Parenting is hard. Parenting children with ADHD can feel impossible.
The truth is that families who have a child with ADHD live with a significantly increased amount of stress compared with families of neurotypical (non-ADHD) children. If you have two children with ADHD, the amount of stress, more than doubles.
Why? Inattention and distractibility can be extremely frustrating. Hyperactivity can be utterly exhausting. Impulsivity can be dangerous and leave you wanting to tear your hair out. And, of course, there is the fact that children with ADHD are often highly emotional and sometimes even aggressive, violent and in and can seem to lose control of their actions at the flick of a switch.
These children have more issues with behaviour than their neurotypical peers. They have a neurodevelopmental disorder of self-control. So, parents have to become and facilitate the child’s self-control. And that is exhausting.
The lack of peace and joy in your home can take a toll on you. And if you have two or more children with ADHD and/or any comorbidities, it can seem absolutely unbearable. No matter what punishment you dish out, no matter how often you yell, nothing changes. In fact, every day, it gets worse.
I know this feeling. How?
I am a Mum to three unbelievably amazing, precious treasures: two with ADHD – Combined Presentation.
And for years, I yearned for peace and joy in my home but what I kept getting was turmoil, escalation, fear of the future for my children, self-doubt and that constant feeling that I had stuffed my kids up for life. I was severely depressed and anxious. I felt that there was no end in sight. I had lost all hope.
Looking back now, I see that I lacked the skills and tools to parent children with ADHD. I didn’t understand that you can’t parent the same way as you would a child without ADHD.
Fast forward several years and I have learned so much along the way. My toolbox is filled and expanding daily! It’s full of strategies, tools and resources that I use to parent to the best of my ability. I still have so much to learn, but I am now living life, with joy, hope and peace – well, most days!
One of the most important things I have learned is that we are not superheroes. We can not live consistently with stress without eventually losing it! Take time to look after yourself, so you can take care of your children with ADHD. Easier said than done, I know, but there are little things you can do starting today to reduce your stress.
Plan something every single day for yourself. Now, before you switch off here, I am not saying to book into for a spa weekend or sitting getting your hair done for hours (although if you can – go for it!) However, many of us can’t afford the time or money to do extravagant self care! So here is something I have learned:
Self care can mean taking pause.
Breaking the stress in your day, simply by pausing and intentionally doing something for yourself. Plan one thing you will do each day this week to take pause and intentionally de-stress.
Go out to lunch with a friend, go on a date with your partner (if COVID restrictions allow in your area, otherwise, plan an at home date night!), go to the gym, get a trusted friend or family member to come and play with your kids while you have a nap.
If you can’t do any of that that, how about patting the dog? Putting on a DVD for the kids, getting ear phones and do a guided meditation app? Bundling the kids up and going for a walk, or taking them to a park to let them run around?
What about ordering a book to read, or borrow one from the library, and read a couple of pages before going off to bed. How about actually taking that lunch break, if you work outside the home and go for a walk, or listen to a podcast or buy yourself a new mug to sip on some nice tea.
Commit to doing something for yourself every day. Plan exactly when you will do it. If it isn’t in your plan for the day, chances are it won’t get done.
Use this plan (below) to write it down. Put it on the fridge, so it reminds you and so it doesn’t get pushed aside. You are important. You need to be taking care of yourself and intentionally and actively de-stressing. Remember, you can not live with the constant stress of parenting a child with ADHD, without taking pause.
Share in the comments what you are planning to do to take pause and de-stress this week! I will put together some of your ideas and put it together into a resource for other parents with ADHD children, so we can all get ADHD Done Differently.
My kids started back to school again today for Term 3, after our mid-year holidays. And of course, this means the morning routine that goes along with it. Mornings are especially difficult for children and adolescents with ADHD – and their parents, of course!
A study found that most parents and carers who have children with ADHD rate their child as having moderate to severe impairments in their morning functioning, such as getting ready for school and out the door on time. Parents and carers of children with ADHD report feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and continuously stressed in regards to their mornings getting kids ready for the day.
I can absolutely relate! So many of our mornings ended up with me or the kids in tears. There have been many times I’ve turned up to work frazzled and stressed, albeit with some interesting stories to tell my colleagues.
So, why do children with ADHD have difficulty getting ready for school in the morning, more than other children their own age? There are several reasons, but one of the main contributors is their executive function system. Executive functions are a set of mental skills, including working memory, flexible thinking and self-control. They are like the command centre for our brain. They are responsible for planning, organising, managing our time, remembering what to do in order and switching focus from one activity to another.
Children with ADHD have deficits of their executive function skills, due to the parts of the brain responsible for these functions being smaller and delayed up to 30% compared to neurotypical children. Knowing this can help us understand why children and adolescents with ADHD struggle to get ready for school in the morning. It is extremely taxing on their executive function skills. If the child is taking medication, it often has not kicked in yet, which stimulates their ability to use their executive function skills as well.
But, don’t lose hope! We, as parents and carers, can support our children’s executive functioning skills. Here are six tips to make your mornings less stressful, get you and your family out of the door on time, without yelling – most days.
Slow down, stay calm and emotion coach.
The most significant change I made in my morning routine with my children was to actively stay calm and slow down. We are like a thermostat in our homes. Nothing dysregulates a child more than having a dysregulated parent. It is really hard to stay calm while your child is refusing to get dressed or do anything they are asked to do. But you can do it!
Remember to breathe and stay calm. I love the saying by L.R. Knost, “It’s our job to share our calm, not join in their chaos”. Try saying that to yourself when you feel stressed, and share your calm with your kids.
Try emotion coaching through the negative behaviours. “Oh mate! I can see you are not looking forward to school today. I wish I didn’t have to go to work either!” The book How to talk so kids will listen and and listen so kids will talk (on my recommended resources page) has fantastic ideas on how to communicate to facilitate cooperation. It’s highly recommended!
Pre-Planned routines – setting your child up for success
A morning routine is vital for any child with ADHD.
Why? A routine gives a predictable structure, in which children and adolescents with ADHD thrive. A routine is doing the same steps, in the same way, each time we do something. By implementing a routine, we reduce the need for our children with ADHD to use their planning and organisational skills and reduce reliance on their working memory. The routine becomes automatic, and they don’t need to remember all the steps each morning.
Include your child in the planning of this routine. If you need help to get organised, grab this free downloadable worksheet to get you started.
Include your child in the preparation of their routine. This gives them a choice in the way they get ready for school, rather than just being told what to do. This can be extremely helpful for children with co-morbid Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD), as they will feel as though they are in control of what they are required to do. If they have school refusal, find a time to talk through the morning issues, when they are calm and medicated, so definitely not in the mornings. It might surprise you how insightful they are about their issues as well as open to problem solving ways to make the mornings run more smoothly.
Don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t remember the routine straight away, and if you need to make tweaks along the way. They will need lots of support to implement the routine and practice it for it to become permanent.
Reduce the steps in the morning routine
Reducing the steps in the morning routine is essential for better mornings. We know that children with ADHD struggle with planning, organising and managing their time, so it makes sense that reducing the number of steps in your routine would benefit them.
I can hear you asking how we can reduce the steps in the morning and still get out on time?
We have three separate routines to keep our school days running smoothly. We not only have a morning routine, but we have an afternoon and an evening routine, to allow us to shift some of the activities and tasks we have to do to get ready for school, away from the morning.
This allows our mornings to only include a few essential activities, which significantly reduces our stress. This is going to be different for every family. Brainstorm which aspect of the morning routine is the most challenging for your child and see if you can move it to the previous afternoon or evening routine.
I am going to share with you our routines, and hopefully give you some inspiration to plan your routines.
Our afternoon routine
Put today’s things away
Shoes in the box next to the front door
Uniforms in the washing basket to get washed if they are dirty or
Uniforms go into a predetermined ‘cube’ in their shelves if they are clean
Lunchbox and drink bottle on the kitchen counter
Ice bricks in the freezer
Prepare things for tomorrow
Get a new pair of undies and socks and put it in the ‘cube.’ If they can’t find what they need, we still have time to get it ready, rather than stressing out in the morning because they can’t find a matching pair of socks
Complete their uniform checklist
Our evening routine
Pack our lunchboxes ready for the next day (using leftovers from dinner!) using a lunchbox planner
Prepare anything out of the ordinary routine for the next day such as soccer gear, piano books or library books
Our morning routine
Get dressed (sometimes they even wear their uniform to bed if I know we are leaving super early in the morning)
Put an ice brick in their lunchbox and put is straight into their backpacks
have breakfast (which has been premade (ham and egg slice is my favourite – It’s super simple, and you can premake and eat cold or reheat quickly!)
brush their teeth and hair
grab their bags and go
My son also has the job of feeding our dog, as he is the oldest and has more responsibilities than his younger sisters.
By shuffling the morning routine activities, we are breaking up a huge task, like getting ready for school, into smaller, manageable ‘chunks.’ Now they only have a handful of things they have to do during the most challenging part of the day. If you also do the same, and break up your own routine, you can slow down to really listen and respond to your child.
Use visuals to support their executive functioning system deficits.
My house looks a bit like a classroom with whiteboards and visuals everywhere. Visuals are so important for children with ADHD. They support their working memory, planning, time management, executive functions and they oster independence, which allows you to stop nagging them!
Hands down, the most critical visual to support your morning routines is a schedule. This can change as your child gets older or more independent. When my children were really young, I had a single step schedule which helped them get to the next step in their routine. I placed each one where they needed them also known as the point of performance.
When they got a little older, I used a picture-based checklist that stayed on the dining room table, so they could come and check-in if needed. Then we moved to a written checklist. I could just say, “Go and check you have done everything you need to do.” Because we have had the same morning routine now for a while, they can get themselves ready for school independently – most of the time.
Use time management strategies
People with ADHD often struggle with time management. Dr Russell Barkley talks about this as “time blindness” meaning people with ADHD often struggle to use their time efficiently and live in the ‘right now’ without considering the future. They find it hard to predict how fast time is passing and how much time it takes to do something.
This can look like:
Difficulty knowing how long they have worked on something
Poor planning and management of their time
Procrastinating (they often leave everything to the last minute)
Failure to meet deadlines
Moving slowly to get ready even when they’re running late
Now you know that your child isn’t going slowly on purpose to annoy you or make you late for work! They are blind to time. So what can we do to help?
We need to represent time physically and visually in three ways:
How much time do they have to complete the task (e.g. We need to leave in 25 mins)
How much time has gone already
How much time they still have left
In order to do this, we can use physical items and technology:
Please note: I am not paid to promote these at all! I just think they are awesome!
There are lots of other alternatives, such as watches, sand timers or oil drip timers. Google ‘activity timers’ and see which one would suit your children.
YouTube also has some fantastic countdown timers that you can put up on the TV. This one is great as your child doesn’t have to be able to tell the time, and it beeps at each minute interval. My son also likes the bomb blast timer.
Make sure, particularly if your child can’t tell the time well, that they can SEE the timer moving, as opposed to a digital timer counting down. This way, they can visually see how much time they have left.
REWARD REWARD REWARD
Now we know that it presents a considerable challenge for children to get ready for school because of their executive function deficits. We also need to remember a lot of our children may have anxiety, do not enjoy going to school, so we can add a lack of motivation and distress to their challenges too.
Make sure you focus on the positives that your child is doing and praise them regularly and reward them when they do something well – no matter how small it seems! You can do this verbally, physically or tangibly.
Verbally: “Great work! You got your lunchbox – you’re a champion!”
Physically: “High five! You brushed your teeth!”
Tangible reinforcement that motivates your child
Tokens for each job they do that can exchange for a prize at the end of the morning. Set up a little lucky dip bag with cheap toys or trinkets in it, which they get to dive into at the end of the morning if they get out on time, or if they reach a predetermined number of tokens.
Break up pieces of a lego set and giving a piece each time you see them doing as you have asked. They can then have the lego set to make at the end of the morning.
If they are ready by a set time, you can stop off at the hot bread shop for break sticks (we love these!) or a deluxe chocolate shake from McDonalds.
With tangible reinforcement, you must stick to your word. If you say, we can only go if you are out of the house by 7am, and you don’t leave until 7:05am they will have to miss out. But let them know they can try again tomorrow and never shame them for being late.
I hope these strategies will get you off to an excellent start but please remember – you don’t have to implement all of these things at once! This can lead to you being overwhelmed, and you might just give up. How about starting with planning a night routine to take the load off your mornings or with establishing a reward system.
What is going to make the most significant difference for you? Start there.
And remember, if you need support with your morning routine, contact a psychologist in your area to work with you to create family specific strategies for you..
In our last blog, we talked about the difference between punishment and discipline. If you haven’t already, I will encourage you to go back and read that blog first and start there. Why? Because the most successful discipline for inappropriate behaviour and poor choices comes from a place of respect and love. Discipline should never be about punishing the child for payback; it should help them develop skills and strategies they need to make more appropriate and better choices in the future. I love the quote: “Too often we forget that discipline really means to teach, not to punish. A disciple is a student, not a recipient of behavioural consequences.” (Dr Dan Siegel)
Children with ADHD have a disorder of self-control due to deficits in their executive functioning systems in their brains. This means that they have significant difficulty inhibiting primary emotions and reactions, and often do things without thinking of the consequences first. This can get them in trouble, very often. So, discipline is essential for children with ADHD, but how can we do it effectively?
