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Why Parents Underestimate Boys’ Flexibility and Resiliency

Parents in general, and particularly parents of kids with ADHD, tend to grossly under-estimate their sons’ ability and willingness to push themselves out of their comfort zones, try new things, and demonstrate a level of cognitive flexibility. Here is why that happens, and what you can do to stop it.

Positive preteen boy in casual outfit keeping arms crossed and looking at camera against vivid yellow background
Positive preteen boy in casual outfit keeping arms crossed and looking at camera against vivid yellow background

“Can I pack him lunch? He won’t eat what you’ll have.”
“He’ll never do that activity. He wouldn’t try it when we wanted to go as a family.”
“He won’t be able to handle that.”

Without fail, each year before my summer camp starts, I receive a litany of questions or comments from parents about what they perceive their sons cannot or will not do. Over the last four years, they have been wrong 9 out of 10 times.

Parents in general, and particularly parents of kids with ADHD, tend to grossly under-estimate their sons’ ability and willingness to push themselves out of their comfort zones, try new things, and demonstrate a level of cognitive flexibility.

When I hear these types of comments before camp starts, here is what I explain to parents:

Kids are not fragile; they are ‘anti-fragile.’ If your son is socially motivated — if he wants to be around other boys his age and feel a sense of belonging — he will exhibit a much greater degree of resiliency and cognitive flexibility than he ever will with his family. Why? Because feeling included and being part of a male peer group holds tremendous value to him, even if he does not verbally articulate this to you.

[Does My Child Have ADHD? Take This Test To Find Out]

Often, I begin to see this strong social motivation develop around age 10 to 11, although it is perfectly normal if the desire to be part of a male peer group develops earlier or a little later.

Before presuming what your son won’t or can’t do, I encourage you to ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I want my son to have the opportunity to have fun and have shared experiences with other kids that cultivate connections? Do I want him to try new things or is it more important that I protect him from experiencing temporary discomfort? How will protecting him from temporary discomfort help him over the long term?
  • If I do not provide my son with the opportunity to try new things and push himself out of his comfort zone, what does he have to gain? What does he risk missing out on?
  • If I under-estimate my son, am I sending him the message that I perceive him as fragile? Do I want to convey this, or do I want him to feel ‘anti-fragile?’
  • Am I projecting my own anxiety onto my son? Am I scared he’s going to be upset with me if I push him out of his comfort zone?
  • What do I have to gain by under-estimating my son’s capacity for flexibility and resiliency?

[Are You Enabling Your Child’s Won’t-Try-Anything-New Inflexibility?]

Kids with ADHD often have difficulty with episodic memory, meaning they often do not recall past experiences and the emotions associated with those experiences (unless they are very strong emotions). They also do not easily apply what they learned from past experiences to the present. That said, it is critical that parents help to bridge those connections for and with them.

One effective way to bridge those connections for your son is to use declarative language —not imperative language like “get your shoes” or “do your homework. “When a person doesn’t respond to an imperative statement, they are viewed as non-compliant or a behavioral challenge if it continues to happen,” said Linda Murphy, CCC-SLP, author of the Declarative Language Handbook (#CommissionsEarned), in her ADHD Dude Live interview. “In contrast, declarative language is a comment. You are stating an observation, a memory, something you are planning for, or something you notice, but you are not putting a demand on a child to do anything in particular. You are making a statement that invites the child to observe or think.”

I teach declarative language strategies in Webinar 1 of Executive Function Crash Course because it is so critical to helping your son build flexibility, resiliency, and confidence in his abilities. It also teaches him that you are confident in his capacity to grow.

I encourage you to not under-estimate your son or project your own “stuff” onto him. The best thing you can do for him is teach him that you see him as capable and resilient, and that you value his desire to be part of a peer group.

Resilience in Boys with ADHD: Next Steps


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Updated on October 8, 2020

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