Stop Telling Your Child to Act His Age

Boost your child’s self-esteem by measuring your child’s behaviors by his “ADHD age,” not by his real age.
Boy Without Instructions | posted by Penny Williams
ADHD and Maturity Jeff Duckworth Photo Credit: Jeff Duckworth

Lots of experts and parents refer to ADHD as a behavioral disorder or a neurobehavioral disorder, but it’s crucial to recognize that it is a developmental disorder, too.

A developmental disorder is defined in the Developmental Disabilities Assistance and Bill of Rights Act of 2000, as a chronic disability that is attributable to physical or mental impairment (check), begins in childhood (check), is likely to continue indefinitely (check), and results in the substantial functional limitations of at least three of the following: self-care (yep), receptive and expressive language (yep), learning (most definitely, yep), mobility, self-direction (yep), capacity for independent living, or economic self-sufficiency (possibly). That, my friends, is also a loose definition for ADHD.

You’re probably asking, “Does it really matter what we call ADHD, Penny?” It doesn’t necessarily “matter,” but recognizing that it’s a developmental disability gives parents the appropriate perspective to implement strategies that work for ADHD. We can all use some of those.

Think about the term “developmental disability.” It means that if my 12-year-old has a developmental disability (he has several of them), his development has not yet reached the 12-year-old standard, but is somewhere behind that. Kids with ADHD are often two to three years behind their peers in maturity and skill development. In my son’s case, that means I’m parenting a boy who is nine, maybe 10, but not 12. That requires a different parenting approach.

Parents often get upset because their child with ADHD doesn’t “act his age.” Well, he can’t. He isn’t there yet. Parents have to adjust our expectations and the metrics we use to measure our child’s behavior, social skills, and emotional regulation. If we don’t adjust those expectations, we will always be disappointed, and our kids always feel like they can’t succeed.

Ricochet, my son with ADHD, SPD, Dysgraphia, Written Expression Disorder, Executive Functioning Deficits, and a gifted IQ, is often over emotional. He cries over things a 12-year-old typically wouldn’t spill a tear over, or he’ll get explosively frustrated over a task most 12-year-olds would let roll off their back. If I consider only Ricochet’s age, his behavior seems childish, perhaps babyish. But if I re-calibrate my yardstick to an ADHD metric, I recognize that his maturity is that of a nine-year-old. Suddenly, his behavior seems more appropriate.

This new yardstick is a helpful tool in determining appropriate consequences and punishment for a child with ADHD—something most parents struggle with, including me. We don’t want to punish our child for something related to his disability. Yet we don’t want to let misbehavior go without being addressed. While it’s harder for Ricochet to measure up to a 12-year-old standard, I still have to teach him the skills to meet societal behavioral expectations.

With my new yardstick, I can more accurately determine if a behavior misstep is appropriate for my son. Then I can determine the best course of action. If it wasn’t something he should know not to do if he were nine years old, then we talk about what happened, why it happened, and how he should react differently next time (behavioral modification). If it was something that a nine-year-old knows not to do or could control, then he will likely receive a consequence.

Is switching to an ADHD metric easier said than done? Absolutely. It is hard to do, but it’s crucial to your parenting success and your child’s self-esteem. So, sit down and consider the developmental age of your child in light of his ADHD, and redefine your expectations to measure your child with an appropriate yardstick.

 
 
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