Parenting kids with ADHD can be a challenge. Dr. Nanika Coor explains ways that focusing on the quality of the parent-child relationship can not only improve your relationship with your child, but also help them develop the emotional and cognitive skills they’re missing.
Parenting kids with ADHD can be a challenge, but your role as a parent is crucial for your child's success as an adult. In his book Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It, Dr. Gabor Mate describes how the quality of the parent-child relationship can be used to help promote the emotional and cognitive skills that are underdeveloped in a child with ADHD.
A diagnosis of ADHD requires two of the following three features: deficient attention skills, poor impulse control, and hyperactivity. Your child may be easily distracted unless engaged in activities that they are highly motivated for or interested in. And then, when they’re involved in these high-interest activities, they might hyperfocus to the extent that they are completely unaware of the environment around them.
Your child may also have great difficulty inhibiting their speech or behavior. They might chronically interrupt others or have a hard time waiting for a turn. Regardless of negative consequences, they act impulsively and without forethought.
Your child’s reactions are influenced by your reactions to them.
If your child is also hyperactive—not all kids with attention deficits are—they may also have trouble being physically or mentally "still." This might look like constant fidgeting, nail biting, and excessive talking and explaining. Other symptoms might be low motivation, poor memory, and social problems. People with ADHD also tend to have high emotional sensitivity, which can make for unpredictable and outsized mood swings and angry outbursts when interrupted or thwarted.
Parenting a child with ADHD can be anxiety provoking and frustrating, but reacting with your own impulsiveness, verbal and/or physical aggression, or helplessness will only escalate the situation in a vicious cycle. By the time families receive a diagnosis, this cycle has usually been in place for a while. Before embarking on any plan to help your child learn missing skills, it’s important to work toward stabilizing your relationship with your child by doubling down on emotional connection. The closer you and your child feel to each other, the easier it will be to work together toward positive change.
Here are 10 tips for parenting ADHD kids
1. Be conscious of your own emotional regulation
As the person with the fully developed brain in the parent-child relationship, your moods set the emotional atmosphere in your home. Your child’s reactions are influenced by your reactions to them.
Model taking responsibility for your own emotional reactions. Rather than becoming overly exuberant or rageful, or falling into despondency and dissociation, focus on maintaining your internal emotional equilibrium. Don’t let yourself be controlled by your child’s challenging behaviors and moods. Learn to tolerate the internal anxiety that can arise in the face of challenging and ever-changing external circumstances. The emotional stability, safety and security that you can provide as a self-regulated parent is exactly what your ADHD child needs to to regulate themselves.
2. Change your lenses
Dr. Ross Greene, creator of Collaborative and Proactive Solutions, invites parents to change the lenses through which they are viewing their children’s challenging behaviors.
When you view your child as doing well if they want to, you become focused on getting children to "want to" by trying to control their behavior with rewards and punishments. When you view your child as doing well if they can, you begin to focus on what makes it possible for them to do well and what gets in their way.
See your child in a positive light, as wanting to do well because they prefer their adults to be pleased with them. Your child’s challenging behaviors aren’t because they’re trying to give you a hard time. The challenging behaviors are a signal that your child needs your help.
3. Compassionate responses diffuse your child’s anxiety
Focus on your child’s need for connection that drives their challenging behaviors.
Often, behaviors that look like negative-attention-seeking are real attempts at connection. When met with disapproval, your child perceives that as rejection. Rejection ignites your child’s anxiety and shame, further escalating their challenging behaviors, and inviting even more disapproval from you.
The remedy to this escalating feedback loop is to provide connection before your child begins to demand it. Overfill your child’s emotional cup proactively, before it gets empty.
When your child does demand attention in button-pushing ways, pause, take a breath and resist responding with irritation. Instead, kindly respond with an I-statement like: “I can’t play right now.” Or “That activity doesn’t work for me at the moment.” Help your child tolerate your refusals by resisting the urge to shame your child for demanding your attention. Instead, tolerate their angry or frustrated disappointment with empathy.
