Managing Your Love/Hate Relationship With Your ADHD Child

Parenting kid with ADHD - advice from Caroline Maguire.

Kids with ADHD can be tough. You love them with all your heart and yet, your child seems out of touch at times. They don’t operate with urgency to get important tasks done and when they do get into action, it’s messy, or sloppy, or disorganized, or challenging. 

Arguing is super common or they cocoon and seem to ignore other people. Maybe they want to debate things that are not up for debate, or check-out of doing important tasks altogether. All of this leaves you feeling exhausted, frustrated, and on a roller coaster of emotions all day long. 

The truth is, it’s exhausting. So while children with ADHD are smart, funny, gifted and innovative, they also struggle with executive function skills, sometimes immaturity and inconsistency. 

As a parent, you’re often caught in the middle, trying to balance your own feelings about their behavior while also trying to help your child have less conflict in their life. You love your child, but your relationship is strained because of the frustration of it all, and it’s bringing you down.

I get it. I know this world and there is a double-edged sword as a parent. 

Here’s some thoughts that may help you make some sense (and find a little relief) in it all.

Develop A “They Would If They Could” Attitude

While there are times when a child may be stubborn or selfish, neuroscience and a growing body of behavioral literature hold that often it is a lack of skills—specifically the brain-based “executive function” skills that hold him back. 

 It’s not willfulness or laziness.  

Executive function is the brain’s hub of skills that includes memory, organization, planning, self-regulation and the ability to modify behavior in response to others. When these skills lag, for whatever reason, the timeworn advice about pushing through or “trying harder to make it happen” doesn’t do the trick. 

 Unfortunately, blaming and shaming like this only make matters worse. 

 As a parent and coach, I can tell you that most children I have met do not willfully self-sabotage. Failing at a task and disappointing their parents is hard on children. And we all basically know this. Children want to succeed; every child wants to “grow up” and develop the mastery to be a capable human being. 

 To do that, kids must learn to work with their own unique brain. They have to learn what works for them and how their brain functions. This is how they become capable adults with executive function skills so they can lead successful and productive lives.

 The idea that a child “would if he could” is an important distinction because it becomes a lens through which to look at your child and reframe your understanding of them in any given moment. If you start from the perspective of “they would if they could” you are framing your criticism, fear and wishes through the practical lens of what is possible now, instead of through the lens of wishful thinking or shame.  

 This pivot in a parent’s attitude creates space for forgiveness, grace and honoring what is real for your child. With that in mind, you have greater capacity to help your child and often, gain the benefit of patience and humility in the process.

Manage Your Own Fear & Worry As A Parent

When you see your child struggle, it’s easy to get caught up in your own inner negative self-talk, and that can be scary. Before falling down the rabbit hole of fatalistic thinking, ask yourself what is real?  What are you really afraid of?  

 Ask yourself what your expectations are for your child and what’s reasonable given what you know about their ADHD, skills, history, and current path. 

 Is your child getting help to learn how to manage their unique brain? 

 How is your child managing with their friends and social interactions?

When was the last time you explored with an open heart what you’re really worried about? This is important so you don’t let your fear of the future write the story.  

By getting in touch with your anxiety and what your child’s behavior brings up for you, you can create a more realistic outlook on the future.  

Focus On The Bigger Picture, Not Just The Frustration Of The Day

We all want our children to grow up to be confident and comfortable in their own skin. And to be able to have key life skills like problem solving, making good choices and self-advocacy so they can stand on their own two feet. Our job as parents is to prepare them for the world, not just for academic life. 

 Your kids don’t have your perspective on life and it’s easy to lose heart if a struggle is hard and seems never-ending. Spend some time focusing on the bigger qualities that make up a “good human being” instead of only focusing on the smaller details like grades or an argument.

By showing your child that you believe in them, and feel confident that they have the character to tackle the challenges in front of them, you instill a deeper sense of confidence in them. This confidence is one of the critical ingredients in self-esteem and is vital to helping your child grow into a healthy adult, capable of navigating life.

The big truth is that everyone is working on something. You might share a story about something that was hard for you and how you worked on it. This is important because your child must understand that sometimes life is hard. When your child sees themself in you, there’s a camaraderie built that can last a lifetime. 

Celebrate Their Strengths

It’s true, your child may have 49 missing homework assignments, but he also may be the first to shovel snow for neighbors or play with his cousins at a family party. As a parent, it’s important to recognize the qualities of character and efforts your child makes in specific moments, not just point out their failures or weaknesses.

So whether they are big or small, when your child does something wonderful like showing empathy for someone else, steps outside of his comfort zone with a new experience, or rebounds from a failure and tries again, you should celebrate these wins. By developing a habit of noticing and acknowledging these moments, you instill a pattern of recognizing the good in their life. And this is very important for kids with ADHD who are used to being reminded of their flaws.

