When the ADHD Doesn’t Fall Far from the Tree
Be vulnerable. Be honest. And teach your child that a) you are not perfect and b) you do not expect perfection. These are likely the best gifts we can give to the children who inherited our ADHD — and all the emotional and executive-function baggage that goes with it.
It’s a weekday morning. A mother and daughter have 30 minutes to get ready and head out the door if they hope to make it to school and work on time. Before heading to the kitchen, Mom pops her head into her child’s room: “Time to get dressed! Focus and get downstairs quickly, OK?”
After pouring a bowl of cereal, Mom reaches for her phone to check email. Next thing she knows, she’s having a political argument on Facebook with her spouse’s second cousin. How much time is there until they have to leave? Five minutes? Shoot! She rushes to her daughter’s room. It’s just as she feared: she’s sitting on the floor, half-dressed, playing with her favorite toy. She opens her mouth to scold her — but then she stops. Who’s really to blame for this situation?
I cannot tell you how many times I’ve heard variations of this scenario from my clients. When your kid has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) and you’re often preoccupied with helping her manage the condition, it’s easy to forget that you’re not exactly neurotypical. So how do you model good emotional regulation and time management and other skills that commonly trip up children with ADHD when you don’t have it all figured out yourself? Here are a few tips:
1. Remember that you’re not so different. The other morning, my daughter left her homework in the car for the umpteenth time. When I found it later in the day, I was immediately annoyed. I thought to myself, “Again?!” And then I remembered all the things I had forgotten to put in her backpack over the last week: her lunch, her gloves, her inhaler… How could I be annoyed with her when I was guilty of the same thing? Instead of lecturing her when I picked her up, I shared a trick that I use to make sure I don’t leave my phone or wallet at home.
2. Talk about it. I like to tell the families I work with in my practice to find some time each day, maybe over dinner, to talk about moments when they lost their cool or felt overwhelmed that day. For example, a father might tell his family about the mini-panic attack he had when he thought he left his favorite scarf on the bus (it turned out he was still wearing it). Sharing these struggles helps normalize them and also gives family members the opportunity to help one another by providing support and feedback.
3. Be the adult. There certainly have been situations where my clients raised their voices at their children instead of acknowledging the role they played in creating the chaos. As you know, when you escalate, your child probably will, too. Rather than feeding off each other’s impulsivity, it’s up to you to be the adult in the room and show your child how to be calm even when life is stressful.
4. Be vulnerable. Age comes with the benefit of insight and reflection. You’ve lived with certain attributes for a long time and have figured out ways to maximize your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. While it might be scary to let your child see you as anything less than strong and resourceful, she needs to know that you’re not perfect, and that you don’t expect perfection from her, either. Admit that you used to have a hard time regulating your emotions and staying focused. Teach her the tricks you’ve learned over the years. Your vulnerability will encourage her and show her that they’re not destined to struggle forever.
Erina White, PhD, MPH, MSW is the Clinical Services Director and VP of Parent Services for Mightier. She is a clinical researcher at Boston Children’s Hospital, therapist in private practice, and holds faculty appointments at Harvard Medical School, University of New Hampshire and Simmons School of Social Work. She is also a mom. Mightier uses the power of bioresponsive games to help kids build and practice calming skills to meet real-world challenges.