Positive Parenting

Your Child Is Not Giving You a Hard Time. Your Child Is Having a Hard Time.

When your child ignores, disregards, or otherwise disobeys you, punishment is an understandable consequence. It’s also not always effective. To prevent similar behavior in the future, you’ve got to dig a little deeper and change the language you use to describe your child — even in your own head.

Positive parenting words for a child with ADHD

Parents, we don’t think enough about the language we use to describe our children or their behavior. If you are raising a child with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) or autism and you are still using neurotypical descriptions of behavior, it’s important that you recognize how wholly unhelpful and unhealthy that is.

For example, my son comes in from school and kicks off his shoes in the middle of the kitchen floor. I ask him to pick up his shoes and put them in the designated shoe spot (by the door). My son doesn’t comply with the request. But is he actually refusing? In these instances that look like refusal, I have to remind myself to stop and ask: Is he flat-out refusing to follow my instructions? Or is there something else going on here?

My favorite behavior expert, Ross Greene, Ph.D., teaches us that kids do well if they can. Kids do well if they can — not “when they want to,” but when they can. When you start with that lens on your child’s unwanted behavior, you have the mindset to resolve the bad behavior. Like most parenting adjustments, it’s far from easy to adopt this lens. It means stopping to ask: What is the burden or hurdle that is keeping my child from following my instructions at this time? Is my child outright refusing? Did I give my child explicit instructions? And, if so, did he refuse to follow them, or is he struggling in some way?

Maybe you didn’t have his attention. Maybe he didn’t process what you said, or not quickly enough. Maybe he was in the middle of something else when you made your request, and he’s having trouble transitioning to that task. When you figure out why your child isn’t following your instructions, you have accurate language to describe the situation, and that makes a huge difference — it certainly did for my family.

This is not just semantics. The language you use to describe your child’s behavior matters because it frames your mindset about your child. If I’m thinking that my son is refusing — that he is willfully disobeying me — that puts me in a negative mood and thought process. On the flip side, if I say to myself, “OK, my son’s brain does not organize itself like my brain; my son does not see that his shoes are out of place. What can I do to help him get to the point where he’s able to put things away when he’s finished using them?” Those are different thought processes. With the latter perspective, I can respond with compassion, from a place of understanding and wanting to help.

[Get This Free Resource: What Not to Say to a Child with ADHD]

When you catch yourself using words like “refuses,” “rude,” “lazy,” and “unmotivated,” pause and take a moment to ask: What is going on? What is my child’s intention? Is my child really refusing? Or is this a manifestation of ADHD symptoms I’m seeing? Then you’re in a place of helpfulness. Then you can do things that are going to have a positive impact on this behavior, versus saying and doing things that make our kids feel bad about themselves and won’t improve the behavior.

What’s the alternative? I could have simply said, “Wow, my son just refuses to put his shoes away every single time. He needs to be punished.” But do you think taking away his electronics today will help him remember to put away his shoes in the future? He might remember tomorrow, and maybe the day after, if it is still painful enough. But after that, you can forget it. We’re going to return to the same pattern of behavior because I haven’t given him the skills, strategies, and work-arounds to suit his unique brain. I haven’t addressed the root of the problem. Plus, I’m probably outwardly frustrated and angry, which then affects my son’s mood and emotional regulation.

‘Refuses’ isn’t a parent’s only Red Light Word. Lazy, rude, unmotivated, defiant, selfish, won’t, should, and chooses are other phrases that I advise parents to reconsider and eradicate.

Some of these Red Light Words imply a character flaw. When you call someone rude, you’re attacking their personality and compassion for others — you’re insinuating that they’re a “bad” person. You’re labeling the behavior a character flaw rather than accepting that it’s born from who our kids are. They’re struggling in that moment when seemingly being defiant — they’re having a hard time with something. Your child is not giving you a hard time; your child is having a hard time.

Some of you might be thinking: These are just words; what difference can they really make? Well, they’re not just words to our kids and they’re not just words in the way our minds process what is happening. These Red Light Words are not helpful. They’re negative, and they pull us down into negative spaces. Your thoughts — your hope, optimism, and gratitude — affect your success as a parent of a special needs child. You have to do this work and practice it to keep in the right mindset. Banishing the Red Light Words helps put you in a positive space, which is always more helpful.

[Get This Free Expert Guide: 50 Tips for How to Discipline a Child with ADHD]

Over time, you’ll notice that the more you change your words out loud, the more it will change the narrative coming from that little voice in your head. I know this is not easy stuff. I know I am asking you to be mindful, to work hard on taking a different approach to your language and perspective. Change is hard, but it makes a big difference. I promise.

