Oppositional Behavior

“My Son Can’t Help It — So I Don’t Punish Him”

He shouts, he swears, he calls me names — but I know it’s his ADHD talking. That’s why, when my child misbehaves, I work hard to ignore it and remember that sometimes punishments for kids with ADHD are counterproductive.

Illustration of two parents scolding and doling out punishments to their kid with ADHD
Illustration of boy with ADHD being scolded by parents

“No! I hate you! You’re stupid! You’re mean! You’re a fricking jerk!” My 10-year-old screams this, responding to a request to find his shoes before we head out to playgroup. I want to scream back, or start doling out punishments, to make him stop calling me names and to stop swearing. I want to hand out a consequence. I want to make it so he never acts like this again. Instead, I take several deep breaths, swallow hard, and wait a beat, trying hard to ignore his words.

He quits screaming. I wait another beat, and he starts pulling on his shoes. “Will Quinn be there?” he asks sweetly. “I like Quinn.” It’s as if nothing has happened.

Let the Storm Pass

This is a battle I often fight — not the battle with my child, his temper, and his choice of words — but a battle against myself. Squelching my first reaction to his oppositional behavior, to make room for what I’ve learned works: Let the storm pass, ignore, wait that magical beat. But it’s hard to do, because when he yells, screams, defies my requests, my temper flares and I worry and get scared. Scared that a 10-year-old who screams at his mother will become a 12-year-old who hits her.

My fear, born in worries that are out of control, has imagined my child’s potty mouth leading to a life sentence for armed robbery. That’s where my mind goes when I worry about my child’s future. That’s where all our minds go, the parents of children with serious behavior problems. That’s where everyone’s mind goes when they see a child who talks back and swears at his parents, who throws tantrums well past pre-K. Take care of these problems now, because they will get worse. If you give in, you’re a terrible mother. It’s American Parenting 101.

This might be standard advice, but it’s not the parenting my child needs. I tried it for years, and it made our problems worse. Only recently, when I’m able to refuse to punish him or react to his offensive behaviors, have his actions and mood improved. His swearing has declined, and his defiance is almost a thing of the past. This is because he’s not misbehaving on purpose. Because of his neuro-behavioral differences, he is not in control of his actions.

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His oppositionality is a symptom of his brain differences, and punishing these behaviors is like punishing a blind person for not being able to see. It’s instinctual to punish. It takes effort to suppress the worries. We work at it every single day. But in our situation, suppression works.

Giving Up on Consequences

Instead of dishing out consequences, we recognize his differences and we set up his environment for success. His slow auditory processing and developmental delays — combined with ADHD — mean that if you tell him something, his brain is a couple of steps behind. The screaming and swearing and “no’s” are his way of buying himself time to process what’s been asked of him.

I wish it were different, but, for now, it’s enough that I know he doesn’t mean what he says in times of anger and uncertainty. I believe only what he says in times of calm, like what he tells me later while we’re driving to playgroup: “I love you, Mommy. I’m sorry I said those mean things to you.”

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