Parenting Neurodivergent Kids with a Growth Mindset: How you can take ‘failure’ out of your vocabulary

Father holding up his tween daughter while they both smile and flex their muscles in front of a pink background.With the start of a new year comes an opportunity to pivot. This year, I’m recommending that you eliminate the word ‘failure’ from any description of your parenting and replace it with ‘efforting.’ Failure is generally defined as a lack of success, and there’s a finality associated with it that doesn’t really apply to the long-haul process of parenting. Parenting is a journey marked by highs and lows, joy and frustration, closeness and disconnection. Parenting a child or teen with ADHD, learning differences, anxiety, depression, addiction or other issues means redefining success from what’s put forth in social media, television or films to what makes sense for your family and your particular situation.

What Does ‘Successful’ Parenting Look Like?

For many neurodiverse families, parenting ‘successfully’ may mean nurturing a child who accepts their neurodivergent brain, identifies personal strengths and talents, has decent-to-positive self-esteem, and learns strategies for managing the tasks of daily living. It may not center on grades, athletics or other conventional accomplishments.

This is a tall order that takes time, repetition, practice and patience. It has nothing to do with the failure mentality of fixed mindsets. Efforting reflects a growth mindset: You try something, see what happens, make adjustments, and try again. Efforting reflects the adage “Practice makes perfect,” rather than assuming that anything less than perfection indicates defeat.

The Myth of the Perfect Parent

Adult and kid in matching blue shirts looking stressed with their elbows on the table and hands in their hair with their heads down.

Being perfect as a parent is a myth that is unachievable and toxic to self-worth. Perfectionists tend to over-focus on the end result and not the process of getting there. They discount the learning that’s happening and fixate on the accomplishment. But without meeting the end goal, there’s a perception of failure.

Instead of worrying about why you can’t make things the way you think they should be, focus on the steadiness of your efforting. This helps you accept your humanity, because the reality is that you will stumble as a parent. It’s how you recover from these fumbles that is worth your time and focus. 

Coping with Parenting Guilt and Shame

Sadly, guilt and shame are often the first responses of parents of neurodivergent kids.

Mother trying to decompress. Sitting on the couch with eye closed and hand on their head in a quiet moment.

Guilt refers to something that you did. It can lead people to amend their errors, be accountable and make a change. You may feel guilty and say to yourself, “I wish I hadn’t done that” or, “That was a poor choice. Ugh.” You can be accountable for your mistakes, apologize, make amends if appropriate, and move on.

Shame, on the other hand, refers to who you are. It pushes people to hide or deny their mistakes and engage in self-loathing. Shame leads people to say negative statements such as, “I’m a bad mother, because I did that” or, “I’m not good enough.” Shame spirals are toxic reactions based on feelings of deficiency that ultimately don’t serve you or your kids. Address these insecurities by practicing self-compassion. Accept that you, like everybody else, will mess up periodically! Stop blaming yourself for things that you can’t control, honor what is, and focus on what you can actually influence.

Letting Kids Learn

Of course, as parents, we don’t want to see our kids struggle. Their pain is so often our pain. It’s lousy to witness your child or teen wrestle with academic, social or emotional issues. You may do your best to ensure that their learning, emotional and physical needs are being met. Yet, they will still experience disappointment, frustration, sadness and jealousy along the winding path of childhood and adolescence to adulthood. That’s normal! Our job as parents is to be present, so we can meet our kids where they are–without always fixing things. This, however, is tough for many of us.

Mother with her arm around her teenage son at the park, having a solemn moment.Make a different choice as part of your efforting: Offer your support, your availability for a conversation, or your willingness to do something of their choice. Loving them, letting them figure certain things out, and asking for your opinion is more effective for building self-esteem and self-confidence than telling them what to do.

Avoid Parenting Comparisons

President Teddy Roosevelt famously said: “Comparison is the thief of joy.” In redefining success for yourself as a parent of a neurodivergent child or teen, you’ll surely benefit from avoiding comparisons on social media based on seeing what other people’s crafted lives look like. When you cut back on the habit of ‘compare and despair,’ you’ll reduce judgment, feel better about yourself, and replace self-criticism with positive self-talk.

10 Positive Self-Talk Phrases to Combat Failure Mindsets

Here’s a list of ten phrases for you to use as you take ‘failure’ out of your mindset and your vocabulary:

1. I’m doing the best I can with the resources I have available to me right now. 

2. I am open to being positive and ready for whatever happens.

3. I have the tools I need, and, if I don’t, I have the ability to find them.

4. It is okay if I make mistakes. Parenting my kids didn’t come with an instruction manual.

5. I will not compare my insides to someone else’s outsides: their struggles may be hidden.

6. I can make a different choice at any moment.

7. I can be my best self in the world and stumble sometimes.

8. Two steps forward and one step back is still forward motion.

9. I don’t have all of the answers, and I am not supposed to. I am learning every day.

10. Oops, there I go again. Let’s pause, regroup and pivot!

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Shame: When You Are Embarrassed Of Who You Are (Handout)

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