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Q: My Child Is Dr. Jekyll at School, Mr. Hyde at Home

“When I see children exhibiting behavior challenges at home, but none of it appears at school, that says to me that they are screaming for scaffolding.”

Jekyll and Hyde

Q: “How come my child is defiant at home only, but at school and around other people outside of our family, she is well behaved?”

I speak with hundreds of families of kids with ADHD each year and I have noticed a common theme when the child’s behavior is fine at school but very difficult at home, sometimes to the point of being verbally or physically aggressive towards parents. At first, this was perplexing to me, until I recognized this common thread.

To be clear, I am not speaking about kids who struggle with emotional dysregulation after school. That is rather common for kids with ADHD, particularly when stimulant medication begins to wear off.

In some cases, the kids who present the most severe behavior at home do not struggle at school, have a peer group there, and generally like school, which made this more perplexing. Often, I hear a speculative narrative such as, “They’re holding it together in school all day and home is where they can be themselves.” But that explanation is just not applicable in these cases where kids are socially successful in school, nor does that explanation justify being physically aggressive toward family members. What I am talking about here is a long-standing, consistent pattern, often going on for years, and in some cases getting worse.

The commonality I’ve found in all of these families is a pattern of “high giving/low expectations,” meaning kids are given desired items such as smartphones and gaming systems, yet little is asked of them in return (aside from possibly academic performance). The other common variable often associated with “high giving/low expectations” is a permissive/indulgent parenting approach. A permissive/indulgent parenting approach is typically done from a place of love, not neglect. Because kids with ADHD tend to be “black or white” thinkers and do best with “scaffolding” in place, the passive/indulgent parenting often does not work well for them; it is too abstract. Kids (with or without ADHD) feel emotionally safe when they know adults are in control. When they do not feel adults are in control, or they recognize they can control adults with their behaviors, that does not feel emotionally safe. I’ve had multiple kids articulate to me that they feel uncomfortable when they recognize how easily they can control their parents’ emotions.

I understand that, for a lot of parents, being authoritative does not come naturally. Others may not have the emotional energy to utilize an authoritative parenting approach. Others may have had an authoritarian parent themselves and they want to counteract that, so they do they opposite. Parenting styles have been studied for decades and the consistent research findings illustrate that an authoritative parenting approach is the most effective parenting approach for raising well-adjusted adults.

I encourage all parents to think of the authoritative parenting style like scaffolding. The scaffolding around a building supports the structure as it is being built. Scaffolding around behavior helps a child understand how far they can push things; what behavior is tolerated and what is not tolerated. That gives kids a sense of emotional safety because they know their parents are in control. It also teaches them, generally speaking, what is tolerated in life and what is not OK.

If being authoritative does not come naturally to you, or you think it’s ‘bad,’ or you’ve received contradictory messages, you need to know this: In order for your son or daughter with ADHD to be successful with their behaviors, they need to feel emotionally contained. If you think that being authoritative will hurt their self-esteem, you need know that the opposite is actually true — not being authoritative can hurt their self-esteem because if a child doesn’t understand their parameters and limits, they are going to do things that they regret and feel remorseful about. Some parents of kids with ADHD take a permissive parenting approach that all negative behaviors are tolerated because of their child’s diagnosis. I believe there is nothing more disempowering to a kid than to send them the message: “Your negative behavior will be tolerated because I perceive ADHD as a disability, thus I perceive you as being disabled.” I am clear with every kid with whom I work that ADHD is not a disability; it is description of how your brain works.

If you have a child who pushes against the boundaries and is highly disagreeable, they need behavioral scaffolding. You will not hurt their self-esteem by being authoritative, and you’re not doing them any favors by being a permissive parent.


Authoritative Parenting and Scaffolding: Next Steps

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Ryan Wexelblatt, LCSW is the facilitator of the ADHD Dude Facebook Group and YouTube channel.