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“Emotions are Contagious: How We Conjured a Calm, Collaborative Discipline Ethos”

“Avoid swooping in with a fabulous solution in what is otherwise a learning opportunity for your child, especially if it concerns a pain point behavior for you and your partner. As much as possible, have your child invent and create solutions on their own.” And more discipline advice designed to reduce parental conflict, build independent skills, and coach your child to success.

Conflict with parents, father and mother scolding a teenage boy. A teenage boy ignores his parents. Children's misunderstanding with their families. Vector characters.
Conflict with parents, father and mother scolding a teenage boy. A teenage boy ignores his parents. Children's misunderstanding with their families. Vector characters.

The most consistent and complicated source of our discord in our household is not our teenage son’s ADHD. It is the fact that my husband and I are often at an impasse about how to manage his behaviors.

We often find ourselves entrenched in the opposing stances of prosecutor versus defense attorney over our son’s actions. (My husband calls them transgressions; I call it dingbat behavior. You can read all about it in this blog.)

Finally, we agreed on one thing: It was time to get some proper professional help, and so I reached out to Lara Cannon, a licensed professional counselor and ADHD specialist, with this question: How can families cope with divergent attitudes, especially when it comes to behavior and discipline, about their children with ADHD?

Below, I’ve summarized Cannon’s essential strategies to reduce disagreements at home. She didn’t give advice on how to dole out consequences to our child for his peccadillos. (And she didn’t really bolster my arguments as lead defense attorney.) Instead, to my surprise, she gave us preventative tips — ways to anticipate and reduce parental conflict by activating our child’s desire to want what we want.

1. Educate Yourself About Your Child’s ADHD

First and foremost, caregivers must be on the same page about what ADHD means for their child, and what it does not. It’s important to understand how the ADHD brain works, but be careful not to overgeneralize. Medication helps many; mindfulness and emotional regulation skills also benefit many children and teens with ADHD.

[Use This Free Guide To End Confrontations and Defiance]

In essence, ADHD is an effort regulation problem, impacting the ability to focus, exert, and sustain effort, or practice self-control. You’re setting up your child to fail if you’re relying on their internal regulation system for these skills. (Especially in tasks that do not interest your child.)

My son, for example, is perfectly capable of attending to things that interest him, almost effortlessly. (Photography and videogames come to mind.) However, he lacks attentional regulation and self-control when it comes to effortful things, like household responsibilities. This is not a willful, intentional oversight. The idea of chores doesn’t light up circuits in his prefrontal cortex, arouse his limbic system, or reward him with buckets of norepinephrine and dopamine. All these things feed off each other to perpetuate his neglect of responsibilities.

2. Reduce Friction by Understanding Motivation

Power struggles occur when caregivers and children have differing interests, which lead to a motivation mismatch.

Power struggles will diminish if you can pair what motivates your child with what doesn’t. For example, if your child wants your attention (high interest), give it to them while you are doing yard work together (low interest). Or if they love dinosaurs (high interest), use them as a launching point for learning about other subjects like writing or math (low interest). Make sure the low-interest responsibility is accomplished first, because once they have what they want, the motivation is gone.

[Read: How to Manage Your Child’s Toughest Behavioral Problems]

In my case, I may need to dangle the car keys or computer mouse in our son’s face and tell him that he’ll only get them once his chores, homework, and other obligations are finished.

Other ways to avoid power struggles? Pick your battles. Reduce the number of commands and criticisms. (It’s safe to say that teens with ADHD receive more “corrections” than do neurotypical teens.) Let the small things go.

I’ll try not to care if his room is a pigsty, even if his damp towels and food-encrusted dishes are a bacterial hazard.

3. Model Emotional Regulation

Responding to challenges in anger rarely ends well. Conflict is fueled by emotion, and emotions are contagious. Anger increases escalation, while calmness creates an anchor and helps maintain control.

As a parent, you’ll want to model emotional regulation for your family. When you are experiencing anger, Cannon says to imagine that a butterfly has landed on your shoulder, and you want it to stay. What do you need to do to keep it there? Be still, don’t make sudden movements, lower your voice volume, talk less, and observe what is happening around you.

When you model mindfulness and emotional regulation, you are giving your child tools to regulate and modulate their own emotional responses in difficult situations – an important life skill.

I know that I tend to be calmer than my husband when it comes to our son’s little lapses of judgment and peccadillos. But there’s still room for improvement. When I do get angry, I’m known to climb up on a lectern and not descend until I have run out of oxygen (and so has the entire room). By that point, all the butterflies will have flown away to quieter pastures.

4. Meet Your Child Where They Are

Children with ADHD often experience mind blindness. They don’t always pay attention to things that are boring or mundane. They may not even be aware of what they are doing until seconds after they have done it. That is because their powerful emotional and instinctual brain is way ahead of their slow-moving prefrontal cortex. It’s these features that often cause parenting disagreements over behavior.

To reduce conflict over behaviors, parents can support their child in creating habits they want to see through “point-of-performance support.” This means introducing life skills in baby steps, with extra support in the beginning.

Access to the car is a big motivator for our teen, but he struggles to keep it clean, which enrages my husband. So we’ll be meeting our teen in the driveway with a trashcan, and a smile. My husband might still say it’s preposterous to “baby” our teenager, but this point-of-performance support may only need to happen for a short while before tidying up becomes an independent habit.

Whenever possible, Cannon says we should make the hard task easier to accomplish and create systems for compliance to increase buy-in on more important things. Visual reminders and predictable schedules are another form of support that, over time, can instill habits.

5. Be a Coach

As you work to change your child’s behaviors, it’s important to adopt a coaching mentality. A good coach is empathetic, understanding, and a collaborative problem solver. They are not opponents or authoritarians. They do not yell, shame, or punish.

Embracing the coach mentality is hard when I’ve asked my teen for the five thousandth time to take his dirty dishes to the kitchen or pick his wet towels off the floor. I’ve found that saying “LBY” in a peppy voice has helped me feel like more of a coach and less of an angry nag. LBY is our code for Look Behind You, because each and every time he moves from one room to another, there is guaranteed to be flotsam and jetsam left behind.

Coaches are also not rescuers. Avoid swooping in with a fabulous solution in what is otherwise a learning opportunity for your child, especially if it concerns a pain point behavior for you and your partner. As much as possible, have your child invent and create solutions on their own. According to Cannon, “We learn in the struggle. If you deny the child the struggle, you deny them their growth, which is its own reward.”

Now the trick is to let our son come up with his own strategies to manage his ADHD. He’s about to be a full-fledged adult, and pretty soon his parents won’t be there to constantly coax, remind, coerce, nag, reward, or discipline him. Or, if he lives in the basement for decades, at least our voices will be significantly muted when we coax, remind, coerce, nag, reward, or discipline him.

So forget crime or punishment. Let’s focus on growth and understanding. I’ve got a pet butterfly that I am determined to keep perched my shoulder.

Parenting Disagreements: Next Steps


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