Managing Your Love/Hate Relationship With Your ADHD Child

By Caroline Maguire, M.Ed. PCC

Your child nags you in the lobby of a hockey game begging for candy- even when you say no – he continues to begin plead and cajole.  Your child tells a neighbor that he is done talking to him because he “needs to eat” and turns his back on your family friend and walks away.   You watch as your child refuses to get in line and listen to her swim coach, she moves like a firefly and does not seem to notice the coach’s clear annoyance. At Thanksgiving despite your repeated suggestions that he stop, your child takes out his phone ignoring everyone to play games and dive deep into his online world.

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

Can I Get Out Of This Constant Battle?

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 her favorite ice cream and tried to reason with her, all to have the proverbial door slammed in your face.  And every parent has struggled with your child’s baffling behavior, her seeming unwillingness to change or to do what you have asked.

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.

The ADHD Child’s Intentions Are Good

It is important to realize some children with ADHD don’t have the perspective or ability to see how others interpret their actions and behaviors.

Children with ADHD often don’t have the capacity to understand how they come across when socializing with others. Their intentions are good, but they don’t really know how to tune in and “walk in the other person’s shoes.” When feeling bored, overwhelmed, hungry, tired or face a self-regulating challenge, the child with ADHD can unintentionally forget social rules and without meaning to, come across as uncaring and bad mannered.

Children with ADHD may struggle with interpreting social cues, but with proper support, she CAN work to develop a better perspective, step into someone else’s shoes and manage her own behavior to meet expectations.  But this is not an overnight journey and often your child means well but cannot change without help and support.

It’s What Lies Beneath That Needs To Be Addressed

So now you know that your child’s behavior may not be 100 percent in his control. Our tendency as parents is to jump right in and fix it. If the bike is broken, not a problem, that can be fixed. A shoelace needs to be tied, easy! But in the case of a  child with , watch out—do not assume that the problem you see is what needs fixing.

The behavior itself is like an iceberg. There are the parts of the behavior we see and then the brain-based skills and executive functions below the surface of the water, that you cannot see and that are driving these baffling behaviors and making your child seem not to care about meeting your expectations.

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.

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 Social Behavior Iceberg: You child’s observable behaviors—the ones you find baffling or frustrating—are like the visible tip of the iceberg. The reasons for that behavior lie below the surface, in the way that your child is hardwired for certain strengths in brain-based skills, while some others are unevenly or less developed.

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 she needs to develop. Just like learning to swim, throw a ball,  make a doctor’s appointment or manage a homework assignment- all children need coaching and guidance.

In this case- your child may not read ordinary social cues and respond appropriately. This is an area that will be an ongoing challenge but also an opportunity to learn the practical problem-solving skills needed to adapt, engage, learn, and thrive as a social being.

It’s Okay For My Friends To Have Thoughts Different From My Own

As you stand in line behind your daughter,  you hear her speaking in a sassy tone to her friends – clearly wanting her way and getting it by being bossy and mean, “I don’t want to do it that way, besides it’s a stupid idea.” Hearing this, you wince in embarrassment thinking, “why is she always so rude to her friends?”  This isn’t the first time you’ve seen your daughter express some “less than desirable” character traits. When you ask her about the encounter, she seems to have no idea that she has been rude.  She tells you, “It was a stupid idea, mine was better”, clearly missing the point.

One of the reasons your child might seem to be rude or inconsiderate is because of those weak executive functions. One major skill that we all need to get along with others is to step into their shoes, think about how our behavior impacts our friends and to adapt our behavior to make sure we are considering the feelings of others.

This skill of stepping into someone else’s shoes is called theory of mind.  Having theory of mind means understanding that other people’s thoughts and feelings may be different from your own. How many times have you heard Grandma say, “think before you speak”? Great phrase, right?

The problem is that the child with who does not have the ability to read the minds of others cannot hear or notice that their tone, misguided humor, or abrupt subject changes may come across as rude and outright mean.

The child with ADHD  can misread behavior and therefore does not understand how their physical and verbal actions affect other people. Teaching children theory of mind means helping the child to consider others’ point of view, perspectives, desires, motives, and intentions.  To do this effectively, parents  will learn to use open questions and to develop this key skill.

Learning to Step Into Someone Else’s Shoes

So how do you begin this journey? Your goal is to help your child recognize that you and others have feelings about his actions and that those feelings affect how you react to him.  Coaching is more than just a way of communicating. Coaching is a combination of using open questions such as “what do you think made Lucy get angry?” along with reflecting or summarizing what you hear.

Step 1 

Getting Your ADHD Child To Open Up and End the Love Hate Relationship With Your Child

Learn how to ask good questions Open-ended questions use the words who, what, when, where, and how. They ask, rather than tell.   And open questions encourage your child to talk and problem solve.