Let’s jump right in and have a look at some important points to consider when you’re disciplining your child for negative behaviour:
Always discipline from a place of calm, maintaining a positive, loving and respectful relationship.
Imagine this: You are at work, and your boss comes in ranting and raving at you, calling you names, threatening you, and doing all of this in front of your colleagues. Would you listen to what they have to say? I know I wouldn’t.
But what if your boss came to you quietly, and asked to see you in their office when you were next available, stayed calm and simply discussed an issue with you, would you listen then? Sure, I might not like what they had to say, but I would hear them out.
It’s the same with our children. Are they going to listen to us when we are yelling the displeasure of their behaviour at them? Or would they learn and listen better if you quietly raise the issue with them from a place of calm? Sometimes they still won’t want to listen, but at least you haven’t hurt your relationship in the meantime.
So how can we ensure our relationship stays healthy?
Implement some self-calming strategies when you are struggling with their behaviour.
I often, close my eyes for a second, take a few deep breaths and say a little prayer, “God help me to parent well!” If you don’t pray, then even reminding yourself here with a mantra “I can do this!”, “I will stay calm!” or “Breathe.” Think of something that might work for you like deep breathing, acupressure, mantras, prayer, or thinking of your happy place.
Model self-control and think about the big picture
Now that my kids with ADHD are a bit older (11 & 8), I tell them when I am too angry to deal with the situation there and then. Yes, children with ADHD need consequences to be immediate, but I would rather keep my relationship intact than to jump to punishment because I can’t control my impulses.
I say “I am furious about (….). I need a couple of mins to calm down before we talk about it.” This models self-control and gives them a strategy to use when they are angry. When my children are yelling at me or emotionally dysregulated, I often say “I am happy to speak to you about this when you speak calmly to me.” And then I ride out the storm.
It is easier said than done, particularly if you have ADHD or if you have difficulties with emotional dysregulation yourself. But having a proactive plan with strategies can go a long way to ensuring you are disciplining out of a place of calm.
2. Re-frame our thinking about “behaviour” vs “a neurodevelopmental disorder of self-control”
One of the most important things to keep in mind for discipline is the difference between “naughty behaviour” and “a disorder of self-control”. I always try to keep in mind that my children have a deficit of impulse control.
Children with ADHD have a 30% delay in their development of self-control, and they may develop only 75-80% self-control capacity compared to their peers. This is so important to keep in mind when disciplining children with ADHD. I might have an 11-year-old child, but their ability to use self-control may only be that of a 6/7-year-old. Your 5-year-old child might only have the self-control abilities of a 3-year-old.
Now, this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have consequences for their poor decisions; otherwise, they will never learn. But it does mean that we need to view our children, not as naughty, but having a developmental disorder and parent from there. They need more support and strategies in place so that they can reach their potential.
3. Explain how to behave rather than jumping straight to punishment.
Our kids jump on the lounge, despite the fact it is against the rules of our home. They know these rules, but it’s usually in the afternoons when their medications are starting to wear off, they can’t inhibit their desire to jump on the lounge.
But here is where I have learned to ask myself: Do they need to be punished for it? Will punishment change behaviour? When the kids were younger, they would get an imposed consequence for jumping on the lounge, or sometimes even me just yelling “GET OFF THE LOUNGE!” And then five mins later, they would be jumping on it again. Instead, I now simply explain how to behave – “I can see you need to jump! Go out to the trampoline and show me how high you can jump there.”
When children are a little bit older, you can also start to encourage them to come up with those solutions themselves. I learned a fantastic strategy from my son’s Occupational Therapist (OT) years ago. My son was trying on a body sock to see if it helped him settle. It didn’t! As soon as he put it on, he began running around the room, bashing into the walls and cupboards. The OT just simply said. “What do you think I’m thinking right now?” he responded, “I’m silly in the body sock!”. Then she said, “So what do you think I am going to say?” He responded, “Take off the body sock and sit down”. He knew exactly what to do; he just needed someone to prompt him.
Dr Russell Barkley talks about ADHD as a performance disorder, not a knowledge disorder. Our kids know they shouldn’t jump on the lounge (knowledge), but they do it despite that knowledge (performance). Is this to be naughty? No (mostly!), it is because they are impulsive – they act before they think.
So tap into the knowledge they already have. Asking, “What do you think I’m going to say right now?” gives them the time to think about what they are doing and make a more appropriate choice. They still might need help to move on, but, it goes a long way to self-awareness and self-monitoring. It also gives you an excellent opportunity to catch them, making the right choice “Wow! I’m impressed with the way you moved away from the lounge to stop yourself jumping on it!”
4. Be proactive
We often know what our children’s triggers are. There are three main things that my children meltdown over – cleaning, sharing and when screen time is over. If we are proactive and identify areas where our children may explode or act poorly, we can actually stop the negative behaviours before they happen. We don’t need to jump to punishment or discipline.
So how can we plan?
Review often rules and support working memory by externalising information.
Before the child gets started on an activity, we can outline the rules clearly, write them down and remind them of rewards and consequences if they break the rules. For example, one of the rules in our house is the kids can have 45 mins screen time on certain days during school terms. However, they are not allowed to play video games or watch YouTube during the week. So before turning on the TV, we remind them of the time limit and if they are on Youtube or playing games, they will have to turn the TV off straight away and will lose screen time for the next day.
Children with ADHD often having difficulties with working memory. We need working memory to remember to do things in the near future. Children with ADHD are often unable to keep important information in their mind so they can lose track of expectations and rules. By having a visual picture or list in their view, can remind them of the expectations they need to adhere to for a task. You can even write the reward or consequences for them, so they are fully aware of what you expect.
The neurobiology of the ADHD brain makes it difficult for a child with ADHD to do something that doesn’t interest them. We often need to support them doing these tasks with extrinsic motivation, with the view of teaching them to use internal motivation.
I struggled with this notion for YEARS. I never use to believe that children should be provided with an external motivation to do something mandatory, such as doing chores. However, once I discovered there is a biological reason that my children often can’t get started on tasks they don’t enjoy, I saw the necessity of supporting their motivation.
Children with ADHD need to have a keen interest in what they are going to do, to be able to get started. This is because of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Children with ADHD have deficits in the dopamine reward system in their brain. We need to support them to get started on non-preferred tasks by increasing the release and uptake of dopamine in their brain. The promise of a reward can actually increase dopamine instantly and help them get started.
I am not talking about providing them with presents every time they do something they don’t enjoy. Try saying something like, “Let’s clean your room, then we can go to the park” or, “After you have done your homework, let’s make some cookies together.” Frame it as a reward, and you will increase your child’s compliance and then reduce the need for negative discipline. What would you rather hear? “Go and clean your room or you won’t get screen time today” or “Once you’ve cleaned your room, you can have your screen time”?
5. When we need to discipline our children for negative or poor choices, make sure the consequences are immediate, consistent and natural.
The timing of the consequences for children with ADHD is vital. Dr Virginia Douglas (ADHD researcher) said: “ADHD children live in the here and now [with very limited hindsight or foresight], either you become part of that moment, or you will have minimal influence over their behaviour.”
Children with ADHD are often thought of as not learning from consequences. The truth is, they do! However, they need to be immediate, consistent and related to the behaviour to have any impact. Natural or logical consequences are more potent than non-related consequences.
A couple of days ago, I asked my kids to get all their dirty washing from their bedroom and sort it into the baskets ready for the washing machine. A couple of hours later, I had finished all the laundry. My son came and asked for his favourite PS4 jumper. After some looking, we discovered that he had stashed all his dirty washing down the side of his bed, rather than cleaning it up when asked.
I could have punished with yelling, removing privileges, or removal of screen time. Ultimately, this would be me venting my frustrations. But what would that have taught him?
Instead, I can discipline. I think – What skills does my child need to learn here? What are the natural consequences for his actions? What is the best way of teaching him this?”
I calmly explained that I had already finished my washing for the weekend, so he had a choice:
He could wear the dirty jumper
He could wash the jumper himself or
He could put the jumper in the basket, and I would wash it in a couple of days when I do my next load of washing.
He chose option c.
Allowing natural consequences let our children see that whatever choice they make there is a consequence. If they sneak all the lunchbox snacks, they won’t have snacks in their lunchbox until my next scheduled grocery shop. If they make a mess, they clean it up. If they steal something, they take it back and apologise and pay for it if need be. Yes, these seem like punishments, and they are in a way, but they are simply the logical consequences of their choices, all delivered in a calm, kind, yet firm fashion.
6. Emotion coach during the discipline and consequences, while maintainingfirm, but kind boundaries.
Our children don’t like getting disciplined. Who does? And the tricky thing is that when we discipline children with ADHD, it is often because of something they had done because they were impulsive and acted before they thought it through. This, however, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a consequence for it. And because children with ADHD often have emotional dysregulation, they are very often vocal about their displeasure. This can lead our children to swear, yell, hit, kick, scream and name-call. I have been called all sorts of horrible names while maintaining boundaries and consequences for behaviour.
I have found, the best way to deal with the blow out from discipline is to, stay calm and emotion coach. For example: “You’re frustrated about me not washing your jumper.”
We can often get in the trap of disciplining a child for showing their emotions, rather than just letting them feel that emotion. While a child is in emotional meltdown, they are not going to be learning anything from you. Ride the storm then talk about it later, how they feel, how you felt and how they could do it differently next time.
Here’s a final example of how it all can come together:
My daughter with ADHD loves playing with LOL and OMG dolls. She sets up little dollhouses for them in the shelves in her room. By the end of her playtime, there are dolls, clothes and accessories: everywhere. Which is fine – creativity begets mess!
However, she often outright refuses to clean up her room afterwards. She cries, throws herself to the ground and screams about how unfair it is that she has to clean up and I should just do it for her. I have 3 choices here:
a. Clean her room for her.
b. Punish her for not cleaning her room and while I’m at it, for the tantrum.
c. Show empathy and emotion coach through.
I choose c. I emotion coach her through the frustration of having to clean up, then help her get started with a reward “Once you clean up your room, we can do some colouring in together!” I also support her planning and organisation difficulties by having a printable on her wall of the steps to follow in order to get her room clean.
Now, I have been proactive, dealt with her poor motivation, stayed calm, used emotion coaching, outlined my rules and expectations and supported her working memory difficulties. I have done everything I can do to set her up for success. Most of the time, this is enough and she chooses to tidy up.
If she chooses not to clean up then I can give her a consequence. I usually explain that if I end up having to clean up her mess, she will not have access to her dolls for a set period. This is enough motivation for her to clean them up herself. If not, I maintain my calm, clean them up and let her sit with the discomfort of her choice, while emotion coaching. I don’t need to jump to anger and punishment.
I hope that has given you some good ideas and strategies for discipline. I want you to be able to take action from what you have read in the last couple of blogs, as it can make your family life much more peaceful.
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Raising a child with ADHD is hard. There is no doubt about it. It is well documented that parents, particularly mothers, of children with ADHD live with considerably higher stress levels than parents with neurotypical children, and this stress level more than doubles with every child with ADHD within the family (Barkley).
ADHD has a significant impact on adult-child relationships, and this is not just limited to the parent-child relationship, but even teacher-child relationships as well. It often happens in a cycle where both the parent/teacher and child contribute to a sequence of behaviour which often gets worse over time.
Parents of children with ADHD often are caught in this cycle and believe that to get their child to do anything they have to punish them or inflict a significant consequence on them. But the bottom line is, that punishing a child and threatening them with consequences to get them to behave, doesn’t make them behave better. It actually makes them, over time, behave worse.
Before you continuing reading, download the workbook that goes along with this post (and the following post), so you can really think about, and act on what you read here!
I want you to take time here and really think about punishment? How do you punish your child? And does it really work? I used to believe that the only way to get my son and daughter with ADHD to do anything was to threaten them with a consequence or out of sheer frustration, yell, and still, that never worked.
The Oxford Dictionary says punishment is “the infliction or imposition of a penalty for an offence” or “rough treatment and handling”. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary says it is “suffering, pain or loss that serves as retribution” or “severe, rough or disastrous treatment.”
Punishment actually changes the way a child thinks about themselves. Children often feel humiliated by punishment and believe that they are “naughty” rather than the behaviour they are doing is undesirable. Punishment often causes children to dwell angrily on the person inflicting the punishment, rather than dealing with the issue that they were being punished for.
Punishment also doesn’t TEACH the child how to behave. It often does the opposite. It shows children that they are not in control of themselves. They end up relying on their parents to manage their behaviour because they have no skills to control their own. Often, the only thing children learn is not to get caught when they break the rules or lie to get out of trouble.
Some common punishments you hear about are:
Smacking or rough handling (e.g. pinching, grabbing, hitting with an implement, like a belt)
Yelling (e.g. scolding, name-calling, demanding)
Making the child eat something (e.g. soap for swearing)
The evidence of the long term effects of punishment is overwhelming. Smacking, yelling or forcing something into your child’s mouth as punishment has a long-lasting psychological impact. Although it may appear to be effective in the short-term, it does not change a child’s behaviour in the long term. It is linked to:
increased child aggression
delinquency / antisocial behaviour
mental health issues including depression, anxiety, feelings of hopelessness, use of drugs and alcohol and general psychosocial maladjustment.
breakdown in parent-child relationships
family violence in adulthood (spousal assault in later life)
slower cognitive development adversely affects academic achievement.
The above outcomes are for children who have experienced normativepunishment (i.e. non-abusive punishment by definition – however, there is the argument, that all punishment is abusive). But despite these outcomes, up to 43% of Australians report that they still smack their children.
