going to be suspended from my family.” They don’t have to hold it all together with people they know love them, and whom they love too (despite any actions to the contrary). But this doesn’t mean you have to endure inappropriate language, fury and sometimes aggressive behaviors. This doesn’t foster a positive connection between you, nor does it teach your child or teen how to manage their intense feelings effectively.

Check in with your child or teen about ‘NO.’

In a calm moment, sit down with your child and talk about ‘NO.’ Put on your Sherlock Holmes hat, take out your curiosity and gather some information about your child’s challenges with ADHD and the negativity that you experience.

Reasons and meanings behind ‘NO’ often depend on the situation, so it might help to bring up some specific instances for an effective discussion. Is saying ‘NO’ about setting appropriate limits, expressing their opinion, being contrary, slowing things down or something else? Maybe it’s a combination of things. Brainstorm alternatives to ‘NO,’ and come up with a few words or phrases to use when they need time to think about something.

Create a plan with your child or teen on how to address oppositional behavior

To address ADHD, negativity and flat-out oppositional behavior, you have to create a collaborative action plan.

      1. Start by discussing some plans and ground rules about explosions or meltdowns in your home.
      2. Ask your ADHD child or teen to describe what words or actions constitute over-the-top moments, and then offer some of your observations. To avoid blame, use the phrase,“I’ve noticed that things get out-of-control when…” and be as specific as you can.
      3. Consider sharing something about what triggers you and how you’d like to change your response. This normalizes their experience which reduces shame about struggling with meltdowns in the first place.
      4. Together, write down a list of your combined ideas and ask them to link these behaviors to logical consequences. Remember, punishments for kids don’t teach any skills. Kids with ADHD and feelings of negativity need tools to help them calm themselves and communicate in these tricky moments.
      5. Plan to revisit your plan weekly and post it in the kitchen where everybody can see it.

Acknowledge your ADHD child or teen’s efforts to improve communication

Mother laughing and making eye contact with her daughter teen with ADHD who is also happy and smilingShifting away negativity takes time, repetition and encouragement. It involves identifying emotions and needs, and then communicating them effectively. Therefore, it’s important to allow your child the chance to process and respond at their own pace. It’s a cycle of practice, stumble, try again and practice some more. Regardless of your own frustration, try to acknowledge and validate any and all efforts your child or teen shows.

Managing ADHD and negativity is tough parenting work. Make sure that you practice your own self-care and have support for yourself from close friends, family members, a therapist or coach to assist you. The more you can respond instead of react and regret, the better it will be for everyone in the family.

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Deeper dive:

What’s Up with All This Anger? (Handout)

Home Study Seminar: What Your Child With ADHD Wishes You Knew and How You Can Help