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Learn the Right Reasons for Your Child’s “Wrong” Behavior

When a child with ADHD misbehaves, sometimes it’s willful disobedience. More often, though, these “wrong” behaviors are out of her control.

Before my son was diagnosed with ADHD, seven years ago, my husband and I raised our voices and talked sternly to him several times a day. His behaviors seemed like willful, little-boy defiance — we thought he was not complying with our requests to get a rise out of us. We punished and yelled, and our home life was awful. We didn’t know that there was another way to parent our son because we didn’t understand him.

After he was diagnosed, I read every book on the subject I could get my hands on. The more I read, the clearer my son’s strengths and weaknesses became. The more we worked with experts in behavior and occupational therapy, the more I understood the causes and functions of his different behaviors. I no longer saw his negative behaviors as willfulness, laziness, a lack of motivation, or disrespect. They were caused by his ADHD wiring.

I was punishing my son for behaviors that were not within his control. So I made an effort to not let him get me upset. But I swung too far in the other direction. I started using ADHD as an excuse when he acted up. He felt that, no matter what he did, he could blame it on ADHD and all would be forgiven. That was no way to raise a child.

Two years after my son’s diagnosis, I read The Explosive Child, by Ross Greene, Ph.D. It gave me perspective on why kids with ADHD get frustrated and how it affects their behaviors. After reading the book, I stopped yelling at my son and worked with him to resolve bad behavior. Here are some of the ways we achieve calm in the face of ADHD challenges:

1. Recognize that what looks like willful disobedience may not be. The first step is to understand your child with ADHD and why he does the things he does, especially things that look and feel like willful disobedience. I’m not saying that a child with ADHD never disobeys on purpose, like any other child; I’m saying those disobedient moments are no more frequent than for a neurotypical child. Most children with ADHD have very low frustration tolerance, and many are inflexible.

[Get This Free Resource: Your 10 Toughest Discipline Dilemmas]

2. Guide a child through her frustration. How many times has your child asked for something and melted down when she didn’t get it? When a child is two or three years old, you expect that. When she is eight or nine years old, you think she should know better. At 12, you think that a meltdown is ridiculous. You try to impose your will and put your foot down, and the child spirals out of control.

You think it’s all because she didn’t get her way. But it’s not. She’s not throwing a fit to strong-arm you into giving her what she wants — it’s not a “fit” at all. She is unraveling emotionally because she doesn’t have the skills to see that there’s more than one option. She can’t handle the frustration she feels when the thing she knows to be true isn’t.

3. Don’t engage a child when she is melting down; remain detached. Remember that your child’s behavior is not a personal attack on you. By not taking it personally, you have a better chance of staying calm and under control.

4. Work together to teach your child skills. If your child is frustrated because his play date is canceled, talk through the situation with him. Show empathy for his feelings to validate his emotions. Tell him you will reschedule the play date, and talk about what he will do when he plays with his friend.

[Essential Reading: Meltdowns Happen — 7 Healthy Ways to Respond]

Talk about what you both might do with the free time that has suddenly opened up. This teaches him to think through options, and distracts both of you from being emotional about the situation. View everything as a problem to be solved, and take the opportunity to teach problem-solving skills.

5. Remember that you have control of the situation when your child is trying to control you. Don’t give in to your child and make a bad situation worse. There are many ways to maintain your authority besides raising your voice or laying down a mandate. Yelling or threatening to punish your son when he acts up will only prolong the outburst; remaining calm and detached will shorten it.

Calm Is Crucial

The key to calm parenting is to understand the triggers and functions of your child’s unwanted behaviors. Use one or more of the following techniques when you feel yourself getting angry or frustrated. They have worked well for Moms and Dads:

  • Remind yourself that your child is acting like a child because he is one.
  • Put yourself in his shoes.
  • Give yourself a timeout.
  • Take a walk around the block.
  • Turn on some music.
  • Hum a tune.
  • Start singing a silly song.
  • Close your eyes and take relaxing belly breaths – in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  • Speak to your child in a whisper.
  • Clean something.
  • Find something to be grateful about.

The stress of parenting a child with ADHD is heavy enough without yelling. Kids with ADHD are perceptive — the calmer you are, the calmer they are likely to be, and vice versa.

Making an effort to remain calm with your son or daughter will bring a dramatic shift in your family dynamic and your relationship with your child. I know from my own experience that once you learn how to be calm, you will be a more effective parent.

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From The Insider’s Guide to ADHD: Adults with ADHD Reveal the Secret to Parenting Kids with ADHD, by PENNY WILLIAMS, Grace-Everett Press. Copyright 2015.

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