Research also suggests, that yelling at a child is just as harmful than physical punishment. As soon as you begin to raise your voice, you activate a child’s limbic system. This is the part of the brain responsible for the fight-flight-or-freeze response. So, when we start yelling at a child, they might freeze or shutdown, run away or even fight back. A recent study shows that up to 70% of Australians use yelling as a form of discipline.
If all the evidence states that children should not be punished, then why are we still doing it? Researchers from Monash University investigated Australian case law where the punishment of a child had been discussed in detail. They found that the three main reasons that punishment is still used are: emotional anger or stress related to a child’s behaviour (88% of respondents), teaching the child a lesson (75%) and emotional anger or stress related to the adult’s situation (74%). It is all about the parent, not what is best for the child.
I relate to this. Although I never smack my children, make them eat something as a punishment or call them names, I definitely get to the point where I yell, or inflict illogical consequences that I end up regretting later (e.g. You can’t have screens for a month). This is not because I actually want to, or I think this is an appropriate way to punish my children. It is because I am so stressed, tired or angry, and I have lost my own behavioural and emotional control. And of course, it doesn’t work, the majority of the time it only escalates the situation, and then I end up feeling like a failure as a parent to my children with ADHD.
Can you relate to this? I am not blaming parents here, I’m walking this with you. Children with ADHD are tough to raise, and this is backed up by decades of research. The brilliant thing is here, however, that if we can understand what is happening and how it is working in our relationship with our child, we can stop the cycle.
Many years ago, after our first intervention appointment with my son’s psychologist, my husband and I were given homework: We weren’t allowed to punish our son, at all, for two weeks. What? Not punish our son with ADHD and Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD) for two weeks? How can I just let him get away with his bad behaviours for two weeks? Our house would be WILD without punishment – well, even more wild!
After I left the psychologist’s office and began reflecting on my behaviour management, I began to identify how I was punishing my son for his undesirable behaviours. I really encourage you to do this. It can be tough to do, but it is really worth it. Without knowing where we are, it is hard to make a change and move forward. I found out three things about my punishment style.
I imposed a LOT of significant consequences. I would even try to be proactive with this and plan my consequences ahead of time for his rule-breaking, so I was ready.
I went into situations expecting a fight (which was my lived experience), so I often entered with a commanding demeanour.
And when nothing else seemed to work, I would end up yelling.
So, I took the homework seriously. The psychologist had told me how to respond to my son’s poor behaviours, and none of it was through punishment. So, no consequences, yelling or demands of my child for two whole weeks. This was going to be tough! However, I couldn’t believe, that even after a couple of days, we noticed a massive improvement in my son’s compliance, a significant reduction in meltdowns, which also meant less aggressive behaviour and overall a calmer, more peaceful family life.
Yeah right, I can hear you saying. Now look closely here. I didn’t say we weren’t allowed to discipline him. So, what’s the difference?
People often think that punishment and discipline are synonymous, but there’s a distinct difference. Discipline is about changing behaviour, not punishing the child. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “to train or develop by instruction and exercise, especially in self-control.”
Discipline is often talked about as positive parenting. It is not that the child isn’t learning right from wrong, or not learning that there are consequences for their actions, but they are not being punished for their mistakes. I want you to really understand the difference here. Punishment brings shame and payback, whereas discipline brings training and teaching from a place of support and love. And this is so important when we are talking about a child with ADHD.
ADHD is a disorder of self-regulation. It is a neurodevelopmental disability that predisposes the children who have it, to rule-breaking. If we punish a child for a disorder that is out of their control, they are going to believe that there is something fundamentally wrong with them. Children with ADHD don’t need to be punished for their lack of self-regulation and behavioural control. They need to be taught strategies and skills of self-control.
So, how can we shift into providing positive discipline for our children instead of punishing them? I believe it is a mindset shift, from “They need to be punished” to “What skills does my child need to make a better choice next time?” I have learned so much since that first appointment with my son’s psychologist, through my own study and experiences, and I promise I don’t always get this right. But these next four strategies have completely changed our family and eliminated the cycle of conflict – most days.
Make sure you persevere with these. Doing them once is not going to work!
Always discipline from a place of calm.
Children with ADHD are challenging to live with. They have a disorder of self-control! They are going to make many more poor choices than a neurotypical child. If I come in and attempt to discipline out of a place of anger or frustration, I am going to end up, more often than not, punishing my children, and my discipline is not going to be effective. If I can take a step back and enter the situation from a place of calm, I am going to not punish but train my children to act more appropriately, and they are more likely to listen to me.
What brings you back to a place of calm?
For me, it is listening to a podcast on my way to work, drinking a cup of tea and watching the kids bounce on the trampoline or patting my dog. Sometimes, it’s stepping out onto my back deck, looking at the beautiful sky and taking a few breaths, praying, having a shower and singing my heart out, or sometimes it is even just having a good cry.
Settle yourself, calm your own emotions then step into discipline with the mindset of “what does my child need to learn here?”
Don’t play tennis!
We often get caught in this tennis match with our children. Our child serves a negative emotion or comments at us, and we return it with another. It can go on and on, depending on how good at tennis we all are.
But here is the excellent news. You are actually in control of the ball. You can’t control what comes out of anyone else’s mouth, but you are in full control of what comes out of yours. Just like a tennis match, you can stop the ball at any time.
I have found the best way to do this is to emotion coach the child through their feelings. Check out our previous blog about how to emotion coach. It is incredible how quickly it can defuse a situation when we just coach our children through the emotion of the situation, rather than being combative. Despite popular parenting opinion, we do not have to win every argument or every exchange. It is not a tennis match; it is not a competition. This is about teaching our children how to appropriately behave. If we do it well, it’s a win: win. What does this look like?
“It’s time to turn off the screens.”
“No! I’m just getting to the good bit.”
“Yep, but time is up. Turn it off.”
“No! You always do this! Turn it off when it gets to the good bit”
“That’s because you always re-start the movie. You know you only have 45 mins.”
“You are so stupid!”
And so on.
But what about if it goes this way instead.
“It’s time to turn off the screens.”
“No! I’m just getting to the good bit.”
“Oh! That sucks. I hate when I have to interrupt something in the good part.”
“I’m not turning it off”.
“I can tell you are angry at me for turning it off now. But your screen time is over. Would you like me to write down where it’s up to, and we can start from this point tomorrow?”
Now I am not naive; I have been involved in many a conversation like this. It doesn’t always end ideally. But if we are firm, kind and stay in control while providing emotion coaching through the situation, our child learns to sit with some of those negative emotions without always having to meltdown or be punished for expressing them. And, we don’t end up escalating and moving into punishment.
Catch them being good
I remember when my son was first diagnosed, I felt he went from one wrong choice to another and I really struggled some days to catch him making any positive choices. But when I really looked, there were so many things that he was doing right; I just had to look a bit harder for them. They just don’t always stand out as much as negative behaviours.
Discipline is as much about positively reinforcing the right choices our kids make than correcting their poor decisions or inappropriate behaviours.
You might have to start small and look hard. Did your son say “Good morning” to you? Tell him “I love it when you say good morning to me! I’m so glad you are my son.” Is your daughter playing nicely with her sister? Tell her! “Wow, I’m so impressed with the way you are sharing with your sister!”
I love the saying “What you focus on grows!” What do you want to grow in your child? Focus on that. I had been so focused on the negative behaviours my son was exhibiting, that when I began to give him praise for the little things, I just couldn’t stop! It is all about how we frame behaviours in our mind.
My son would go out of his way to make the choices I praised him for again. I remember once he picked me a dandelion flower. I said “Oh, what a lovely thing to do! That made me feel very loved.” From then on, every single chance he got, he would pick me a flower. I treasured every single one. Our kids want to please us. Tell them when you appreciate them.
Catch them being good then show and tell them. Click the button below to download a FREE printable – “Catch me making good choices.” Keep them with you and on the fridge if you need any reminders of what to say or how to show you appreciate it when your children act positively.
I found it extremely helpful here also to choose something to focus on to catch them being good, and this changes all the time. Currently, my son with ADHD, always blames other people for his poor choices (e.g. He broke a window because he threw a pear at his sister. It was, of course, his sister’s fault for moving out of the way of the flying pear!) So, at the moment, I am working on catching him taking responsibility and telling him e.g., “Wow, mate. It took guts to tell me you were responsible for that. I am so proud of you.” Now, it doesn’t take away the consequence of the behaviour. Still, it certainly makes the discussion about consequences much calmer.
My daughter with ADHD really struggles to share. So, I make a focussed effort to praise her when I’m seeing her share! “Wow! You shared your chocolate with your sister! What a kind sister!” or “What a champion. You just shared your doll!” Rather than always punishing or focusing on the negative, find the positive and catch them doing it!
I want to challenge you to implement some of these tools if you are not already. I am always adding tools to my toolkit. Some work, some don’t. But I speak from experience. This is a much happier and healthier way to live than in a cycle of anger and frustration.
Now, of course, children with ADHD still need consequences for their behaviours; otherwise, they would never learn from their mistakes. The research shows that children with ADHD need more immediate and powerful consequences than children without ADHD. So, in the next blog, we will continue delving into how to discipline, not punish, your children for the poor choices or negative behaviour.
When most people think of ADHD, they often think of the hyperactive boy being disruptive, naughty, and rude. What they do not picture is the girl who is sitting quietly doing her work at her desk.
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Approximately 4.2% of the population in Australia, under the age of 14 have ADHD. Boys are (on average) three times more likely to be diagnosed than girls. Girls are also diagnosed (on average) 5 years later than boys (average age of diagnosis for boys is seven and for girls it’s twelve). When you think of that in terms of years of intervention that are lost for girls, that is significant.
Quinn and Madhoo (2014) concluded that girls are often misdiagnosed with anxiety and depression instead of ADHD due to the way that ADHD looks in girls compared to boys. Often the same core symptoms look different in girls than boys. e.g., a boy might be physically hyperactive, where a girl might be verbally hyperactive. A boy might show aggression because of emotional difficulties related to ADHD, where a girl may withdraw or cry. Often girls with ADHD are labelled as “emotional.” Girls are also often better at masking their symptoms and demonstrate internalising disorders (e.g., depression, anxiety, withdrawal) more often than boys with ADHD, often making it difficult to “see” her symptoms.
Early identification and treatment for girls (and boys) with ADHD are vital. There are many great articles and websites if you are interested in the differences between boys and girls with ADHD (ADDitudemag.com here and here, Child Mind® Institute and a great YouTube episode from How to ADHD.)
Research into girls with ADHD is sobering, and their underdiagnosis is concerning. Dr Pat Quinn (Developmental Paediatrician) reports that, even when girls are displaying the same symptoms as a boy with ADHD, they are less likely to be referred or treated for ADHD, often ending up with a mental health diagnosis instead (e.g., anxiety, depression, Bipolar disorder). ADHD significantly increases the risk for many comorbid disorders and significantly worse long-term outcomes than girls who do not have ADHD.
Research shows that in comparison to girls without ADHD: girls with ADHD,
Have lower self-esteem.
Is more likely to blame herself for her difficulties (e.g., “I failed the test, which means I’m so stupid!”) and live with more shame.
Have more trouble making and keeping friends. They are known to have significantly more difficulty in friendships, peer interactions, social skills, and functioning, as well as a higher chance of being bullied.
Show unique issues during puberty, related to hormonal effects on ADHD and how they respond to treatment. Often girls with ADHD may not realise the impact on their functioning until they are older. Sometimes not until high school, university, or even, until they have children of their own.
Particularly during the tween, teenage and adult years, they are far more likely to struggle with mental health issues than girls without ADHD. Girls with ADHD are:
5.6 times more likely to have Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
9.4 times more likely to have conduct disorder (CD)
3.2 times more likely to have anxiety
4.2 times more likely to have depression.
There is also a significantly higher risk of suicide in people with ADHD (for boys and girls with ADHD across all age groups). Some studies have shown adolescents with ADHD are 10 times more likely to attempt suicide than adolescents without ADHD. The Black Dog Institute reports that suicide is the leading cause of death from people aged 5-17 years old.
More likely to have lower IQ and achievement scores. However, a higher IQ and satisfactory achievement at school should not rule out an ADHD diagnosis. Many girls with ADHD perform well at school, particularly in the primary school years.
By now, I have probably scared you, and you are now panicking, thinking that our girls with ADHD are doomed. Take heart; studies do indicate that we can reduce the impact of ADHD with treatment. Gold standard treatment at this stage is both pharmacological treatment (medication) and psychosocial whole family interventions.
As parents, carers, teachers, health professionals, and others who love, live, and work with girls with ADHD, we need to be aware of the difficulties that girls with ADHD may face. We must be proactive in providing the environment and supports they need.
Here are some of my top tips for supporting for girls with ADHD – (I also want to be clear here that these are important and beneficial with boys with ADHD too!)
Proactive Professional Help
Before we dive in, I am not a psychologist. Every child with ADHD is different, and a one size fits all approach will not work. It is crucial to seek out support from a trained professional. Talking to your GP about options for psychology is a fantastic first step. In Australia there are many online programs, some of them free, that you can link into.
You don’t have to wait until there is a problem before booking your daughter in to see a psychologist. As a society, we often think that we must be in dire straits before reaching out for help. Girls with ADHD will often internalise their difficulties, opting not to discuss them with her parents or carers. You may not know she is struggling until it is too late. A ‘head in the sand’ approach to your child’s mental health could cost your daughter their life.
