Positive Parenting

“Bad Parenting Is Not What They Told Us It Was”

Bad parenting is not forgiving a tantrum. It is not hugging a belligerent child. Or factoring ADHD neurobiology into your discipline response. Bad parenting is allowing strangers’ (or family members’) condescension or ignorant advice weigh more heavily than what we know to be true about our children, their ADHD, and the healthiest way forward.

Isometric, a small child who loves his mother. TAK/Getty Images
Isometric, a small child who loves his mother. TAK/Getty Images

It’s 4 o’clock. My 10-year-old is screaming: 100-decibel, scare-the-dog screaming. I’ve just passed parental arbitration; it’s his 11-year-old brother’s turn to use the computer. Nearly incoherent with rage, my younger son splutters like a cartoon character before purposely upending his chair. I threaten to remove all electronic devices if people under 5 feet tall continue fighting over them. He shrieks that he wasn’t fighting. When I offer a hug to help him calm down, he yells in my face.

“No! Don’t touch me!” he shouts, then runs to his room and slams his door. The dogs jump. My youngest dissolves into tears. I collapse onto my couch.

I hug my crier. I want to cry with him. Other 10-year-olds don’t throw epic tantrums and scream in their parents’ faces. I hear my own mother’s voice: Only doormat parents let their kids yell at them. If that were my child, I’d spank him silly, and he’d learn how to behave then. He needs discipline, not a hug.

Bad Parenting Is Not What They Told Us It Was

My 10-year-old has ADHD; he’s tired from a long day, and since Focalin cuts his appetite, he’s hungry and doesn’t know it. Any of these reasons could set off a tantrum. Three together almost guarantees one. I’m not a bad parent. I’m not screwing up. I’m parenting a non-neurotypical child — and pretending otherwise hurts both of us.

Maybe, like my 10-year-old, I need some time to calm down. Also, possibly, a hug.

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Kids with ADHD cope with emotional dysregulation: it’s hard for them to moderate and regulate their emotions in ways we’d expect from a neurotypical child. Combined with fatigue and low blood sugar, my son’s control of his big feelings runs off the rails. It’s not surprising he yelled and stomped off. It would have been surprising if he hadn’t.

But like me, you’ve probably spent a lifetime seeing headshakes over kids behaving badly. Maybe, like me, you were a headshaker yourself before you had a child with ADHD. You’ve likely heard those voices I’ve heard, those people sniping behind other parents’ backs: Kids only act like that because their parents let them. If they stepped up and did their job, she’d learn to behave. It’s her parents’ fault.

We are socially conditioned to attribute a child’s negative behavior to parental failure.

So when our own kids slip up, we blame ourselves.

Parental Self-Blame Never Improved the Situation

This social conditioning probably started when we were kids ourselves. If you were the “good kid,” you may have heard your parents blaming other parents for another kid’s bad behavior. If you had ADHD yourself — since ADHD has a strong genetic component — you may have been shamed yourself. Why can’t you check your work? You’re the smartest kid in the class, why aren’t you getting As? Why can’t you act your age? Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about.

[Read: Never Punish a Child for Bad Behavior Outside Their Control]

Both those things make an ugly recipe for parental self-blame.

You might know how to parent a kid with ADHD. When they throw down, they often need a hug. They might need help walking away. They shouldn’t be shamed, belittled, or threatened. But even as we lead them away to de-escalate, we hear those ugly voices (maybe literally). You are enabling this behavior. If you just told him to stop it and act his age…

But this is not your fault. This is developmentally normal behavior for a child with ADHD, and you’re doing great. Seriously. Only other parents with non-neurotypical kids really understand what it’s like — and only other parents with non-neurotypical kids understand that shame society throws at us whenever our kids “misbehave.” Society’s thrown it so often we’ve internalized it.

Maybe you’ve even had relatives death-glare you when you’ve properly parented your non-neurotypical kid. You could practically hear them thinking as you hugged your kid out of a tantrum. Maybe, like me, you’ve even had them intervene: “Oh, you’re too big to act like this. Stop yelling at your mother.”

Maybe you have actually heard all that self-blame vomited back at you — from someone you care about, no less; maybe even one of those original voices you’ve worked hard to exorcise. You’ve had to say something, anything, for your kids’ sake, even something as simple as “I have a handle on this, thanks.” Then maybe you’ve felt worse afterward because, not only were you actually, vocally blamed for your child’s behavior, you didn’t stick up for them the way you wish you had.

This self-blame stuff is hard.

But it only makes us feel inferior. It doesn’t help us, and it doesn’t help our kids. If we want to be the best parents we can be, we have to ditch it. Add “confidence in yourself and your parenting methods” to your list of things parents of kids with ADHD need in spades, right next to patience, a sense of humor, and a good therapist (definitely for your kid, and probably for you, too, especially if you’ve got that generational cycle of self-blame going).

The Shame Cycle Stops with You

Your child needs help learning to regulate her emotions. If you simply blame yourself for her shortfalls, you don’t help her or yourself. Parental shame only makes you feel terrible. Ditch it.

Take some deep breaths and remind yourself: My child is experiencing emotional dysregulation. My parenting does not look like other parenting. Sometimes, you probably mess up and yell.

That’s okay: all of us do because we’ve been socially conditioned to yell at children who yell at us. This is not your fault but it is something you can work on.

Try this: Learn to recognize that shame bubbling up, and in that moment, step back. Imagine you’re someone else, someone who understands ADHD, and give yourself the same grace you’d give that parent you’re watching. Imagine what you’d say to that trying-their-best parent: Don’t give up. You’re doing a good job. It’s hard, but you’ve got this.

You can break this cycle of self-blame.

It’s hard, but you’ve got this.

“Bad Parenting” Self-Blame: Next Steps

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