Dear Parents: You Are the Solution…
…to your child’s biggest struggles with ADHD. The Fix You First approach to ADHD therapy recognizes that traditional parenting approaches actually exacerbate and worsen ADHD problems within families. To make progress with your child, you need to recognize that they are not the problem — and that nothing will change unless you change.
When my oldest child was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder at the age of seven, I wasn’t ready to try medication for a few reasons that may sound familiar to other parents: she was young and it was scary.
Instead, I tried everything else I could get my hands on: acupuncture, food elimination diets, occupational therapy, cranial sacral therapy, chelation therapy, homeopathy, horseback riding, vision therapy, martial arts, COGMED, neurofeedback, counseling, and chiropractic care. All in the name of fixing my broken child. Nothing made a noticeable difference. Her symptoms worsened, our relationship deteriorated, her grades dropped, friendships disappeared, her self-esteem melted away, and our bank account deflated.
What I wanted, more than anything, was to change her. I wanted to make her ADHD symptoms go away so that I could have the nice, obedient child I signed up for, the one I’d dreamed about, the one I felt extremely guilty for wanting, yet nonetheless continued to pursue. It took me years to understand that my daughter was not the problem. I was the problem.
I needed to come at her with a radical acceptance of who she was and how she struggled. I needed to find, deep within myself, a compassion for her. I needed to realize there was nothing wrong with her; that she didn’t need to be fixed. She was emotional, lost everything, messy beyond belief, loud, got lousy grades — and she was perfect.
As a psychotherapist who treats ADHD, I get calls from parents like my former self on a daily basis. Please help my child. I recognize the exhaustion, the frustration, and the grief. The desperation. And I offer them a solution: Fix You First.
This advice doesn’t always land well. By the time they call me, they have heavily identified with the fact that their child is the problem — and frankly, many don’t want to do the work themselves. It’s hard, and they are already exhausted. But, in many ways, what is actually harder is the constant fight against the current of your child’s behavior. If you swim alongside him, things get so much easier.
Why Might You Be the Problem?
- The parenting approaches that typically work for other children not only will not work for your child but may exacerbate the problem. By learning a different parenting approach, you can positively impact your child’s behavior.
- You may need a deep understanding of why your child’s ADHD brain causes the difficult behavior. Many parents think the defiance, lying, lack of motivation, forgetfulness, and sloppiness is willful and intentional. It makes them angry on a daily basis. An understanding that these are often physiological and uncontrollable responses can lead to compassion, and this compassion can shift your child’s behavior in measurable ways.
- Your own emotional hot buttons are sometimes triggered by your child’s behavior. This can cause the maladaptive response of nagging, shouting, negotiating, being authoritarian, or being overly permissive in an attempt to quell your own anxiety and discomfort. Understanding these triggers can help you react differently and model the controlled, mindful response you are trying to get from your child.
- You may be practicing Reactive Parenting — after-the-fact responses of punishment and unintentional shaming that won’t positively shape your child’s behavior but will cause a worsening parent-child dynamic and self-esteem problems. Learning Proactive Parenting skills will arm you with tools to anticipate your child’s needs and possibly make home-life smoother.
- You may be in a dysfunctional communication pattern of trying to convince, negotiate, rationalize, or fix when instead sometimes simply listening and reflecting and holding boundaries would be easier and more effective.
- And the single biggest reason that Fixing You First is often necessary and healthy: You have access to your child far more than the hour that a counselor might see them each week. You might hope the counselor can help with symptoms, but since many of the symptoms come from an impulsive brain, expecting a child to access tools they learned in session to control an impulsive reaction requires a mindfulness most children with ADHD simply don’t have.
You Can Be the Solution
You don’t necessarily have to work with a Parent Behavior Therapist to become a ProActive Parent. It requires a willingness to learn about ADHD and the brain, to reflect on your own triggers, to find compassion for your child’s struggle, and to change your communication style, among others. Your child’s ADHD symptoms are part of them — sometimes they make your child funny and creative and entertaining, but frequently they lead to dysfunctional responses to the overwhelming requests of the world around them. Learning ways you can lessen that overwhelm and provide a positive space for your child to feel accepted can be the first step to inviting not only better behaviors, but also a better relationship with your child.
The Fix You First Daily Plan
As a start, consider making the following a part of your daily routine:
- Dedicate at least five minutes each day to focus on your child. Set up a game or special play time or, for older children a dedicated time to talk or share an activity. Research indicates that even just five minutes can build a healthy relationship. To better your communication, use PRIDE: Praise, Reflect, Imitate, Describe, Enthusiasm.
- PRAISE your child during this interaction using specifics. “Nice job keeping your hands to yourself.” “Thank you for sharing what happened at school with me.”
- REFLECT verbatim what your child says. This is excellent during whining so you don’t start negotiating, but also makes the child feel heard. Child: I don’t want to go last! Parent: You don’t want to go last. No matter how much they beg or complain, simply repeat what they say. It tends to end there, sets boundaries, and leaves the child feeling they’ve been listened to.
- IMITATE: During your time together, do exactly what your child does. It lets him lead and feel empowered, but also models doing what you’re told. If she puts the doll to bed, you put your doll to bed. If he draws a sun, you draw a sun.
- DESCRIBE: Narrate your child’s actions during play. This shows you are watching and are interested, helps with language development and self-esteem, and helps organize the child’s thoughts about play.
- ENTHUSIASM: Using an elevated tone of voice demonstrates interest in your child and can strengthen your relationship.
If your child understands how to get positive responses from you, he may begin to automatically shift behaviors to elicit that response instead of the nagging, yelling, disappointed response he typically receives. This can make a positive impact at school as well, because positive adult responses feel so much better and he may begin to seek them more.
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