It is crucial to be proactive and not reactive when working with a child’s mental health. Reactive mental health care means waiting until the child has a mental health problem to get help for it. Proactive mental health care can help people with life skills and coping competencies before they have any mental health issues. It can give her tools (e.g. problem-solving skills, strategies to deal with stressful life events, challenging negative thoughts) to deal with any mental health issues before they arise. As well as having a mental health professional monitoring her for any potentially concerning areas.
I have been both reactive and proactive with my children. With my son, by the time we really “needed” a psychologist, our family was at breaking point. His levels of aggression and anger were unbearable. We ended up having to wait months for an appointment (this was even privately). After several months, we had seen such a change in him and us! We didn’t stop the appointments there though. He would chat with his psychologist once every couple of months, about anything that was on his mind. Several more months down the track, he was having a hard time at school, as his best friend had left and changed schools. One day after school, he got into the car and asked me to make an appointment with his psychologist to chat about it. There was no shame in it for him. At the age of 9, he saw the value and importance of seeking help when you are having a hard time.
Alexander Graham Bell (the inventor of the telephone) said “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”
I love this quote so much, and I believe it is vital for our children with ADHD. Research shows that girls with ADHD live with lower self-esteem and significantly more shame than their peers without ADHD. The shame of trying their best and still often falling short, continually having to say sorry, or consistently having to put up a mask to cover their difficulties.
If she is prepared for the difficulties that she may experience, (and be given strategies for support along the way), it can lessen the impact and her view of her challenges. It allows her to view them as a by-product of ADHD and not that there is something innately wrong with her.
Make discussions about ADHD and mental health commonplace. This not only takes away the stigma of mental health being shameful but also increases the chances that she will talk to you about them.
Read books together about feelings and mental health. My daughter with ADHD often struggles with anxiety. When she was younger, she asked almost every day to read the book In my heart: A book of feelings. Now, she is older, we read the book Hey Warrior. She loves it (as do I!) and now will tell me that her amygdala thinks there is a problem and is overacting. Hey warrior also has fantastic strategies for them to learn (such as deep breathing and positive self-talk).
My children know they have “ADHD brains.” They understand why they act and feel the way they do, and that doesn’t mean there is anything “wrong” with them, their brains just work differently. They also are very aware that puberty adds an increased risk of depression and anxiety due to having ADHD and family history.
Share with your child the difficulties that you face and overcome. By talking about mental health and making it a regular part of her life, she will be much more likely to speak with you about it.
There are so many evidence-based lifestyle strategies that can benefit girls with ADHD (as well as all children). Research tells us the main activities linked with the prevention of mental health disorders are:
Regular engagement in sports or moderate to vigorous physical exercise.
Maintaining a healthy body mass index by healthy eating
Not smoking and responsible drinking
Regularly participating in mental activities (e.g., visiting museums, reading books, listening to calm music, playing instruments.)
Daily practising yoga (we play this game at our place to make it fun!) or mindfulness (here is a great app to get started), keeping gratitude journals, thought journals and deep breathing are also linked to better mental health.
Regular social rhythms (e.g., going to bed or eating meals at the same time each day, or engaging in daily activities with peers and family).
Regular “green time” has also been extremely beneficial for mental health in people with ADHD. Interestingly it has also been shown to improve symptoms of ADHD.
Engaging in preventative mental health courses can also be extremely beneficial. The BRAVE program is one such example. It is an interactive, FREE online program useful in the prevention and treatment of childhood and adolescent anxiety.
It is also important to model these strategies to prevent or reduce the impact of mental health challenges for our children.
Foster a growth mindset
Dr. Hallowell reports that children with ADHD, by the age of 12, have heard approximately 20, 000 more negative messages than their neurotypical peers. Girls with ADHD often internalise these messages as well as often have very black and white, fixed thinking patterns. Having a growth mindset is believing that basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. (Dweck, 2015)
I HIGHLY recommend the Big Life Journal! I bought my kids the Journals and multiple printable kits. I have also just ordered my son the journal for tween and teens as he just turned 11. They have a journal for children (ages 4-10) and the tweens and teens journal (ages 11+). They have printable kits and lots of free resources too.
I HIGHLY recommend the Big Life Journal! I bought my kids the Journals and multiple printable kits. I have also just ordered my son the journal for tween and teens as he just turned 11. They have a journal for children (ages 4-10) and the tweens and teens journal (ages 11+). They have printable kits and lots of free resources too.
We also listen to their podcast together as a family. My girls LOVE it, and even my 11-year-old son enjoys them. He often will ask to have them on while he goes off to sleep!
The big life journal allows you to develop a fixed mindset as a family, building resilience into your child with ADHD.
Praise effort and the journey
Interestingly, girls with ADHD often struggle with perfectionism. It can lead to a negative cycle of stress, anxiety, and shame.
My 8-year-old daughter (who has ADHD) wrote me a letter last week. Part of what she wrote was, “Mum, I am sorry I lie all the time. I am never going to lie to you again.” Two days ago, we were having a cuddle, and she said, “Mum, I’m really sorry!” with tears in her eyes. We chatted more, and it turned out she had been thinking of the letter. She told me that she was a terrible daughter because she had lied to me several times since giving it to me.
Right there, I had the opportunity to bring shame for several impulsive decisions to lie (probably to get herself out of trouble) or to praise the effort and journey. I told her that despite whether she lied or not, the fact that she didn’t want to lie to me, made me proud of her. She beamed and gave me a big cuddle.
Girls with ADHD often can put serious effort into their work or “good” behaviour, but still not achieve a great result. A symptom of ADHD is also poor motivation towards tasks that they find boring, difficult or not necessary. Research shows that praising children for effort over results or abilities is more likely to encourage their persistence at a task! Check out this excellent blog post by Big Life Journal to get you started.
Promote her strengths & Provide support for her weaknesses
Another saying I LOVE is, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” by Albert Einstein.
Children with ADHD often struggle in a classroom setting. They are like the fish, that is told to climb a tree to determine their intelligence and worth. Children with ADHD are more likely to have language and learning difficulties than their neurotypical peers. But even children who have ADHD, with average or high intelligence, with no learning or language difficulties, often show a mismatch between their ability and how they perform.
When I was a new graduate speech pathologist, I remember getting a report for a beautiful young lady from a psychologist. The psychologist wrote, “This child, with the severity of her intellectual impairment, will more than likely, always struggle in all key learning areas in the classroom. Provide her with the opportunity to shine and demonstrate her natural talents and seek out areas of interest, to ensure she is building her self-esteem.”
I have never forgotten that report. It completely changed my perspective. If a child has a specific difficulty with learning, she may always struggle to keep up in school. But she will be good at lots of other things! Observe and foster her strengths, create an environment of success for her outside of the classroom. This will go a long way to supporting her self-confidence and self-esteem. And this is so important for all girls with ADHD, not only girls with learning difficulties.
Is she a fantastic artist, or painter, or dancer? Enrol her in an art class or a dance class, or work together to set up an online shop to sell her art. Is she drawn to babies or the older generation? Help her start a babysitting business or volunteer at your Sunday school. Can she knit? Buy her some wool and let her knit mittens for premature babies or scarves for the older generation?
I do also believe that while it is essential to promote the girl with ADHD’s strengths, it is equally important to provide support for her weaknesses. What areas do you see your daughter struggling with? Is it maths? Hire a maths tutor. Is it language and literacy? See a speech pathologist or learning support teacher. Is it peer relationships? See a psychologist.
One final word on this, be careful with what you take away to fit in her supports. I had a beautiful friend, who decided to take her child out of a team sport (which her child loved), to put her into maths tutoring. The child was devastated. Instead of being involved in a sport that helped her build positive relationships, and gave her an outlet for her energy, she had to go to maths tutoring.
Be creative in planning supports. There are fantastic online resources for support if you are time-poor, or your daughter would feel more comfortable learning in her own home. And she will be able to fit it in around her hobbies.
Let’s get ADHD Done Differently!
Share with me in the comments if this blog post has helped you! I love hearing your feedback!
Content in this blog contains discussions of infertility, miscarriage, suicidal ideation, mental illness and mental health crisis, which some readers may find triggering. If you need support at any time, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Australia) at 1800-273-8255, reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741 741 or call Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you are in immediate medical crisis, please call 000 (Australia).
Raising children with ADHD can be difficult. It’s a bit like anything: You don’t know how difficult it is until you have lived it. I’ve shared little bits of my story throughout my other posts, but I want to share some of the struggles I’ve had – and even continue to have – raising my children with ADHD. Most importantly, what I want you to get out of this post is that it’s okay not to be okay, and asking for help when you need it, is one of the bravest things you can do.
I started ADHD Done Differently for many reasons. In our world, children are often treated so poorly. Add an unseen, socially controversial diagnosis into the mix and these children are at serious risk of psychological harm. I want to educate parents, teachers and health professionals to better understand, live, love and work with children and adolescents with ADHD. I want to be a voice for children and adolescents who don’t yet have their own voice.
The truth is, that I’ve had a hard 11 years raising my children with ADHD. It’s taken a huge mental, emotional and physical toll on me and my relationships. I know now that I am not alone in this. Research tells us that parents, particularly mothers, of children with ADHD live with a significantly higher level of stress than parents of neurotypical children. A study published in 2019 outlined four common themes in parents’ experiences when raising children with ADHD:
The child with ADHD’s behaviour seems like a wrecking ball
Parents are coping with a war at home
Families are divided: relationships don’t survive, and
Parents are in dire need of support
Overall, parents of children with ADHD felt this stress came from children’s behavioural challenges, unmet needs for support and social stigma.
As I write this, I literally have tears in my eyes. Last weekend for me was horrific. I can honestly say that those four themes mentioned in that study, came through loud and strong. My children pushed me to my breaking point with their “wrecking ball” behaviour. I am usually calm and have worked super hard at ensuring I maintain an even emotional state when my children are off the wall, but last weekend, I snapped. I yelled and lost my crap. I felt as though I would explode and truly just wanted to run away.
I honestly felt like I was in a “war zone”. I was fighting battles one after another. I was finding it especially difficult because my husband was working, and nothing I seemed to do made any difference. Things were constantly escalating all day. When my husband finally came home, I was at the end of my rope and we had a fight. A big one. We don’t normally fight, but because of the unrelenting stress in our home, I snapped.
I want to be completely authentic with ADHD Done Differently. I don’t want people to think I have it all together. I don’t. I’m still learning, and sometimes I get it wrong. But I do feel like I’m quite a way along the ADHD journey and have attempted to take on this challenge to ensure that I am raising my children to be the best possible versions of themselves. And I’d like to share what I’ve learned with you.
Here are three of the most important things I’ve learned:
You need support.
One of the most difficult things for me to do at the beginning of my journey was admit that I wasn’t ok and needed help.
My first child was conceived using IVF after a horrible 5-year infertility battle. Oh my goodness, how excited I was when I found out I was pregnant, but this little miracle was hard work from birth. He was always active and never slept. By the time his first birthday came around, I was exhausted. He was on the go every second of every single minute of every single day. Around the time I had a miscarriage, and it tipped me over the edge. I had significant depression and was trying to parent this active, noncompliant little treasure.
At this stage in my life, I couldn’t tell anyone I wasn’t coping. Not even my best friend or my husband. I felt as though saying I needed help would mean that people would think I wasn’t grateful for my son who we’d tried so hard to conceive. I wanted the world to think I was the best mum in the world, and that I had it all together. And I certainly made sure it looked like that on Facebook. However, the reality is that I had alienated myself from the majority of my friends because I couldn’t cope with this child of mine. We stopped going places because of his behaviour, and I felt like I couldn’t have anyone over to my place because he was a tornado that destroyed everything in his path and I couldn’t keep on top of the housework. I was screaming silently inside for help and for support.
In hindsight, I should have asked for help straight away, but it took me years. I am extremely lucky to have a best friend who has been a huge support for me. She doesn’t have children with ADHD, but she listened. She allowed me to cry on her shoulder, to wallow in my self-pity, but she was also able to tell me the hard truths and challenge me. She encouraged me to seek professional help, and I will be forever grateful to her for that. I saw a psychologist for years and worked through some huge issues and mindsets that I didn’t even know that I had. I know I couldn’t have got through the journey of early childhood with my son, his diagnosis, then my daughter’s early years and diagnosis without her. She was a huge support and still is.
The bottom line here is that we can not parent our children with ADHD well without a strong support network. Raising children with ADHD is a hard job. Some days it feels near impossible. I honestly feel as though, if I hadn’t sought help when I did, my family would look completely different to it does now. Yes, we have bad days, but we also have so many good ones. I have learned invaluable strategies through my psychologist, my children’s psychologists, research and reading that have made my family so much better. I wouldn’t change my children for all the money in the world… and I couldn’t have always said that.
Who is in your support team?
Not everyone’s support team is going to look the same, and that’s okay. I feel very grateful to have friends and family who can support me in my journey. I completely appreciate that not everyone has the resources I do, or you might not feel that you’re able to talk to people in your circle just yet.
I’d like to offer for you to join our Facebook group – ADHD Done Differently Community. There are currently only a handful of members, but already it’s a great place to have access to like-minded individuals where you can be yourself, and share your challenges without judgement with people who are walking the same journey.
