Crime & Punishment — ADHD Style

The parenting books told me that clear consequences enforced consistently would solve our behavior problems. They were wrong. Here’s what happened when I tried things the neurotypical way — and how we get by today.
Be Our Guest | posted by Rebecca Brown Wright
Understanding My Daughter’s Hyperfocus with my ADHD Spouse’s Help

Consistency is key, right? Or so the parenting books say.

So then why did I suffer through the same dreaded Stuffed Animal Showdown a thousand times with my daughter — and no one ever won?

Starting at about age 4 or 5, my then-undiagnosed daughter lost a stuffed animal (for a few hours or days) every time she disobeyed. This punishment made sense to me, as I thought back to my own childhood. Surely I would have calmed down and behaved with a Cabbage Patch Kid on the line.

But it never worked that way with my daughter.

She would scream and fight so relentlessly about the targeted stuffed animal that I would end up taking away more Beanie Boos and My Little Ponies to get her to stop.

But she never stopped. I tried hugging. I tried speaking calmly. I lost it, and tried screaming. Nothing worked. Most of the time, those Stuffed Animal Showdowns ended with both of us in tears, and every single stuffed creature she owned shoved at the top of a closet – far beyond her reach.

I still cry as I write this, thinking how her spirit deflated as she watched her mother take away the most precious things in her life.

We would talk afterward, and I’d ask why she didn’t stop fighting when she knew the consequence was a downward spiral of lost privileges.

“I don’t know,” she would sniff. “I just couldn’t stop.”

My neurotypical brain didn’t accept that answer, and I stubbornly felt I couldn’t change course. That wouldn’t be consistent… and I’d also be giving in to my daughter’s demands. Right? Dozens of parenting books had me convinced I must plow forward.

Then my husband, who has ADHD, began to notice a parallel between our daughter’s persistence and the way his brain works.

“You know,” he said. “When you and I are arguing, I always feel like I’m on the brink of fixing the problem and so I keep at it, even when you don’t want to. I feel that if I can just get you to see what I’m saying, and to see my sincerity, I can make the fight end right that second.”

This was incredibly enlightening; turns out that a spouse with ADHD is somewhat of a Rosetta Stone for a child with ADHD. Together, we realized our daughter had been hyperfocusing on the targeted stuffed animal. She felt she was so close to getting me to reverse the punishment that she must keep trying — and fighting.

She’s 8 now. We talk openly about ADHD, and when I see her starting to hyperfocus on a punishment, I point out what she’s doing.

“Right now, your brain is telling you to focus only on the punishment,” I say. “Try and look at the whole situation. The punishment won’t last forever.”

She’s getting better at stopping her protests. I’m starting to forgive myself for the harsh punishments I inflicted before I understood her brain. And we’re moving forward together.

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