When Mary Ellen Mulligan gets a call from the school these days, she’s seldom surprised. Since Sean began high school, she’s gotten to know the vice principal well. Though her son has been classified "learning disabled" since first grade, school staffers still have trouble recognizing that his loud, impulsive, hyper-emotional responses stem from his ADHD.
Normally this mother promises to speak to Sean. She also asks them what they’re going to do to help her son. But, when Sean’s in-class support teacher called and asked in a huff, "Why is Sean so rude?" Mary Ellen couldn’t contain herself. "I wish he were rude," she replied. "That would mean he actually had some control."
Parents of kids with ADHD know that social problem-solving skills and disinhibited behavior go along with the disorder. These kids generally act first and think later, if at all. While our kids may know how to act in a civilized, courteous, couth manner, they’re not always able to do what they know. That’s a classic executive function and impulse-control problem.
"Rude" behavior can also stem from misinterpretation of social cues and interactions. Inattention causes people with ADHD to miss parts of social interactions. Furthermore, as author Daniel Goleman notes, "Emotions are instant plans for handling life." As kids mature, they refine their instant plans with words like "Excuse me," or "Would it be okay if…?" Kids with ADHD also develop refinement, but they haphazardly use their social graces, which escape them especially in frustrating situations. When they feel threatened, kids with ADHD tend to react poorly. Social judgment eludes them. Hearing their names coupled with bad comments so frequently may lead some to develop an "I’ll get you before you get me" response pattern.
As 15- year-old Hallie Banks told me, "I don’t really get along with kids." The reason may have to do with her emotional memory. In the past, she’s been taunted by her peers. Now, the minute Hallie feels threatened, she lashes out. That’s a protective method, misguided for sure, but nonetheless an attempt at self-preservation — "rude" to some, but in reality, a neural short circuit.
Of course, teens with ADHD can be helped. Teachers, other adults and even peers can coach them to use appropriate social behavior and responses. But in order for these kids to follow through, they need to feel safe and supported.
Does your ADHD child have behavioral issues? Visit the Parents of ADHD Children support group on ADDConnect to connect with other parents.