I’d also like to encourage you to seek professional support. There are so many amazing resources for people who are struggling with stress and mental health in Australia. (Sorry for my international readers – but I’m sure most countries have similar resources!) Before I was ready to actually go out and seek support and help for stress and depression, I sought out online resources. I ended up doing a Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) online program through the Mindspot Clinic. This way, no one knew I was doing it, and I could do it from home with my kids running around me. No need for babysitters or travel!
Check out this YouTube clip for some amazing online resources, or if you are ready to take the big leap and see a psychologist face to face, go and chat to your GP. Seeking help is not weak. It is not cowardly. It is truly the most courageous thing you will ever do.
Look after yourself!
In my mind when I think of the phrase “self-care”, I imagine a woman sitting in a spa, hair in a towel, feet soaking in a foot spa, sipping cocktails, and getting nails done. Seriously, who has the time for that when you are a mum of children with ADHD? Honestly, I’m lucky to take a shower some days, because my children need almost constant supervision, so they don’t hurt each other or themselves. And besides, I certainly don’t have the money for that. My children’s medication costs over $150 every month, and when you add together all the appointments with the psychologists, paediatricians, occupational therapists, speech pathologists… well, the list goes on.
But, here is something that I have learned: self care doesn’t have to mean a spa day. Self-care can honestly mean something as simple as buying yourself a new tea and sipping it while you supervise your kids in the backyard. It can be making sure you always have fruit in the house and reaching for that before you reach for the chocolate (ok… so maybe I haven’t got this one down yet!) It can mean buying a new pair of good shoes so you can get some exercise with the kids or inviting a girlfriend over for a chat and letting the kids run around you. It can mean getting a book from the library and choosing to read that before you go to sleep at night. Or, yes, it can even mean a spa day!
How can you add self-care into your day?
Think about some ways you can add self-care into your day. Do you work full time out of the home? Buy yourself a new mug with an uplifting saying on it. Go for a walk at lunch time. Are you a stay at home mum and have no one to look after the kids for you? Make an effort to eat out at a park once a week and let your kids run free! Brainstorm some ideas and write them down.
It is not selfish to add self-care into your day. You can not take care of children who demand the amount of attention and supervision as our kids with ADHD without looking after yourself as well.
Take the time to work on your spiritual health.
Now before you stop reading, I am not trying to convert you to any religion here. The definition of spirit in the Collins Dictionary is “the part of you that is not physical and that consists of your character and feelings.”
Spirituality is suggested to have five characteristics: meaning, value, transcendence, connecting (with yourself, others, the environment and God or a supreme power), and becoming (the growth and progress of life). According to numerous studies conducted, spiritual health leads to improved mental health, physical health and may even assist people in pain relief.
This is going to be different for everyone. For me, as a Christian, I believe that there is a God who can give my life meaning and hope. I feel energised and refreshed when I talk to God, when I meditate on Scriptures from the Bible or sing a song to God. But I also feel fantastic when I can yell at God and tell him what I am feeling and thinking. I can tell him some days that I think he put too much trust in me to raise my amazing babies with ADHD. I believe he can take it. I know on the days where I spend time working on my spiritual health, it benefits me greatly. And it doesn’t have to be hour long prayers. For me, sometimes stepping outside onto my back deck and appreciating the lovely view and saying a 30 second prayer energises me enough to be able to step back in and parent well.
How can you improve your spiritual health?
Your journey of spiritual health might not look the same as mine. It might look like meditation, yoga, positive affirmations, or something completely different. No matter what your journey, I’d encourage you to ponder these questions to get yourself started:
What gives your life meaning and purpose?
What gives you hope?
What do you do to comfort yourself when you are grieving or having tough times?
When do you feel most at peace?
How can you infuse your day with spiritual health? (Can you wake up and meditate? Listen to a mindfulness app before you go to bed? Go for a walk and connect with nature? Pray? Keep a gratitude journal? Focus on your breathing?)
I’d like to leave you with this: “A bad day does not mean a bad life.”
I love this quote! I don’t know who said it but, wow, I love their attitude. I had this quote printed at my desk at work several years back when I was in the throes of my first child being diagnosed with ADHD. It was so helpful for me to remember this. Things can always change. Things can always get better. There was a time in my life where I truly didn’t believe that, where I truly felt there was no way out but to end my life.
But I promise you… even from the depths of the deepest darkest pit, where you feel as though you are drowning, or maybe already drowned and only surviving minute to minute, life can get better. You CAN actually enjoy your life again.
I was listening to a podcast this week about how to raise children who know their purpose. It struck a chord with me and began ruminating about my three children: their talents, their dreams, their skills, and their personalities.
My 11-year-old son is quick witted, extremely creative, musically talented, very insightful, popular, and extremely social. He truly could be anything he wanted to be. Based on who is he today, if I had to guess what his future would be, I’d imagine he’d be an entrepreneur who plays the PS4 in his spare time.
My 7-year-old daughter is the most incredible drawer, singer, and performer. She is effervescent, loud, hilarious, popular, fantastic with little kids and so very, very funny. I think she will end up being a famous actress, a fashion designer, a stylist, or a teacher.
My youngest daughter is 6-years old. She is the kindest, most selfless, compassionate, helpful child I have ever known. She loves any kind of animal, and they love her back. I think she will be a vet or a conservationist.
It really started to make me think – you know what did not make my list? ADHD. When I thought about my incredible children and who they are, inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity did not make the list.
How many times, though, does ADHD seem like an all-consuming diagnosis? I know it’s something that I have to think about and deal with every single day. The never-ending hyperactivity that drains me of my own energy and wants to make me scream; the impulsivity that is the reason for many trips to the emergency room; and the frustrations of inattention… seriously, how can you always lose just one shoe!? ADHD can feel all consuming, but it is not who our children are. It is not their defining characteristic.
Don’t think for a second that I am ignoring ADHD. It is very hard to live with. It’s stressful, difficult, and exhausting. The very real fact is that families who have a child or children with ADHD are living with a significantly increased amount of stress compared with families of neurotypical children (Leitch, 2019, Theule, 2010.) You need a good support network around you, including professional who can walk you through this journey.
As I was pondering my children, a quote came to mind:
“What you feed yourself, will eventually grow. Whether be good or bad, it will grow. It will affect your entire mood, environment, and the way of thinking… Most of all, it will affect your entire outcome of your today. (Not to mention your tomorrow.)” – Rafael Garcia
ADHD is a chronic condition. Our children are not going to wake up one morning and be “cured”. These amazing kids have ADHD, however, these children are not ADHD. The double-edged sword of ADHD means that while there will always be some things they struggle with, and they will likely always exhibit behaviours that are challenging to live with, they have something that makes them incredible and fiercely passionate about life. The key point I want to make here is that our reactions to these qualities actually shape the way our children think of themselves. How often do we focus on the negative aspects of ADHD when we could be focusing on the positive?
Some of the characteristics of ADHD we find difficult to deal with now, could lead to them being world changers! My son gets up at 4-5am every morning. While I find being regularly woken up at this hour very challenging, what a great opportunity for my son to start his day with exercise and watch the beautiful sun rises! My daughter will not be told no: If she wants something, she does not stop until she gets it. Yes, this is frustrating for me when I need her to clean her room, but imagine this quality if she is knocked back by a casting director. Kate Winslet ended up starring in the Titanic movie because she wouldn’t take no for an answer!
Dr. Edward Hallowell, found Children with ADHD hear 20,000 more negative messages by the age of 12 than their neurotypical counterparts. They are not going to compartmentalise those negative messages about their symptoms of ADHD, against who they are. Imagine the toll of that on their self-esteem. We have an incredible opportunity as parents of children with ADHD to switch the perspective, and thus the narrative. We can recognise that what is typically seen as difficult can be a significant driving force to who and what our kids become.
I challenge you this week to set aside time to ponder who your children are. What are they good at? What are their passions? How can you reframe the qualities of ADHD you currently find challenging, to qualities that can take them to great heights for their future?
Do you feel like you tell your child with ADHD the same thing over and over but they never learn or remember? Are you facing the same battles day in and day out? Have you have tried everything you can think of to change their behaviour, but it seems, no matter how many times you plan, discuss or provide consequences their ‘behaviour’ never changes?
What is the Point of Performance?
In our house, we have a snack cupboard. It was originally part of my pantry, and then it moved into a cupboard next to the pantry, then it moved to the cupboard above the bench. Now, it is a cupboard up above the range hood, as high in the kitchen as I can make it. The contents of this snack cupboard are only for lunchboxes when the kids go to school. It’s out of bounds for the kids when they’re at home, because we always have other snacks available.
My 11-year-old son with ADHD is the reason that the contents of this cupboard has needed to move so many times. When he was younger and could reach the pantry, he would constantly help himself to the lunchbox snacks. No matter how many times we went over the rules and imposed consequences for taking snacks, he never learned. So, the snack cupboard was moved into another cupboard next to the pantry. But he found it… the same day. So, we moved the cupboard up higher, which worked for a couple of weeks, until he discovered where the cupboard was. When I wasn’t in the kitchen, he would climb onto the bench, open the cupboard and help himself. Later, when I’d go to pack the kids’ lunchboxes for school, we’d have no snacks left. After many weeks of frustration and imposed consequences (no snacks, chores to pay to replace the snacks, only fruit in lunch boxes for snacks) it didn’t change. Nothing worked. Until I found out about the Point of Performance.
Dr. Russell Barkley is a Clinical Professor of Psychiatry who first introduced me to the idea of the Point of Performance in his book – Executive Functions: What they are, How they work and Why they Evolved (2012). He states that the point of performance is the “critical place and time for performing a behaviour or task in the natural setting where the behaviour takes place like home or school.” In lay terms, this means it is the actual place, at the exact time, the child is doing something.
So, some examples of the point of performance for my kids are:
Brushing their teeth before bed – In the bathroom at 7:25pm
Eating dinner – at our dining table in the dining room at 6:30pm.
Homework – at the desk in the study at 4pm (before COVID-19!)
From the example of my son sneaking the snacks from the out-of-bounds cupboard, the point of performance is right now, in the kitchen, standing on the bench, multiple times a day.
So, now that we now about the point of performance, why does it matter?
Well, according to Dr. Russell Barkley, it is vital that for children with ADHD, any teaching, consequences and rewards – in fact any behavioural modification at all – needs to take place at the point of performance. It needs to happen instantly. That is, it needs to happen in the location, at the time the child is performing the action for it to be effective.
It is well documented that children with ADHD struggle with the passage of time. Rather than seeing time as past, present and future they live in the present with little hindsight or forethought. Edward Hallowell calls this “now” or “not now” brains. The now, is well… now. And the “not now” is everything else. The past, the future, even five minutes ago. If it isn’t happening now, it isn’t happening ever. This is why providing feedback and consequences or teaching at the point of performance is necessary for a child with ADHD. A child with ADHD really can’t process the questions “How many times do I have to tell you not to…?” You could tell your child a million times to do something, but if it isn’t at the point of performance – that is, in the moment where and when it’s happening – their brain isn’t going to identify that teaching and information as necessary for the “now”.
I’m pretty sure I can tell what you’re thinking, because I thought the exact same thing when I first read about this: “I can’t be everywhere at once!” I get it, I really do. I already constantly watch my kids as much as I can, and yet my son purposefully waited until I wasn’t around to sneak snacks from our out-of-bounds cupboard! While it would be ideal to be at the point of performance all the time, you don’t have to be for this to be effective.
According to Dr. Russell Barkley it is just as useful to externalise important information and motivation at the point of performance. What does this mean?
We need to put in view (externalise) what the child needs to know (important information) where they need to know it (the point of performance)
We also need to put in view or remind our child (externalise) why it’s important that they need to do something (motivation) where they need to know it (the point of performance).
What does this look like in real life?
Let’s go back to the example of my son sneaking into the lunchbox snacks cupboard. Because I knew I couldn’t possibly be in the kitchen every waking moment, I externalised the important information at the point of performance.
I put up a sign on the cupboard that looks like this. This is an external reminder (a sign) at the point of performance (the cupboard), reminding him not to take food out of the cupboard.
Another issue we always had was the kids leaving their clothes all over the floor in the bathroom despite having three laundry baskets right in front of them. So, I made a visual for the bathroom to assist them with planning and organisation of where to put the clothes.
It is at the point of performance (in the bathroom), where they typically remove their clothing. It is a physical reminder, so they don’t have to remember which basket to put their clothes in.
We also have visuals above our bins in the kitchen. We have three bins – one for landfill, one for recycling, and one for Redcycling (for soft plastics such a chip packets). It was always very difficult for our children to remember which bin was for which type of rubbish. So, we now have pictures above the bins with examples of each type of rubbish, so they can independently sort it – at the Point of Performance.
My children also have an external reminder of how to clean their room using simple steps. Please feel free to download it here!
This is another example of an external reminder (chart with pictures) at the point of performance (their bedrooms). It is there for when they need to clean their room without me having to stand and give orders!
It can also be used as reminders of social expectations.
For example, my daughter with ADHD struggles to share and be kind during play with her younger sister. She likes to be in control of play and if that control is threatened, she often acts out.
By having a visual reminder at the point of performance (in the play area in their bedroom), it can be a help her to be kind during play.
So, how does the point of performance actually help the child with ADHD?
Part of the reason that children with ADHD don’t appear to listen, learn from their mistakes, or even be able to do something one day and not the next, is because of two main issues: Impulsivity and working memory deficits.