4. Choose curiosity rather than blame
Kids with ADHD are often accused of intentionally seeking to control and annoy their adults. In actuality, in addition to poor impulse control and self-regulation, it’s often internalized anxiety, shame, and anger that can fuel their button-pushing behaviors.
Rather than jumping straight to scolding and admonishments, get curious about why your child might engage in harmful, annoying, or rigid behaviors. What in the moment or in their life could they have been reacting to? What needs were they trying so unskillfully to meet? Try to be understanding and supportive of these underlying needs and help your child meet them in more acceptable ways.
5. Understand your role in your child’s resistance
Children with ADHD often experience involuntary, reactionary, and reflexive resistance driven by an anxiety around being controlled.
This kind of rigid resistance is a developmentally normal reaction in a toddler or adolescent in the service of a child becoming an individual, separate from their parents. However, people of all ages with ADHD will often resist perceived control or force with an out-of-proportion amount of counterforce.
The escalating feedback loop of your child’s challenging behaviors and your resulting displays of disapproval increase your urge to control their behavior—often with scolding and punishment—which only increases the amount of resistance with which your child automatically reacts. Instead, prioritize connection over control and cooperation over compliance. When you and your child are strongly and warmly connected, they are less likely to resist you and more likely to want to cooperate.
6. Don’t take your child’s resistance personally
When you see your child’s challenging behavior as being directed at you, you start participating in the unhealthy cycle of control-resistance. View your child’s oppositional behavior as their nervous system’s reaction to the perceived threat of control. Instead of imposing consequences, prioritize empathy and emotional co-regulation.
7. Don’t be blindsided by your child’s resistance
Realize ahead of time and accept that your child will often display opposition and resistance. Proactively plan to respond to that resistance with patience and understanding. Practice asserting your parental needs and limits with kind firmness rather than rage or helplessness. It’s important that your child be able to express resistance without the belief that such expressions will damage their relationship with you.
8. Validate your child’s feelings of resistance
Verbally acknowledge that your child dislikes the feeling of being controlled, but also offer more acceptable ways to express disagreement. “I hear that you don’t like being rushed to get dressed. I don’t like being spoken to with hurtful words. Next time you can say—'Mama, I need you to give me more time.' Or, Mama - I get frustrated when you ask me things lots of times.'”
The more accepting you can be of your child’s differences, the more self-accepting and comfortable your child will be with themselves.
9. Practice relational repair when you lose control as a parent
As the parent of a child with poor attentional/emotional regulation and impulse control you will inevitably lose your patience. You can reduce the impact of your parental blow-ups on your child and your relationship with them by initiating a relationship restoring conversation as soon as you can following such an incident, once everyone’s heightened emotions have subsided. Preferably during a strongly connected moment, revisit with your child what happened. Show understanding for their resulting anxiety, fear, anger or sadness, and take responsibility for having lost control. This lets your child know that no impulsiveness on their part or your part will have any lasting damage on your relationship - that you’ll always come together again.
10. Encourage your child’s self-motivation by encouraging their autonomy
Allow and encourage your child to make their own realistic and developmentally appropriate choices within the calm, predictable, and supportive structure that you provide. Make sure your child clearly understands your limits and boundaries, but be generous with them. As long as their choices don’t deliberately and knowingly harm themselves or others, try to allow for and empathize with them even when you don’t entirely agree. Let them learn from the naturally-occurring consequences of their chosen actions, and show appreciation for their motives even when you don’t like the outcomes of those choices.
For the next 30-90 days pick one or two ADHD parenting tips to focus on and notice the impact on your relationship with your child and their behavior. Let me know how it goes!
Children with ADHD often feel very different and have trouble conforming to the neurotypical world. While parenting kids with ADHD can be challenging, the more accepting you can be of your child’s differences, the more self-accepting and comfortable your child will be with themselves. A self-accepting child who feels unconditionally accepted and loved by their parent has better self-esteem, can better pay attention, and can better regulate their emotions and behaviors. Win-win!