Many parents of children with ADHD fail to understand one fundamental truth: behavioral problems are a symptom of the condition, not a sign that their child is naughty or is simply choosing to “misbehave.”
Adapting a perspective shift from “bad behaviors” to “behavioral symptoms” is probably one of the most challenging requirements of ADHD parenting, but it cannot be avoided. For one, it helps open the doors to a variety of support options for our kids. More importantly, it diminishes the shame so often experienced by those with the disorder. Take it from me — as a therapist who specializes in attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) and a parent to two daughters with the condition — changing my views on their behavior saved my relationship with my children.
ADHD Behavior, Explained
ADHD is a neurobiological disorder with behavioral symptoms, meaning that the condition’s challenges manifest partly through an individual’s actions.
Johnny’s tantrum in the store is sparked when he can’t have his desired LEGO set, but his reaction is really a problem with emotional regulation. When Sarah doesn’t do the dishes after being asked many, many times, it’s because of her working memory issues, not defiance. When Jacob forgets to turn in his homework again, he isn’t being lazy; he simply struggles with organization.
The challenging behaviors that often come with ADHD are caused by gaps in executive function skills. Executive functions are the brain’s board of directors, or the management system of the brain. They help us with:
- Getting started on a task (Initiation)
- Impulsivity (Inhibition)
- Remembering information/tasks/directions (Working Memory)
- Emotional regulation
- Time management
- Planning and organization
- Making transitions
In ADHD brains, some of these directors are “sleeping on the job.” Not everyone with ADHD will have the same executive function deficits, so it’s important for parents to learn about their child’s unique needs. This will help tremendously in differentiating between ADHD and true misbehavior.
ADHD Behavior, Punishment, and Shame
Every disorder carries symptoms, and we wouldn’t punish or shame someone for struggling with their symptoms or for finding interventions to mitigate them. We don’t punish a child with a vision impairment when they can’t see without their glasses. We don’t shame a child with asthma when they need to use their inhaler, and we don’t look down on a child with a broken leg when they have to use crutches to walk. We know that the glasses, the inhaler, and the crutches are tools that help people manage their specific issues.
The same idea works for ADHD, yet many of us forget that behavioral challenges are part of the condition. Children with ADHD are not misbehaving – they’re manifesting symptoms. But we forget this and resort to judgement and to unhelpful “solutions.” How helpful, for example, is it to a child with working memory issues to lose their video games or go to bed early as punishment for forgetting something? It’s as helpful as hoping that a child with a vision impairment will see better after we take away their iPad.
Many parents rely on these kinds of random, ineffective tactics to try to create behavioral changes. Instead, they only cause our children to feel ashamed – like they’re the bad kid who can’t do anything right.
ADHD Behavior: From Shame to Support
Our goal, as parents of kids with ADHD, is to help them accept their diagnosis and symptoms without shame. We need to instill the idea – within ourselves and our child – that tools and strategies will always be needed to manage their ADHD symptoms. We teach this by:
- helping them identify their own behavioral symptoms (executive function deficits) and
- brainstorming effective approaches when those symptoms show up
- The Instant Replay
When a child who struggles with impulsivity yells, “You’re the worst mom in the world!” parents should try an “instant replay” or a “do-over” instead of grounding them or taking away their phone. Instant replays can be opportunities for the child to recognize their comment, pause, and think before reacting. Parents can lead in this exercise with questions like, “I don’t think you meant to say that. Want to try a more respectful way of telling me you’re upset?”
- The Visual Checklist
When a child with working memory deficits forgets their finished homework at home again, a visual checklist can help, along with a routine to go through it before school. This will be a loving way for parents to acknowledge the working memory symptom and model the importance of creating strategies that help them remember – a much more effective tactic than taking away video games.
Differentiating behavioral symptoms from bad behavior will allow your child to accept their diagnosis without shame. They will become more willing problem-solving partners, and the parent-child relationship will be focused more on support than punishment. If we only offer our children meaningless consequences to their neurological deficits, we lose the opportunity to truly assist them in successfully managing this life-long disorder.
ADHD Behavior: Next Steps:
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Updated on September 15, 2020