Impulsivity is a deficit of inhibiting actions prior to thinking about the consequences. Children with ADHD struggle to stop and think before they act; this is impulsivity. I love what Dr. Edward Hallowell says, “They have a race car engine, with bicycle breaks”. You can think of impulsivity as a deficit in forethought: they have difficulty predicting future consequences from past actions. Therefore, it seems as though children with ADHD do not learn from their mistakes, they seem to just keep repeating them.
Working Memory deficits are extremely common in children with ADHD. Working memory is an executive function (mental process), that we can think of as the mind’s Post-it Note. It holds a little bit of important information (the memory) so that we can do something with it (the working part). The Post-it Note is only small, and is only designed to hold a small amount of information. This is known as its capacity. In children with ADHD, their capacity is smaller than their neurotypical counterparts. This is why many parents, carers and teachers report that the child with ADHD may appear to be listening but only follows one instruction at a time, or even has just stood and listened to the instructions but almost immediately forgot what was said.
You can see why the strategy of externalising important information and motivation at the point of performance is so powerful. It acts as the child’s Post-it Note to support working memory deficits and gives them a powerful visual reminder to help stop curb some of their impulsivity.
I hope that you’re able to get as much out of the point of performance strategy for the home as I have. However, there are two main things to remember as you give this a go:
Of course, this strategy isn’t 100% full proof. My son still sometimes completely ignores the external reminder and just takes snacks out of the cupboard because he wants to. This is a choice he makes, and we continue to reinforce the consequences for his poor choices.
Children with ADHD need things to be novel, exciting and interesting. If you find that an external reminder (such as a chart) isn’t working anymore, shake it up! The laundry basket reminder that I shared with you is actually the second chart I’ve used there. The first chart had pictures of clothes as examples and that worked really well for a while, but then it became part of the furniture and was ignored. So, I came up with the monster chart. We have some fun with it, because if I see clothes on the floor in the bathroom, I now say, “The monster wants to eat your clothes, guys!” and they laugh and go and sort their washing! And it doesn’t have to be a printed chart! It could be an ornament or a picture! Anything to provide them with an external reminder at their point of performance.
I’d really like to help you implement the point of performance into your lives. Please comment below what specific issues you might be having and I will make some external reminders for your point of performance, so we can get ADHD Done Differently.
Next blog: look out for how the point of performance can be used for helping children with ADHD during school activities and learning tasks!!
“Every kid these days ends up diagnosed with ADHD.”
“It’s just made up to cover up bad parenting.”
“Back in my day there was no ADHD. It was called, sit down, shut up and do your work or you will get a smack, not drugging them to make them listen.”
I’m sure everyone who has children with ADHD has heard advice like this. I am often saddened and angered by the comments and advice I receive or overhear.
There are a lot of people still who don’t believe in ADHD. People state it’s an excuse for lazy parenting, made up by “big pharm”to sell drugs to children so parents can have hypercompliant drugged children, and the list goes on. Some scholars even believe that ADHD is an epidemic, due to the lifestyle of children in this modern era: reduced outdoor play, increased demands on learning activities, the over use of screens, and so on.
Thankfully, science doesn’t care what people believe, and the scientific evidence of ADHD’s existence is irrefutable. All major medical associations and government health agencies in the developed world recognise ADHD as a real disorder. The International consensus statement on ADHD was published in 2002 by researchers, scientists, and doctors agreeing on this fact. And for the most part, the world has come a long way in its recognition of ADHD, but we still have an incredibly long way to go in advocating for people diagnosed with the disorder.
There are a significant number of people raising kids with ADHD, who find themselves in a daily battle with family, teachers, friends and strangers over all things ADHD. This adds an incredible amount of stress for people who already are living with higher stress levels, increased marital discord and divorce, as well as anxiety and depression than their counterparts without children with ADHD.
So, what can we do when we are in the position of receiving unsolicited and extremely unhelpful advice about ADHD or the choices we make for our children? A response I’ve always wanted to say is, “Sorry to disappoint you, but I can’t smack the ADHD out of my child any more than I can smack the stupid out of you”. Perhaps not the most helpful of responses, but I do feel like saying it at times.
My goal today isn’t to give you words to defend yourself and the decisions you make in regards to your child, as I don’t believe we ever should have to defend our choices. Instead, I want to give you some concrete steps to work through to be prepared for difficult situations that may arise for you.
I have put together a little workbook for you today with some steps to really make some changes if this is an area that you need support with. Get it below and work through the following steps.
STEP 1. Identify who is giving you unsolicited advice, making you feel bad, or as thoughyou need to defend yourself.
Think about who judges you. Who makes snide remarks or comments loudly next to you? Who doesn’t adhere to your rules you have set in the best interest of your children?
In the attached workbook, write these people down. It doesn’t have to be in any special order, just do a big brain blurt. Grab the workbook, a pen, some tissues (trust me), a cup of tea, and sit out in the garden while your kids chase the dog.
Think about all the people you see on a regular or semi-regular basis. They might give you “advice”, challenge your treatment plan or judge you. Write them all down.
It is natural to be emotional about this step (that’s why there are tissues!) You have poured your heart and soul into your children and to be criticised or judged is painful.
Feel free to take your time with this step as you may not be able to identify everyone straight away. Be mindful over the next few weeks and add to your list as you identify them.
STEP 2. Determine who’s in your children’s ADHD team
Now, I want you to write down who is in your child’s ADHD team. These people may have to be in the team. These people may be yourself, your partner or teachers.
Other people are invited into the team, such as Paediatricians or Psychologists for support. And then there are people, who are part of the team because they are part of family life, such as grandparents, aunts and uncles, family friends, babysitters or church friends.
Most people are in this team whether they have chosen this role or not. They are part of your child’s team whether they agree that ADHD exists or not and whether they agree with your parenting or not, but they have an active role in your child’s future. These people are critical in your child’s physical, educational, vocational and psychological success. What an important job.
Now look at both lists of people you have just written down from Steps 1 and 2. Are there any people on both lists? Highlight them.
Is it your child’s grandparents? Someone who looks after your children with ADHD while you work or so you and your partner can go out on a date? But they constantly tell you that you have made a terrible decision to medicate your child?
Is it your child’s teacher? The teacher who has worked with your child 6 hours a day most of the year, but consistently supports their suspensions for poor behaviour?
Is it your child’s other parent who loves them deeply, but just can’t get on board with the parenting style that the psychologist recommended?
I believe that the people you have outlined in the first two steps above, fit into two categories, when it comes to how to deal with unsolicited advice, judgements, arguments and non-ADHD believers.
Group 1 – People who we need to put our effort into as part of the child’s team
Group 2 – People who are not in the child’s team or are too toxic, and not worth the added stress of worrying about their opinions.
This may sound harsh, however, after years of listening and attempting to everyone’s opinions on ADHD and raising my children, I’ve realised that in order to be the best Mum to my children with ADHD, I have to prioritise my mental health. This is then where I can make the difficult decisions in the best interest of my family.
LET’S GET SORTED
So, how do we decide which group each person fits into? We ask ourselves if this person a necessary team member. It’s as simple as that.
Let’s start with how to deal with the second group.
Group 2 – People who are notin the child’s team or are too toxic, and not worth the added stress of worrying about their opinions.
For people who fit into the second group, think about why you are worrying about their opinions when they do not actually need to have input into your child and the decisions you make. The bottom line is this: It takes so much wasted time and effort attempting to change another person’s mind, particularly someone who is set in their ways. I, personally, would rather put that energy into my children and family. This doesn’t have to mean cutting these people out of your life. But it does mean it is not worth battling with them, because even if they are important to me as a friend or family member, they do not have to be an active member in my child’s ADHD team.
Ponder here, what is the current way you are handling the ADHD conflict with this person? Is it working? If they share their opinion, does it hurt you or make you angry? Do you end up fighting? Or do you bottle it up and then explode at your partner later that evening? Or do you end up being frustrated with your child with ADHD? Write this down.
I have found over the years, that when I allow myself to take on board opinions of people who are not in my child’s ADHD team, it adds a significant amount of stress to my life.
I encourage you to write down a kind, yet assertive statement you can say to this group of people, when they start making comments or judgements. Planning your response in advance allows you to simply recall a learned response, rather than reacting to the emotion of the moment. Write out some ideas in your workbook. Here are some ideas to get you started.
“Thank you for your advice, however I might have given you the wrong impression. I’m not looking for advice on this topic.”
“My husband/wife/partner and I have come up with our plan for handling this, but thank you for sharing your perspective with me.”
“I know it must be really hard for you to not have a say into the way we parent our children. Ultimately my wife/partner and I need to make these decisions, and I need you to be okay with not having a say in these decisions.”
Remember to ask yourself: Is it worth the battle? If you believe it is worth the battle, then these people belong in the first group. Let’s talk about them now.
Group 1 – People who we need to put our effort into as part of the child’s team
The first group are people we must put our effort into engaging, because they are a critical part of your child’s current and future team. But how are we able to change somebody’s viewpoint?
Christopher Dwyer, (a Psychologist from the National University of Ireland) states, it can be difficult to change someone’s mind, “unless they themselves are willing to reflect on their own opinions, be open-minded, seek the truth for themselves, withhold judgement before engaging all the evidence and have a desire to progress or change.” In other words, we can’t force an idea on anyone.
However, while we can’t force an idea on someone, we can present information using a procedure where we state our position, present core evidence, address the conflicting viewpoint as a myth or misinformation and explain why the conflicting viewpoint is a myth, while we reinforce our position.
The key here is knowledge. Learn everything you can about ADHD. Keep up to date with new research. So, there is no need to argue of fight for our point of view. It could look like this:
Grandma: “You know if you give your child Ritalin, they will end up a drug addict!”
You: “Grandma, I love that you care so much about your grandchild. Interestingly children who are medicated with methylphenidate (Ritalin) are at no higher risk of substance abuse compared to their non-medicated counterparts, and studies suggest stimulant use protects against later drug abuse in ADHD. I can understand how it may feel counterintuitive to give a stimulant drug to a child, but it is a myth that using Ritalin will lead to later drug use. People with ADHD who have substance abuse disorders, are less likely to have had been treated with Ritalin throughout their childhood and teenage years. I can print out some information if you would like to read it?
Keep in mind though, that you may not change that person’s opinion about ADHD, however, they may realise you are unwavering in your quest to present evidence-based information, and it is not worth the fight or judgement. Knowledge is vital. There are so many resources out there that you can access to learn all you can about ADHD, so that you can advocate for your child in all situations. Head over to my recommended resources page for books, websites and podcasts that can help you continually increase and update your knowledge.
If you find that education and advocacy alone are not working, I encourage you to come up with a statement for people in Team ADHD. While this is going to be coming from a position of wanting to put forward scientific evidence, I believe this statement can include emotive language. These people are important to you and need to know how their comments and judgements are affecting you and your family.
Write something like this, or something you’d like to say, down in the workbook.
“Dad, I love you and are so thankful for everything you do to help my family. I am finding that you are making a lot of comments about our parenting and the choices we are making for our child with ADHD. It is really hurting me. We are making these decisions based on advice from professionals and research. I know that you may not agree with the choices we make, and that’s ok, but rather than making comments in front of my child with ADHD, could we set aside some time to discuss some of the concerns you have?”
WHY DOES THIS MATTER?
Why is this process important? Because our children are worth it. Because ensuring your children are treated for ADHD and supported by people in their team is a matter of life or death. Think I am overexaggerating?
Research studies indicate that 64% of children with ADHD will have a co-morbid disorder, compared to only 11% of neurotypical children. A comorbid disorder is when a person has two or more disorders or illnesses occurring together, which have an interaction and impact on each other.
Current Directions in ADHD and Its Treatment (2012) author, Jill Norvilitis, states that in children with ADHD, learning disorders are over two times more likely, Conduct Disorder and depression are almost fourteen times more likely. Anxiety is 9 times more likely, speech difficulties are four times more likely, and Autism Spectrum Disorder is ten times more likely than for their neurotypical peers.
In 2018, Dr. Russell Barkley, found that children with ADHD had a nine yearreduction in life expectancy when compared with children without ADHD and in the more severe cases, ADHD reduced life expectancy by twenty-five years when compared to their neurotypical counterparts. This is an extremely debilitating disorder.
Now, these are extremely hard statistics to read as a parent or person who loves and knows a child with ADHD, but there is a silver lining here. These findings were from people with untreated or under-treated ADHD. Research has found that with accurate diagnosis and the continued use of evidence-based treatment, people with ADHD may add years back to their lives.
I did not tell you that to scare you, but to reinforce, that your child needs you to advocate for them. I want to be able to say to my adult children with ADHD that I did my absolute best to raise them, with the information I had at the time. I will be able to stand there, far, far away from parental perfection, but knowing, I did my absolute best for them.
Will you join me, and let’s get ADHD Done Differently?
Our brain is like a double story house. It has both an upstairs and a downstairs.
Disclosure: Please note this blog post may contain affiliate links. If you click on the link andmake a purchase, I will receive a small commission, at no additional cost to you.
Downstairs is the primitive part of our brain, where all our automatic and basic functions are located (e.g. breathing, swallowing). It is where our limbic system triggers primary emotions and impulses and where the flight/fight/freeze response originates. It is basically in charge of keeping us alive.
Upstairs is where the higher-level mental processes happen. This is where our executive functions are – in the penthouse! This part of the brain helps us think before we act, regulate our emotions, and show empathy. This is the logical brain.
