It’s often challenging for parents of kids with ADHD to know when parental support is appropriate, and when they are letting their kids get away with something.
How is a parent to know when to deal with their son or daughter’s behavior as a function of their ADHD, and when is it simply bad behavior?
This is a critical question since kids with ADHD are at high risk for long-term serious acting out behavior. One study found that, compared to girls without ADHD, girls with ADHD are more than five times as likely to have oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and more than nine times as likely to have conduct disorder.
So treating ADHD as bad behavior could create parent-child control battles resulting in kids with negative identities who have given up on cooperating with adults altogether.
So it’s best to avoid the concept of bad behavior entirely — instead, let’s differentiate behavior by the intentions of the child.
For instance, a child may intend to cooperate yet cannot due to his or her:
- lack of focus,
- or impulsivity.
Meanwhile, another child may struggle with the same issues of lack of focus, distractibility and impulsivity, yet intentionally choose not to cooperate.
Let’s look at two similar cases of kids with ADHD.
The Aftermath of Acting on Impulse
Geoff (12) is a kid who generally struggles to stay on track in school, and who often frustrates his parents with leaving messes, forgetting things, and doing things impulsively.
For instance, Geoff sometimes takes tools from his father’s tool chest and doesn’t remember where he left them. His father gets upset and Geoff tries to find the tools and expresses remorse for his actions. He might repeat a similar behavior next week, but he genuinely feels remorseful and guilty when he does something like that.
On one occasion, Geoff saw a $20 bill sticking out of his mother’s purse and before he even thought about it, he snatched it. When confronted, he denied it but his denial wasn’t plausible and he eventually admitted it.
He felt terrible and dealt with the consequences his parents gave him. He never really intended to steal… it was an impulsive act that he felt badly about.
Andrew (12) also has ADHD, and his parents struggle to get him to manage his school responsibilities and home responsibilities. He not only leaves messes, but he also has to be watched all the time. Every day is a struggle for his parents to get him to behave, not take or play with his older sister’s things, and he argues disrespectfully with his parents whenever they try to set limits.
Every day is another episode of a parent-child control battle.What should you do when every day is another episode of a parent-child control battle?Click To Tweet
When his mother found $20 missing from her purse, she was frustrated and knew that Andrew took it. Andrew vehemently denied it and she was never able to prove it. It was not the first or last time that things went missing in the family and it was always Andrew to blame.
Sometimes he was caught, and sometimes not. But the behavior was ongoing and not getting better.
What’s the Difference Between Geoff & Andrew?
While the difference between these two boys is rooted in their intentions, both children need to be held accountable and dealt with similarly.
In Geoff’s case, the only way he is going to learn is with…
- a positive supportive tone from his parents,
- discussions of strategy to help him improve,
- and needing to earn his privileges.
While ADHD can be a challenging syndrome for any kid, he or she still needs to learn to manage it. And if they receive privileges they haven’t earned, they never will.
- If it is a parent’s job to manage ADHD behavior, the child won’t learn self-management skills.
- If the responsibility belongs to the child, and they are supported and empowered, indeed they will learn, grow and succeed.
Andrew will need a similar approach, as well.
His parents will need to see the part of Andrew deep inside that wants to succeed and to be a good person, and talk to that part of Andrew. They will need to withhold privileges until he is ready to earn them.
This is different from a reward system.Earning privileges is different from a reward system.Click To Tweet
Andrew can earn privileges when he…
- communicates respectfully,
- makes sincere amends for his behavior,
- and commits to healthy cooperative behavior going forward.
His parents will need to not fight or argue, stay positive, and let Andrew know they believe in him.
They will need to let him know what they expect — both in general terms as well as specifically in the moment — and leave it up to Andrew to step up and do his best and earn his privileges.
If they can stay positive and hold appropriately high standards, Andrew will become motivated to do well, learn, grow, and have positive intentions.