Remember, too, that your child’s developmental age is two to three years behind his or her chronological age. If you’re parenting a 10 year old, that child is more like 7 or 8 years old — developmentally speaking. This fact requires a different parenting approach, and a realignment of your expectations. When you start saying your child won’t act his age, your red flag should be waving and you should stop to ask, “How can I reframe this in a way that honors who my child is and where he is right now, so I can actually help him?”

When you start reframing your child’s behavior like this — when you start seeing your child for who she is and not who she is in comparison to her peers or other kids her age — it is liberating. It’s amazingly powerful, in part, because you’re able to see that your child isn’t choosing to do something that breaks your rules. You’re also effectively reminding yourself that this is the brain she is working with — a symptom of her ADHD and/or autism. This is where your child is right now, and it’s your job to meet her there. Now you’re looking at that behavior from the place of acceptance, compassion, and empathy — and those things always work better for our kids and our parenting.

[Free Download Available: Your Free 13-Step Guide to Raising a Child with ADHD]


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Updated on August 20, 2020

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  1. First let me say this article is just what I needed right now. I sent this to all of my friends and I’m filing it away to use if needed for my kids teachers/administrators.

    I am also beginning to see my neurotypical children’s behavior as a signal of a lagging skill at times. I believe when Ross Greene says “kids do well if they can” – I think he is referring to all kids not just those with special needs ??

    I mean kids can lag in certain emotional/social areas without having a diagnosable disorder. Just like kids can have lagging math skills but no diagnosed learning disability isn’t that the same for emotional/social stuff ? Just wondering what everyone else thinks.

  2. Well isn’t this just so precious? We’re raising a generation of fragile stick figures instead of human beings. When I tell my kid to put his shoes away and he says no, guess what? He’s…wait for it…refusing! He’s not having a hard time. He’s just simply refusing, like kids do sometimes.

    Don’t ever discipline your kids! Lord have mercy, they might shatter!

  3. Thank you for the reminder of using positive language. I do find it helpful. However, I feel this article is lacking in the what to use. It focuses on the negative parenting as opposed to what the positive parenting should look like. Ironically, since the premise of the article is to be positive.

  4. rockprof, Perhaps you are a Russian bot, or perhaps this is an anger outburst due to your ADHD that your parents never recognized and adjusted their parenting style.It’s curious that you are on this forum and reading the comments only to display your lack of understanding of ADD/ADHD. This piece resonated with me because I was constantly labeled as lazy as a kid. In reality I was quite motivated-when I saw what the purpose was behind the task requested of me. I’m still that way. Don’t ask me to ‘just do it’ because I most likely won’t. Shoes! I still have shoes all of the house (I’m 63) and my wife understands that and does not see any reason to try to change my behavior. If she says we’re having company, I’ll gather and put my shoes where ‘they belong’. Being an engineer, I see function first. ADDer’s do not think in a linear way. Now, Re-read that-ADD’s do not think in a linear way. Neuro-typical folks cannot understand that.Thoughts placed on a yardstick evenly, or thoughts thrown in a bucket, mixed up, and you pick one at random without looking at them. Imagine the work we go through JUST TO THINK. Let alone act and get something done. My advice? Keep learning with this forum and recognize that when you read something thank causes you to react in a negative way it may point to how you were treated by the formative people in your life. The people who read these articles have had enough people telling us we are wrong,stupid,and lazy. I hope you find peace.

  5. @rocprof — please note that, in my example, my son never said “no” or verbally refused to put his shoes away. He just didn’t respond to what I said. There is a time and place for discipline, of course, but when a child’s neurological difference is preventing them from completing a task successfully, all the discipline in the world won’t change that. If we ignore our kids’ challenges and hold them to neurological expectations, that’s doing far greater damage… for the rest of their lives.

    Penny
    ADDitude Community Moderator, Parenting ADHD Coach, Podcaster & Author, Mom to teen w/ ADHD, LDs, and autism

  6. @ladc23 — When you’re in the positive mindset and seeing your child for who they really are and where they are, the more positive approach is natural. In the instance where my son didn’t respond to me noting that the shoes weren’t when they belong, when he doesn’t respond, I work on making sure he’s hearing and processing what I’m saying. I go over to him and put a hand on his shoulder and say something like, “Hey Buddy, you must not have heard me. Can you focus on what I’m saying for a second? You’re shoes aren’t where they belong. Where should you put them?” When I remember that my child is HAVING a hard time, not GIVING ME a hard time, it automatically shifts what you say and do and how you say and do it.

    Penny
    ADDitude Community Moderator, Parenting ADHD Coach, Podcaster & Author, Mom to teen w/ ADHD, LDs, and autism

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