The downstairs brain is developed, with early reflexes, impulses and primary emotions when we are very young. The upstairs brain, however, continues to develop until we are approximately twenty-five years old… that is, in a neurotypical brain. Research suggests that an ADHD brain’s development is approximately 5-6 years behind at this age, and therefore a person with ADHD may not have the executive functions and upstairs brain fully developed until their early 30s.
When our downstairs mind activates (because of fear or anger, for example), we basically demolish the staircase between the two levels and so can’t access the upstairs. In other words, we lose our ability to effectively use our mental processes and be logical.
So, when our child with ADHD has an intense emotional reaction to something, they are not capable of accessing their logical thought and forethought; their upstairs brain isn’t working. Their downstairs brain is only thinking of either:
fighting, which can look like hitting, kicking, spitting or screaming.
fleeing, which can look like running away, slamming doors, storming off or
freezing, which can look like shutting down, hiding or even shaking or tensing up.
So, when we attempt to punish a child or reason with a child while they are in meltdown mode, it is like beating our head against a brick wall. It is only going to make things worse!
Now, of course, our brain isn’t really a house, but it is a fantastic analogy to explain what happens in the brain during emotionally intense times. This is not my analogy; it is Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Tina Bryson’s analogy from their book: The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. I highly recommend this book if you want to read more about the upstairs/downstairs brain, as well as a lot of other fantastic insights.
But, what does this have to do with emotional dysregulation in children with ADHD?
Allow me to walk you through an example that happened several years ago. My son had finished his daily screen allowance on the PS4, although he was continuing to play his game. I told him to turn the game off and come to join the family at the dinner table. This is where his dysregulation began. It started with annoyance and frustration, although quickly escalated to yelling and arguing. He very loudly told me he didn’t want his dinner and he wanted to keep playing his game. I made the choice (not a great choice, I’ll admit!) to turn the PS4 off. This is when he began throwing things, stomping around the house like an elephant, screaming, and finally stormed out of the house, slammed the door behind him, and declared he was going to run away forever.
My son’s downstairs brain – that is, his primary emotions and the fight and flight responses – had been activated. The staircase to his upstairs brain was no longer accessible and, in that moment, he was unable to think logically about the consequences of his behaviour. He was having extreme difficulty regulating his emotions and had very limited strategies to self-soothe and regulate himself. He was out of control. Telling a child at this point to calm down or start up with imposing consequences for their emotional response is futile. We are asking our child, who currently has no access to their logical brain; to use their logical brain to stop an emotional response. We will not teach them anything here by disciplining them for their emotional reactions.
When we are out of control, we can’t be logical, use forethought or problem solve. We know from my previous blog post that at this stage, children with ADHD struggle to inhibit their emotions, which leads to longer and more intense displays of emotion. At this stage, our job is to maintain our calm, identify the underlying emotion our child is feeling and then label those feelings, without judgement. The aim of process is to support our children back down into their settled emotional range, where they can access their upstairs brain again. This may take a while at the beginning, but the more frequently we do this, the easier it is for the child to de-escalate because they know that you are going to listen to them. So, ride out the storm.
The NEXT step
Once you have ridden out the storm, and your child is back into a calm and settled emotional range, you can now begin to coach them. This is where we get to teach emotional regulation, not just expect them to use skills that they do not yet have.
This is NOT a magic wand. It takes time, but it is worth the effort.
One of the first strategies our psychologist taught us for parenting our son with ADHD was this coaching method. It is a simple five question process that brought about significant change in our family. I really encourage you, if you have a psychologist, to talk through this method and see if it will work for you too.
When you start using these strategies to coach your child, you may feel like they are extremely repetitive – especially if your child is having meltdowns several times per day! However, repetition is essential for children to learn. The other great thing with repetition is that your children will learn these questions so well that it becomes their schema for self-reflection. Children with ADHD have a significantly more difficult time self-reflecting on their behaviour.
It’s also important to note that these need to be done as soon as possible after the child has returned to their calm state. Children with ADHD live in the right now, and the longer the time between the meltdown and you teaching them emotional regulation strategies, the less powerful the teaching moment is.
So, with a non-judgemental and empathic tone, work through the following questions with your child:
Just listen here. Encourage your child to use a calm voice and explain how they saw things. Don’t say anything here – remember the aim is to be non-judgement. If they say “I don’t know!” (and they probably will at the beginning) you can outline the events, but don’t make judgements here.
Simply state the facts in a calm manner: “I asked you to turn off the TV and you yelled at me, then threw the remote and left the room”.
2. “How were you feeling when that was happening?”
Help them identify their feelings here. For a while, my kids always just said “angry” or “sad”. Here we always encouraged a bit of exploration, “Oh, you were angry and frustrated, because you were enjoying the game and I told you to stop.” Now, my kids will come out with lots of different emotions and reasons behind those emotions. What I have also found is that they can now identify it at the time of the emotional outburst. “I am SOOOOOO ANGRY AT YOU!!!!”
If your children are young, or have language or learning difficulties, then using a visual here can help to help them identify their emotions. You can download one as part of this week’s FREE download, at the bottom of the blog.
3. How do you think the other person felt when that was happening?
This is a really important step because it teaches children empathy, and encourages them to think about how their actions impact other people. When we started asking our children this question, I was initially shocked by their answers. My children with ADHD honestly struggled to identify the impact they had on others, and often would continue to blame the other person involved in the altercation. For example, if I asked my son this question at the beginning he would have said something along the lines of “You didn’t care about me” or “You just wanted to spoil my fun”, or even “It was your fault that I did it”.
So, I began turning it back and asking them to be in the shoes of the other person. For example: “When you yelled at me and threw the remote, how do you think I felt?” or “How would you feel if I yelled at you and threw the remote?” We often had discussions about how their reactions made me, and other people in our family, feel scared or unsafe. It was interesting that when my children realised this, it was often a turning point in getting them to realise they needed to apologise.
4. How can you fix the situation?
This question isn’t as easy as just wanting our child to apologise, although that is a part of the response we hope to get when we ask this question. However, it is important for the child to understand why they need to apologise and work through the process of coming to that decision themselves. Don’t force the child to say sorry. Of course, at the beginning you may need to model this for them and encourage them to do so.
This is also where the natural consequences of their behaviour are also discussed. Natural consequences are outcomes that are not imposed but happen naturally as a result of behaviour. For example, if a child takes a lunchbox snack from the pantry after being told not to, they will not get a snack in their lunchbox the next day. It is important for our children with ADHD to see and understand connections between their behaviour and what happens to them and in their direct environment, because of those choices.
I have found that consequences are so much more powerful and effective when they are discussed and implemented, not just imposed. Discuss and brainstorm these as a team. Some examples of this may be:
If they threw the remote, they pick it up and put it back on the TV.
If they punched or kicked a hole in the wall, they help fix it, and do chores to pay for the damage caused.
If they say something nasty to their sister, they could write a letter of apology, or make them something special.
The biggest rule with consequences is to make them natural and make them related to the incident. Remember that just inflicting consequences won’t automatically change the child’s behaviour next time. We must also give them strategies to use.
At this point, you might be thinking, “Wait a minute! This isn’t punishing my child for what they did! I would make them lose screens for a month!” I’ll be honest, that’s what I was thinking as I began this process too! However, I want you to really think about this and ask yourself whether those type of consequences actually work?
I know for my children they didn’t. I would take screens off them for a week after an incident like the one I described, and then give them back in one week, and we would go through the exact same incident a week later. Why? Because I never actually gave them strategies to deal with the situation. I just expected that they would somehow learn by me taking away privileges that they should act differently. But they didn’t.
This leads us to the final question:
5. Next time this happens, what could we do differently?
This is also a very important step. This is all about brainstorming together what strategies they might be able to implement next time the situation happens. This is also the time for you to collaboratively problem solve to stop this same escalation happening next time.
(Collaborative problem solving, or now known as Collaborative and Proactive Solutions [CPS], is really worth looking into. I am not going to go into it in this post, but I will at some time in the future. I highly recommend the book The Explosive Child (Dr. Ross Greene) which goes into detail about collaborative problem solving, if you are interested in the meantime).
I have found the more input your child with ADHD has in this step, the more likely they are to take ownership and actually implement the strategies. This process takes time, but there is usually a solution that can stop future meltdown from happening. My son came up with the following solutions:
“Next time you could give me a 5-minute warning. Or you I could have my screen time earlier so I don’t have to turn the TV off right before dinner, and instead we can turn the TV off for a fun activity.”
Amazing! Our kids really can problem solve, when they are in control and supported to do so.
I’ve included a visual today to remind you of all the steps you can go through to keep your cool, emotion coach and guide your children to great behaviour. Keep it on your fridge or somewhere to remind you of the steps. It helps!
The emotion visual is also included in this download.
I’ll never forget the day I first usedemotion coachingwith my son who has ADHD. He looked at me, burst into tears and came straight over for a cuddle. I was in disbelief. This was in stark contrast to the screaming, spitting, destructive child who had been present a few seconds before.
Emotion coaching changed our family. Now, don’t get your hopes up that this is a quick fix to a child who is chronically emotionally dysregulated. This is not a magic wand. However, it is worth the effort! The frequency, intensity and duration of emotional dysregulation has significantly reduced at our place since starting this. I wanted to share our journey so you can give it a go for yourself and live in a less stressful environment – most of the time.
My understanding of emotion coaching comes from a range of influences. We did not do textbook emotion coaching and I am not a psychologist. Our approach was much more eclectic, based on our psychologist’s recommendations and what we learned from books.
Dr. John Gottman, PhD., has spent his career exploring the best methods for raising emotionally intelligent children. He determined that finding the emotional source of poor behaviour, not just managing a child’s poor behaviour was the key to raising emotionally intelligent children.
In his research, he identified 4 types of parents: dismissive, disapproving, Laissez-Faire & Emotion Coaching.
Dismissive parents will:
trivialise a child’s feelings
distracts a child from emotions
shut down negative emotions
Disapproving parents will:
judge and criticise emotions
try to control emotions
reprimand/discipline/punish the child for expressing emotions
Children with dismissive or disapproving parents will:
think their feelings are invalid
not trust their own emotional responses
have difficulty regulating their own emotions
Laissez-Faire parents will:
freely accept all emotional expression from their child
won’t set limits around emotional reactions
offer no guidance through emotional reactions
Children with Laissez-Faire parents often:
don’t regulate their own emotions
have difficulty getting along with others
Emotion coaching parents will:
value negative emotions as an opportunity for intimacy
see them as an opportunity to teach their children
not judge or make fun of emotions
guide their child through emotions
Children with emotion coaching parents:
learn to trust their own feelings
learn to regulate their own emotions
learn to solve problems
often have high self-esteem and get along well with others
So, how can we move towards that type of parenting style? Here were the stages in our family’s journey.
At the start of our journey, I was a dismissive and disapproving parent.
I hated when my children expressed negative emotions. It would start up my flight/fight/freeze response so, I would start using consequences straight away, to maintain the feeling of control.
It still takes a lot of effort for me to try not to control my children’s emotional responses by imposing highly strict control freak consequences. This never worked anyway, and I just ended up escalating their dysregulation.
Here is a real-life example, that would happen very regularly, with my son.
Son: becoming angry and dysregulated “That’s not fair!”
Me: “I beg your pardon. If you don’t stop being so rude, you will lose screens for a week!”
Son: “WHAT – NO WAY! THAT’S STUPID!!”
Me: “Ok done! No screens for a week.”
Son: EXPLODES – swears, throws the remote, yells at me. “I HATE YOU!”
I would stand there thinking seething in anger. I was being a firm, non-permissive mother. I was not giving in, and I never did. This is what all our previous psychologists told us to do – be firm and stick with consequences. But the behaviour never improved, it was in steady decline – for years. This is what led me to the belief that my kids didn’t learn from consequences.
What I didn’t understand was that I was not only dismissing his feelings, but punishing him for sharing them with me. Sure, he may not have done it in the way I would have liked, but he wasn’t misbehaving.
I knew my style of parenting wasn’t working, so after lots of investigation, we settled on emotion coaching as our new strategy. We were skeptical at first. It did not make sense to me how allowing our children to have big emotions, would teach them to regulate their emotions. But I am so thankful now, that we did it anyway!
Step 2: Identify emotions – BOTH your own and your children’s emotions.
The first step in Gottman’s emotion coaching is to identify your child’s emotions. This is essential, but I found, it is equally important to identify our own.
Part a) Ask yourself what am I feeling when my child is dysregulated? Is my response to my feeling helping this situation or making it worse?
This step will take self-reflection and honesty. Are you fearful? Why? Are you worried about what other people will think of you or your child? Are you angry? Are you frustrated? What is underlying your response to your child’s emotional dysregulation?
As hard as it is to admit, I had three underlying beliefs that I needed to challenge to move forward.
I didn’t believe that my children’s feelings were valid. After all, I provided all their needs and wants and they had an easy life.
I felt that I was a terrible mother. A good mother wouldn’t have emotionally volatile, non-compliant kids.
I was embarrassed and cared what people thought of me as a mother.
Where am I now?
During my years on the emotion coaching journey, I have learned:
my children don’t have, and shouldn’t have to have, the same feelings to me.
what may not seem like a big deal to me is a big to them, and I need to respect that.
if our kids don’t get understanding with the little things, how can we expect them to share the big things.
my children’s emotions have nothing to do with my parenting.
their education and strategies to learn emotional regulation is up to me.