Change does not always happen quickly. But, when you create an atmosphere where you celebrate all the positive moments (not just the A’s on a test), you are reinforcing what is good and that is motivating. 

We all love to hear when we do something well, and when you make a habit of acknowledging your child, they will instinctively feel motivated to keep doing things that gain this kind of recognition and support. 

Finally, Shift Your Communication From Telling To Asking

Talk with your child about their experience of what’s going on. When you sit down to talk, remember to show genuine curiosity and respect, as your child is the true expert on their feelings and experience. 

You can say, “It feels like you are working hard and this is not easy for you.” OrWhat makes that hard for you?” 

Ask your child,“how much effort do you have to put into something you’re good at or something that comes easily to you?” Versus, “how much effort it takes to do something hard that they’re not good at?” 

A challenge they enjoy may take a lot of work—it may be “hard”—but their experience of that effort may be different and therefore worth it in their mind. And they may look very differently at a challenge they like versus one they dislike.

Encourage them to discuss why this might be and remind them that everyone has areas where they just struggle and have to work harder—as well as managing the feelings that come with it. 

By taking the time and showing your genuine interest in your child’s experience, you give them a chance to practice connecting their inner feelings with their outer behavior. 

This kind of dialogue helps your child express what it’s like in their brain (and in their heart) when they have an experience of working hard for a goal. By clarifying what it took to reach their goal, you’re creating a kind-of template or awareness around what skills need to be practiced to do well at something they like OR dislike.

Will I Ever Get Out Of This Constant Battle?

I wish I had a magic answer for you here. The truth is that every parent of an ADHD child can understand the love/hate relationship struggle. You’ve talked, you’ve lectured, you’ve raised your voice, you’ve even sat down over their favorite ice cream and tried to reason things out, all to have the proverbial door slammed in your face. And every parent of an ADHD kid has struggled with this kind of baffling behavior, where one moment your plans work out, and the next, your child seems unwilling or incapable of doing the “right thing” again.

Being honest (and a bit vulnerable) it can be embarrassing to watch as your child is rude to others, ignores the rules or gets in trouble with coaches and teachers again and again. We all have stories describing how our child has been less than kind to others, but how do you stop it?

If your child’s behavior has you resenting or even disliking her, you can spend a lot of time trying to figure out whether she is behaving willfully, or whether she honestly can’t do any better and needs help. 

Trying to diagnose “can’t” versus “won’t” only leaves you stuck in a constant cycle or doubt.

Fixing These Challenges Requires Exploring What Lies Beneath That Still Needs To Be Addressed

ADHD behaviors are like an iceberg. There are the parts of the behavior we see and then there are the brain-based skills and executive functions that lie below the surface of the water. These functions you cannot see and they are what’s driving your child’s behaviors and emotions.

Executive functions are the management system of the brain. The underlying brain-based processes that control attention, self-management, self-regulation, self- awareness, controlling emotions and organization and planning. 

It looks like this:

Behavior for a child with ADHD is like this iceberg. It’s the unseen portion that drives the child’s behavior. To help your child, you will have to go to those deeper dimensions—the heart of your child’s experience —to be able to develop the skills that foster change and growth.

The key to move forward is to come to understand that if your child could do better, he would do better. Assuming your child is not trying to annoy you or embarrass you but that he is struggling and does not have the skills to meet your expectations.

Now should you just sit back and excuse the behavior? Certainly not! As a parent you want to recognize your child’s strengths and you want to recognize the skills they still need to work on/develop. Just like learning to swim, throw a ball or manage a homework assignment, all children need coaching and guidance before they can manage this on their own.

In this case, your child may not read ordinary social cues or respond appropriately to their peers. Challenges like this are both frustrating and an opportunity to learn the practical problem-solving skills needed to adapt, engage, learn, and thrive as a social being.

Think of Your Child as a Glass Half Full

It’s easy to lose sight of your child’s strengths when you’re preoccupied and angered or saddened by their weaknesses. When you learn how to shift your focus and identify your child’s strengths, interests, and brain-based processing style, it’s a game changer.

Children who tend to dominate conversations can learn to be able to slow down, become curious about others and consider their feelings at the same time.Children who don’t have friends and isolate can learn how to break out of their cocoons and learn to make a new friend.

The great news is that you’re aware of your feelings as a parent of an ADHD kid and it’s hard. Acknowledging that it’s a journey, and that your child isn’t doing any of these behaviors on purpose or to annoy you can help. As I said, if they could do better they would. The ups and downs are part of your experience and you can grow to be in this relationship with your child in a way that they learn to trust that you not only see their struggles, but also see their wins.

You are your child’s greatest champion and you alone have the ability to plant the seed of confidence, self-esteem and self-advocacy. If I can help you along the way, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Updated 3/24/23

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