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I Was Speaking Chinese — and Expecting My Child to Understand

“Imagine someone politely asks you to speak Chinese. They can speak Chinese very easily, so they assume you can, too. In fact, everyone around you seems to know how to speak it. So, it’s kind of embarrassing that you can’t. You feel awful about yourself.”

She knows she’s not supposed to have food in her room. I’ve said it a million times. And yet, under her bed I find empty potato chip bags and cereal bowls with spoons stuck to the dried, crusty milk. No wonder her room, which looks like a department store explosion, also smells like a goat farm. When I confront my 12-year-old daughter, she returns an eye roll and asks what the big deal is.

The desk in my 9-year-old son’s room is set up perfectly for his homework. Well-lit and spacious, it has everything he needs for his history project about the mill in our town. When I pop my head in to see how he’s doing, I catch him on the floor with his Pokémon cards. “Get back in the chair and work on your project!” Unreal. Fifteen minutes — that’s all I’m asking because I’m an attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) mom and I know he needs frequent breaks. When I check on him 15 minutes later, he’s in his chair, but not only has he still not started, he also has gouged scratches into the desktop with a paper clip. And, to my face, he tells me he didn’t do it.

I want to scream at them both. I do scream at them both. Why don’t you do what I ask? It isn’t hard. What kind of kids am I raising who lie and defy?

Actually, It Is That Hard

Children do not set out to defy, disappoint, and lie to their parents and teachers each day. They want to earn our praise just as much as the obedient, studious kid who lives down the street. So why do some children with ADHD seem to be so oppositional all the time? No matter what we do, how nicely we ask, how many reminders we give — we are met with defiance, anger, and lies.

ADHD’s Unmet Needs

Bad behavior is usually the manifestation of an unmet need. In other words, my son is acting out to try to tell me something; he just isn’t doing it in a functional way. When toddlers are tired or hungry, they’re not mature enough to explain their feelings, so they might tantrum instead. Defiance is like a tantrum for a child with ADHD. Despite the organized beauty of my son’s desk, chances are good that his overwhelmed ADHD brain simply cannot fathom how to start the big task of a history project. So he doesn’t do it.

[Free Resource: What Not to Say to a Child with ADHD]

The Baffling First Step

He’s not trying to be disrespectful. He thinks he should be able to do what I’m asking. He wants to try. But the overwhelming endpoint of this project is so dauntingly complex for his brain, that first step is baffling to him. His teacher might as well be asking him to build a rocket ship. Where does he even begin? So, he stalls. And I push, because he’s not being asked to build a rocket ship — he needs to write just a few descriptions of the mill, and he has all the info right in front of him. Come on, it’s simple. Why aren’t you doing it? He doesn’t have an answer because he doesn’t know his ADHD brain has a tough time with multi-step tasks, sequencing, planning, organizing within space and time. So, in his frustration, he impulsively mouths off. Or gouges marks into his desk.

What About My Petulant Pre-Teen With Food Under Her Bed?

On the surface, it seems like pure defiance. After all, my response is even met with an eye roll! But this is her unmet need: her ADHD meds take away her appetite, so she doesn’t eat at scheduled mealtimes. But, later, after everyone is in bed, her tummy grumbles. I haven’t taught her how to prepare easy, healthy food, so her only recourse is to grab what she can easily find in the pantry. And, because she’s grown so accustomed to me reprimanding her for nearly everything, she assumes she’s in trouble if I catch her eating potato chips or cereal at 11pm. So she scurries to her room with it. Then, too tired due to the hour, she stashes it under her bed to clean later. But, of course, her ADHD brain forgets about the bags and dishes. Confronted by an angry mom, she gets defensive in a fight-or-flight response. I was hungry and tired. And I will be tonight also, so I’ll probably do it again, because I don’t know how else to solve this problem.

Speaking Chinese to an ADHD Brain

Imagine someone politely asks you to speak Chinese. You can’t, so you don’t. Then, slightly more irritated, they ask again. They can speak Chinese very easily, so they assume you can, too. In fact, everyone around you seems to know how to speak it easily. So, it’s kind of embarrassing that you can’t. You want to be able to, just like your friends. Your sister. Your mom and your teacher get increasingly agitated with you because you just won’t speak it; you won’t even try. They aren’t bothering to teach you Chinese, they just want you to try harder.

You feel like a failure. Eventually, you get really frustrated. Because the request is unreasonable, but no one sees that. You feel awful about yourself, and the whole situation angers you. The next time someone asks you to speak Chinese, you blow. And they get even angrier at you.

[Free Parenting Guide for Moms & Dads with ADHD]

Change You First, Parents

These kids are exhausting; there is no sugar-coating it. We have to be on our toes constantly, ever mindful of how we phrase things, our tone, and what we’re asking. Just like our children, we will make mistakes. It’s okay. Making mistakes is also fantastic modeling, as they see how we handle it. When they were babies and couldn’t talk, we had to use trial and error to become experts at what their cries meant, so we could learn to help them settle. This is similar.

If your child acts oppositional, try to pause before you get angry and go for punishment. Ask yourself what the opposition might mean: What might he need that he can’t say differently? Maybe he’s tired, confused, hungry, ashamed — maybe your request was too much. Instead of demanding he apologize, try apologizing to him first! Crazy, I know. But give it a try. “Hey, buddy, I can see you are super frustrated and angry. I think Mom may have goofed and asked too much of you, so I’m sorry. I don’t like the way you talked to me just now, and that’s not how we treat each other in this house. But I understand why you reacted that way. Let’s see if we can start over. You want to give it a try?”

Compassion Is Key

Once I realized the defiance was a cry for help, I could meet it with compassion, just like I did when my kids were babies. My child needed me. I’d pause, put on my Sherlock Holmes cap and try to uncover what was underneath the opposition. Then try to help solve the problem. I stopped asking my children to speak Chinese. It’s amazing how much better we collaborate when we speak the same language.

[Your Free 13-Step Guide to Raising a Child with ADHD]

Updated on April 1, 2019

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