I am doing the best I can do.
I am not responsible for what other people think of me or my parenting.
I have been judged countless times in my almost 11- year mothering journey. For many years, that led to isolation, so I could avoid people seeing me as a bad mum. As any parent with a child with ADHD will know, you really have very little control over what they do in public.
But here is the bottom line. I will be judged no matter what! For having a child with ADHD, medicating my child with ADHD, not medicating my child with ADHD, letting my children watch TV, not letting my children watch TV, giving in to a child crying for chocolate in the supermarket, not giving in to a child crying for chocolate, being too permissive, or being too strict. No matter what you do, you will be judged and criticized, so commit to the type of parent you want to be, and be that!
I remember a time where I was sitting on the floor in Woolworths with a huge trolley full of groceries, riding out an extremely loud emotionally dysregulated child moment, after she was told no to getting a chocolate. A woman came up to me and said I was a horrible mother, and that I should give my daughter a smack, to stop her making a scene in a shopping centre.
I informed her that I am ok with my child making a scene in the shopping centre. The person huffed off, muttering under her breath about what a terrible mother I was. But you know what. I have never seen that person again. Ever. I had decided I was an emotion coaching parent and I stuck by that. About 10 minutes later, my child was happily helping me pack our trolley and, may I add, with no chocolate.
But what would have happened if I had imposed strict consequences, or spoken angrily at my child? I know what would have happened because I had done it before. I would have lost control of my emotions, my child would have continued and even escalated their emotional dysregulation, and I would have been horribly embarrassed and left the store feeling like a failure. But instead, I was in control of my own emotions, which allowed me to model, assist and train my child to regulate their own emotions, and we ended up having a good day. The best way to deal with a child in emotional dysregulation is to be regulated.
I know it seems straight forward in theory, however anyone who has been present with a child with ADHD having an emotional meltdown will know: this is not easy to do in the moment. Nothing sets off my emotional dysregulation like seeing my child being angry and hitting, punching, kicking, spitting and swearing or running away.
I encourage you to really take time with this step. I have added a printable for free download today to help you work out what is underlying your feelings about your child’s emotions. I find writing it down and looking for patterns really helped me learn about my responses and beliefs.
Part b) Our child’s feelings are just as valid as ours. Our children are trying to communicate their feelings, wants and thoughts to us. In order to truly teach our children emotional regulation, we need to know which underlying emotion to work through.
Through my investigation in this area, I found an invaluable tool called, the emotion wheel. This was originally developed by Dr. Gloria Wilcox. I use it to really think about what underlying emotions a child (or yourself) might be.
What we might see as anger (Primary emotion), may actually be rooted in frustration, jealousy, anxiety, fear, embarrassment or even remorse (secondary emotion).
Just yesterday, my daughter had a massive meltdown over the fact that she wasn’t allowed to play a game on the PS4. Why? Because she had been given a consequence several days ago for damaging a screen, and so lost screens privileges for a week. Her siblings were allowed to play the game on the PS4, and so she was sad and unable to regulate her sadness. We sat together for a while having a cuddle, while she told me that I was a horrible mum for taking away her screens.
Now, I had a choice here: I could either dismiss her feelings and shut them down by saying something like, “Excuse me!!! You are the one who damaged the tv. This is what you deserve.” And, although that actually might have been true, I sat there with her, thinking through the possible underlying emotions behind her dysregulation. She was jealous that her siblings were allowed to have their screen time, but she wasn’t.
What’s next though?
Don’t impose consequences during emotional dysregulation. Ride out the storm, give your full attention to the child. They need your help and are struggling to inhibit their emotional response.
I remember my daughter was having a hard day, with lots of sibling fights. She said to her dad, “I hate my sister”. My husband answered her straight away with “No you don’t!” She yelled back “I DO! I HATE HER!” I jumped in here and said, “Oh you’re feeling like you hate her?” She burst into tears and said yes. I responded with, “I see”.
Now of course, we don’t want her to hate her sister, but if that’s how she is feeling at the time, then I let her feel that emotion. Then, we can work through it and problem solve it once she is emotionally regulated.
Step 3. Help the child label their emotions, while listening with empathy and not shutting down their feelings.
Once you know what your child is feeling, tell them! “Oh, you are frustrated that I said no” or “You’re disappointed that I said no to chocolate!” We are not dismissing their feelings or telling them to stop having emotions. We don’t distract them, we don’t problem solve. We allow them to feel, and give them words for their feelings.
When not to use emotion coaching
When a child is endangering themselves or someone around them, you are not going to simply label their emotions. If they scream at you and look like they will run across a road, grab them! Emotion coach later. I love what Dr. Sam Goldstein, neuropsychologist, says “ACT! DON’T YAK”.
There are also times where we can still emotion coach, but not stay around. Saying something like, “You’re angry at me, but you can’t throw things at me. Let me know when you want me back”.
Children really do learn from this. Maybe not the first time, but with consistency they do. I will leave you with a funny story.
My son, around the age of 5, used to scream and yell a lot when he was dysregulated. Our response was always. “I can see you’re angry at me. When you have stopped screaming at me we can talk”. After many months of modelling this, I had a bad day. I came out yelling about something he had done. He held his hand up to say stop and said, “I can see you are angry at me, Mum. But I will not talk to you while you are yelling at me.” I burst out laughing. It had really worked!
Feel free to download the printable to help you get started on your emotion coaching journey. Leave a comment below if this has helped you and share with anyone who you think could use this!
Next week I want to share with you the next step in the process. It is an incredibly powerful step that helps children work through their emotions, build empathy, learn from past experiences and then problem solve for future dysregulation.
In my opinion, the most challenging aspect of living with and parenting a child with ADHD, isn’t the frustrating inattention and distractibility, the exhaustion of constant hyperactivity, or even the potentially dangerous impulsivity.
Disclosure: This blog contains affiliate links of which we receive a small commission from the sale of certain items, but the price remains the same for you.
Sure, these things are extremely difficult. However, for me, the hardest part of raising children with ADHD is having to deal with emotional dysregulation. And according to Dr. Russell Barkley (Ph.D.)1, I am not alone. He reports that emotional dysregulation is the primary reason that parents end up in the paediatrician’s office getting a diagnosis of ADHD for their child. This was true for both my children’s diagnoses.
We’d always known our son had ADHD. Many friends mentioned his activity levels and defiant behaviours, our GP confirmed it when he was 2, and a clinical psychologist further confirmed it when he was 3. At that stage, though, we could handle his inattention, hyperactivity and even risky impulsiveness. It wasn’t until he was 5, when we could no longer cope with the constant, violent outbursts, aggression and meltdowns that were taking over our life, we decided to take the step to a formal diagnosis. By this time, I felt like a complete and utter failure. I honestly believed that I must have been doing something wrong – parenting wrong. I had obviously broken this incredible miracle baby that I had been blessed with.
We often had holes in our walls, broken doors, and broken mirrors that had to be patched and replaced. We had heard horrible words come out of his mouth when we asked him to do something seemingly small. He could go from a happy, joyful child to a screaming maniac in two seconds flat, and then back again. The level of stress in our home was unbearable. No matter how much punishment we dished out, this was not getting better. In fact, it was getting consistently worse.
My daughter was at a whole other level: My husband and I were seriously concerned about her mental health prior to her getting diagnosed. She was extremely volatile, angry, irritable and moody. Her meltdowns were like she was demon possessed. She would scratch, bite, yell, scream and completely zone out. She seemed to cause conflict wherever she went. I’d had significant post-natal depression with her, so I lived with complete and utter shame and guilt that her mental health was broken because of me. She presented differently to my son, so, it took me longer to identify that she was having difficulty with emotional regulation. She wasn’t struggling with a mental illness, she was struggling with her ability to regulate her emotions.
What is Emotional dysregulationand how do we regulate it?
In extremely basic terms, emotional regulation is a human’s ability to control their emotional reactions. The current diagnostic criteria of ADHD (DSM-V), does not include any mention of emotional dysregulation, despite research indicating that all people with ADHD have difficulties with emotional regulation in differing severity. Research indicates that specific subgroups of people with ADHD (namely ADHD – Combined presentation, ADHD – Hyperactive/Impulsive presentation, and females with ADHD), have more severe deficits in emotional dysregulation2.
Humans have an amazing ability to use self-calming techniques to control their own emotions. This ability improves with age and moves from needing someone else to be responsible for soothing you (e.g. a baby needing to be cuddled and rocked when they are upset) to more self-calming or internal techniques6. Young children might move away from something that is evoking an emotion. For example, they might do a nudie run down the hallway to escape the ‘horror’ of a bath, cover their eyes so they don’t see something scary, or suck their thumb when they are feeling anxious. They still rely on their parents or carers to help control their emotions, but to a lesser extent. They have worked out some strategies for themselves.
In later childhood onwards, we can replace a negative emotion (e.g. anger/fear) with a more positive secondary emotion (e.g. happiness, joy, calm). This is us inhibiting our emotional responses to return to a liveable state, ensure our emotions are socially acceptable, and to stop escalating negative emotions. For example, if you have a fear of needles and you are waiting for a blood test, your natural primary emotion might be fear or anxiety. We can focus on the fear and anxiety, escalating to a point where we might cry, run away, or, in my case faint and vomit. So instead, we might think about something else: a special place, a loved one, a special event. It takes your mind off your primary emotion, and replaces it with a more liveable secondary emotion.
Emotional regulation in children with ADHD
A child with ADHD does not have anything wrongwith their emotions. Research tells us that children with ADHD are unable to inhibit or stop their emotional responses.5 So, while they have the same emotions at the same intensity as their neurotypical peers, they are not able to inhibit them as well. This might look like impatience, quickness to anger, aggression, temper outbursts, violent reactions with negative emotions, as well as excessive excitement or extreme happiness with positive emotions.
Children with ADHD find it difficult to shift their attention away from the primary emotion they are feeling in the moment. They continue to ruminate and hyper attend to their emotion and do not inhibit their emotional response. This comes back to poor executive function abilities such as poor working memory, reduced ability to use visual imagery and difficulty manipulating and organising their thoughts. These also include problem solving, difficulty coming up with alternative thoughts or planning appropriate and more socially acceptable responses5 . When we understand this, it makes it easier to see why children with ADHD do seem more emotional than neurotypical peers. This is why we see long meltdowns, and sometimes violent, aggressive and highly emotional and volatile behaviours in children with ADHD. They often cannot inhibit these responses without support from someone else.
Children with ADHD have an approximate 30% delay in their executive functioning skills compared to their neurotypical peers5. This is the same in terms of emotional regulation. Children with ADHD are going to appear less mature in their ability to inhibit their emotions than other children of their age.
This means that a 5-year-old child with ADHD will have the inhibition ability of approximately a 3-year-old neurotypical child. What happens when a 3-year-old child takes a toy from another 3-year-old? Chances are the toy-taker will be met with tears, yelling, and maybe even a good punch or bite. This neurotypical 3-year-old child finds it extremely difficult to inhibit their anger or sadness, and this is typical. More than likely they will still need support from their parent to regulate their emotions and settle down.
But what happens when a child with ADHD is 5 years old and a child takes their toy to school? They do not have a typical capacity to inhibit their emotions, so the parent of the ADHD child gets a phone call from the school, informing them that they have punched a child, broken a window, sworn at the teacher or a combination of all three. This child wasn’t choosing to be naughty or difficult, they were unable to inhibit their emotion long enough to problem solve and go and get the teacher, or ask the child for their toy back or replace their anger and sadness with a different emotion. And of course, we punish the child for their reaction without understanding why they have acted this way.
I am not saying there shouldn’t be consequences for breaking windows and punching children – I believe there should be! But, now we can understand why they do it, and we are positioned to work with our children to assist them in learning emotional regulation and giving appropriate consequences.
What can be done?
There are many different ways and methods of teaching your child emotional regulation. One of my favourites is emotion coaching6! This method for training emotional regulation, has worked wonders in my family. When we introduced emotion coaching into our parenting toolbox, we saw a massive shift in our family stress levels and our children with ADHD’s emotional regulation abilities.
In my next blog we will discuss this method and I’ll share with you how it helped my family! If you are interested in emotion coaching, I can’t recommend this book highly enough – Raising an emotionally Healthy Child. It’s a game changer.
My final thought and challenge for you this week – Emotional dysregulation is extremely hard to live with. Nothing increases my emotional dysregulation, like an emotionally dysregulated child. I struggle with my own ability to regulate emotions constantly! Particularly after a long day or week, or after another meltdown from my children or argument over cleaning up after themselves! With some children with ADHD, it is almost a full-time job to assist them in regulating emotions. That takes a toll on even the most patient, loving and kind parent.
However, I challenge you to think of a time where your emotional dysregulation, supported and modelled appropriate emotional control to your child. Yelling at our children not to yell or getting angry at them for being angry, while telling them not to feel angry! Not being able to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off after disappointment, isn’t going to help our children to learn to regulate their own emotions. Trust me! I tried this for years.
We are all human. It is natural to be out of control at times. However, if this is something you feel you are struggling with consistently, please seek professional help. I have been to psychology many times in my life, to work through situations that have had a significant effect on me being able to regulate my own emotions. There is no shame in seeking help. Actually it is one of the bravest things you will do.
If we are unable to regulate our emotions, how can we effectively teach our children? Learn to regulate yourself and your family will thank you for it. I promise.
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