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.
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 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.
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.
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.