When Parents Disagree on How to Raise Their Child with ADHD
“When families face ADHD challenges, tension lurks beneath the surface all the time. We can’t change that. But you can reduce the stress by improving how you communicate with each other. The following tools will help you to tame defensiveness, problem-solve, and approach difficult situations with a positive attitude.”
Many couples come to me to resolve family conflicts about raising their complex kids. For a host of understandable reasons, parents can disagree on almost everything when it comes to managing ADHD — from decisions about schooling and how to respond to unwanted behaviors to whether to use medication.
In my early years of parenting, I also struggled with these challenges. I was doing everything for everybody — making lunches, scheduling playdates and carpools, managing everything school-related. I was also researching diagnoses, managing an unending stream of doctors’ appointments, learning to advocate for my three complex children, and trying to make medical decisions. Like many other moms, I was reading every ADHD book I could get my hands on and searching for behavior management treatments other than medication.
As a coach, I learned communication techniques that I wish I’d known in my early years of managing ADHD. Once I learned them, they reduced the strain on my own marriage (which survived with a lot of help and effort!) and helped my kids get a handle on their challenges.
Family Communication Strategies for Parents of Kids with ADHD
As I dragged my kids from one expert to another, my husband and I were often not on the same page. I wanted him to become as educated as I was about the kids’ challenges, so that he could join me in making decisions about medications. I wanted him to help me apply the new strategies I was learning, so that we could set appropriate expectations and consequences together.
He wanted to be supportive, but when my efforts didn’t immediately stop a child’s tantrum, he would say I was pushover. I argued that he didn’t understand. He felt I wasn’t teaching the children to show respect. I worried that he would damage his relationship with them. And on it went. My resentment grew in pace with his frustration.
When families face challenges, tension lurks beneath the surface all the time. We can’t change that. But you can reduce the stress by improving how you communicate with each other. The following tools will help you to tame defensiveness, problem-solve, and approach difficult situations with a positive attitude.
1. Designing Conversations to Stem Conflict
This is the most important technique I teach to the couples in my practice. A conversation “design” defuses defensiveness. It can be used in making simple requests or navigating high-conflict conversations.
A design is made up of two parts: the gift and the request. Start with a gift, such as an offer to do something. You might say to your spouse, “I know you’ve had a long day and reading another article about ADHD doesn’t sound appealing. You can count on me to only ask you to read things that I believe will help us make strong decisions together.” (That is an acknowledgment followed by a gift.) “And I’d like to ask, when I do give you something to read, will you please make the effort to read it? I know it takes time, but I’d really appreciate it.” (That is a request.)
When you start a negotiation with a gift of acknowledgment or the offer of what you’re willing to “give” to a situation, the other person feels heard and respected. They will lower his guard and be more open to conversation and requests. After you have offered a genuine gift, you can make a request for someone to do something for you.
You can use this “design” with other adults and with your kids. Last week a client “designed” with her 16-year-old son: “You can count on me to let you take the lead in getting your applications done, and I want you to ask for help when you need it.” My son tended to be defensive when he was younger, so I “designed” with him about emptying his lunchbox and taking out the trash. I offered what I was wiling to do to help him, and then asked for what I wanted from him.
2. Be Mindful About Language That Triggers Conflict
We often put people on the defensive without realizing it. Sometimes we don’t know that they’re already triggered; other times, we aren’t aware of how we unintentionally trigger them. To minimize the impact of triggers, avoid “blaming” terms, like “you never” or “why can’t you…?” Use positive language and ask clearly for what you want instead of focusing on the problems.
When you ask for what you want, offer support instead of telling people what they’ve done wrong. Replace: “You didn’t feed the dog, again” with: “I know you love the dog and are happy to feed her, and I notice that it’s hard for you to remember. Would you like some help from me to help you remember to do it?”
3. Don’t Talk When Anyone Is Triggered
Agree in advance that both of you will stop conversations whenever anyone (parent or child) gets into a “fight or flight” moment. Negotiate and navigate challenges only when everyone is calm — and I mean really calmed down, not just pretending to be calm. Make sure everyone knows that you’ll return to the conversation as soon as you can (try to do this within 24 hours), so they don’t feel abandoned. But don’t try to argue with anyone whose brain sees a sabre-tooth tiger at the door of the cave!
4. Give Each Other the Benefit of the Doubt
The best advice my husband and I ever got from our therapist, and got again from our couples’ coach later on, was simple (yet challenging): Decide to give each other the benefit of the doubt. It’s not easy to effectively partner with each other all the time. Before you jump to judgment of your spouse, remember that you want to try to be on the same page. Your partner may be defensive or triggered, but remind yourself that he wants to be your partner. If you try this and find that it’s not enough, seek help from a couples’ coach or therapist.
5. Focus on Alignment, Not Family Conflict
Before trying to problem-solve any decision, you need to look for areas in which you and your partner are in alignment. What do you both want? First, you both want what’s best for your child. You want your child to learn to take responsibility. You want your child to learn to manage her emotions. Focus on the bigger picture, at first. Once you share that alignment, you can explore different options, and even agree to disagree on trying different approaches. It’s not productive to try to convince each other of something. Instead, use your alignment to explore opportunities to collaborate.
When You Can’t Agree – Family Conflict Resolution Help
Use the skills I’ve listed to get to agreement. If you can’t get there (and that will happen sometimes), agree to disagree and take another approach. Maybe one of you stays out of the way while the other takes the lead. Then try the other’s approach. Finish up your experiment with the Three Magic Questions:
- What worked?
- What didn’t?
- What will you do differently the next time you run into this situation?
I like to remind parents that it only takes one parent to turn the tide. To learn to manage their own ADHD, your kids need to depend on their relationship with both of you. If you and your partner are really at odds, and you can’t find agreement or even alignment, then focus on your own relationship with your child.
Family Communication Strategies: Next Steps
- Understand: Never Punish a Child for Bad Behavior Outside Their Control
- Learn: 9 Ways ADHD May Strain Relationships
- Watch: A Practical Guide to Positive Parenting
Elaine Taylor-Klaus, CPCC, is a co-founder of ImpactParents.com. The tools and strategies in this article may be found in Elaine’s book, The Essential Guide to Raising Complex Kids with ADHD, Anxiety, and More (#CommissionsEarned), and the Sanity School for Parents, a behavior therapy training program.
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