If you tell your child “ you are always rude, and you did not think about your friend’s feelings.” He is apt to just shut down and he does not really contemplate the situation from all angle.

Open questions allow your child to hold the mirror up to his behavior and to hear his own assessment. They also make it easier to have the conversation since you are not interrogating him- you are curious – detached asking him what the situation is.

The process looks like this:

Joseph, who thinks all facts are worth arguing about, even with adults and often times goes so far as to correct other adults.  He tends to say things like “actually that is not true.” Correcting adults and peers alike.

First: Ask Joseph, “How do you think I feel when you correct me?” Have him look at your face and interpret what you are feeling can also be beneficial.

Second: No matter what the answer is, even if it’s a shrug and an, “I don’t know,” continue to ask him, “I am curious what made you look up the answer on your phone?”

Third: Give Joseph space allow him to think about it.

Joseph tells you that he was “sure you were wrong and knew he was right.”

Fourth: Keep cool.  Ask Joseph “ what do you think I felt when you doubted me and looked up the answer?”  or  “ what is the price of being right?”

This begins to help the child think about what the unspoken social rules were and what they are expected to do in the future.  The questions help the child with ADHD pause and reflect on other people’s state of mind.   In the minivan or on the go, continue to ask him questions when his conversations present as forgetting other people’s feelings.

Questions can center on:

  • What do other people feel?

  • What is the reaction to their behavior?

  • What did the other people’s facial expression tell them about their feelings?

  • What was the behavior that would make people feel positive about them?

  • What was the appropriate behavior in the situation?

The open-ended question coaching technique walks the child with ADHD  through interpreting other people’s point of view to examine how their actions and behaviors affect others.  Self-regulation and other coping skills may need to be practiced to help children put their best foot forward, but the key is to help the child consider how they come across to those in their everyday interactions.

Step 2  

Learning to Collaborate and Manage Conflict Helps You Create Cooperation With Your ADHD Child

When challenges arise teach your child how to reflect On an ongoing basis and on the spot when the child is rude, presents inconsiderate behavior, or is dismissive, begin to ask him open-ended questions that allow him to reflect on his actions and how he might make other people feel.

Additional questions to stimulate conversation include:

  • How do you think other people feel when you don’t show interest?

  • What were the circumstances and how did you adjust?

  • What were the typical behaviors in that environment?

  • What did you notice about the other person?

  • What could you do when you are bored?

  • What happens if your tone is dismissive?

  • What do you think your peers think when you are bored and abruptly stop talking?

Step 3

Choose a specific situation that’s been difficult for your child and explain that thinking about her past behavior can help to figure out what to do right now. It can also help to predict your child’s likely future behaviors. Offer an example from your own experience. Walk through the questions to have a dialogue about your child’s view of the situation:

  • What do I know about my past behavior or usual behavior?

  • What are my interests?

  • How have I reacted to other similar situations in the past?

  • What social signals am I sending?

  • What choices do I have?

  • How do my choices come across as likable, appealing behaviors?

  • What reaction will my behavior get in the future?

  • How can I consider this person’s feelings—stand in his shoes, see his perspective—when making choices about how I speak or behave toward him?

How to Trade the Language of “Tell-Tell-Tell” for “Listen and Learn”

How many times have you said, “How many times have I told you…?” To make the shift from the “tell-tell-tell” mindset to the more effective coaching practice of “listen and learn,” start by trading phrases.

  • Instead of try harder, you can say: What’s getting in your way? What would you like to do differently? What are you expected to do as a friend?”

  • Instead of “Be more friendly” you can say: “What do you think being friendly and likable looks like?” “What are you doing that is friendly?”

  • Instead of “Stop being difficult” you can say: “What’s going on for you right now?”

  • Instead of saying “Your attitude about this is so negative” you can say: “What is the story you are telling yourself?” Or “I hear you being kind of negative what is going on for you?”

  • Instead of “Get control of yourself” you can say: “You’re the boss of your behavior—how can you take charge of (your body, your words) right now?

  • Instead of “Stop being so mean to your friends.” you can say: “What could you do to help meet your friends in the middle when deciding where you want to go?” “What would it be like to ask what they want to do?”

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 with their weaknesses. When you learn how to shift that 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 interpret and consider the feelings of others. It’s a journey, and consistency is the key. Parents should find comfort in knowing that all children benefit from patient and nurturing parents and the open-ended questions technique is well suited to parents who wish to help their children become more kind and aware of how their behavior affects others.

My new book, Why Will No One Play With Me? will teach parents how to coach their child through any social problem. Be sure to take my new checklist to determine if your child needs social skills help at

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