Your Child Isn’t Defiant — His Skills Are Lagging

You wouldn’t expect a child to hit a baseball before learning how to swing the bat. Many children who struggle with behavioral challenges don’t have the skills they need to do what’s expected of them, and unfortunately, ADHD behaviors can lead to harsh — and mistaken — assumptions. There is the child who barges into a room, disrupting the conversation, or the one who laughs at a joke after everyone else has moved on in the conversation. These children may appear rude or awkward, but not all we see is what it seems.

How ADHD’s Executive Dysfunctions Impact Behavior

Certainly there are times when a child seems stubborn or selfish, but neuroscience suggests that it is a lack of skills, specifically the brain-based “executive function” skills, that hold him back — not willfulness or laziness. Executive function is the brain’s hub of skills — memory, organization, planning, self-regulation, and the ability to modify our behavior in response to others.

When these skills lag, advice about pushing through does not apply. Blaming and shaming only make matters worse. This is especially significant for children with ADHD, due to their complex differences in the brain’s pathways and processes for attention and behavior.

The conversation about ADHD and executive function skills most often focuses on academic skills. What’s missing, however, is recognition of how executive function affects social behavior. Social challenges are often traced back to underlying ADHD. Read on to learn how — and then, the next time your child’s behavior frustrates or baffles you, remind yourself: “If he could, he would.”

Kids Want to Please Their Parents

Generally speaking, children do not want to fail at being a kid or to disappoint their parents. Every child wants to succeed; every child wants to grow up to become a capable human being. The idea of “would if he could” is a lens through which you look at your child and reset your understanding of him. Once your child begins to develop executive function skills — whether by getting homework done or managing big emotions — his success will motivate him to want more.

[Self-Test: Does Your Child Have an Executive Function Deficit?]

Set aside discouraging assumptions about your child’s behavior and replace them with If he could, he would. A child needs continued support to navigate the academic learning curve and the social learning curve at the same time.

Here are some steps to turn this approach into action:

  1. Believe that your child has the capacity to learn, and that he has good intentions — because it’s true!

  2. Go for responses that encourage, illuminate, and engage.Recognize the qualities of character and effort that your child shows: when he shows empathy for someone, takes pride in something he does, or rebounds from a failure. Use comments that begin with “I noticed…” or “You showed…” to highlight the positive.

  3. Identify sources of stress and distraction for your child, and find specific ways to minimize them. Stress in one area leads to stress in other areas.

  4. Talk with your child about what he thinks is going on. Show curiosity and respect him as the expert on his own feelings and perspective. By doing so, you give him a chance to practice connecting internal feelings to outward behavior. That’s the executive function skill he needs to change behaviors that aren’t working for him.

It’s easy for a child to lose heart in the struggle to learn and grow. Show confidence in the qualities she brings to her challenges. The truth is that everyone is working on something.

[8 Confidence Builders for Kids with ADHD]

ADHD Success Story: Matt Overcomes School Hurdles

Matt, who is six, was barely through mid-autumn in his first-grade class when he started to not want to go to school. He had meltdowns when it was time to get in the car, or on the way. He hated school and his mother could understand why. He spent most of the day either making trouble in class or being reprimanded for it.

We talked with Matt about what was so hard about the school day, and we identified some of the problems: Matt had reading problems that needed to be addressed with one-on-one tutoring. Stress of any kind overwhelmed him, whether related to reading, communicating about a difficulty, social anxiety, or upsetting interactions with his parents and teachers. Matt needed help with his communication and self-regulation skills.

When Matt’s challenges were acknowledged, his parents got the help he needed to address them. Matt began to develop skills, and his behavior improved. Matt wanted to do well in school, and once he had what had been missing, he could.

[Free Handout: A Parent’s Guide to Ending Confrontations and Defiance]

This article was originally published in ATTITUDE. Reprinted with permission from the author.

How Tweens Can Trigger Mom’s ADHD Symptoms — and How to Keep Your Cool

How many times have you been out to a restaurant for a family dinner when your tween wouldn’t put down the phone? Texting, playing games, checking to see who’s posted on Instagram — it never ends. Or maybe you’re at home and have cleaned the kitchen. You asked your child a couple of times to take out the trash and you get that look that says, “I don’t remember you asking me to do that.” You almost lose it.

Moms with ADHD have to manage their own symptoms as they try to manage their child’s behavior. Preteens and teenagers are adept at inciting our emotions and drawing us into arguments. Managing multiple schedules and disciplining children are especially taxing for moms.

Being consistent is hard, but it’s harder for moms who overreact to everyday discipline issues. Use these tips to set yourself up for success:

Be aware of your triggers. If you often lose control, look at the triggers that set you off. A trigger is an emotional reaction to something, maybe a particular situation or circumstance, that knocks you off balance. Are you hungry, tired, or did you have a long day? Are you taking on too many activities? Do you feel pressure about something? Is there a particular topic you discuss with your child that seems to provoke a reaction?

[Free Guide: When You Have ADHD, Too]

Try the following strategies to keep you focused on parenting, not on your emotions:

  • Download positive mindset apps, such as SAM: Self-Help for Anxiety Management.

  • Breathe in and out eight times, or set the timer on your phone and breathe until you feel calmer.

  • Say something to yourself that helps you regulate your anger, such as “This too shall pass.”

  • Take care of underlying needs, like hunger or stress.

Set up household policies that can help you and your spouse manage when your ADHD challenges make discipline hard. Policies should be posted for all family members to see. They might include: “There will be no more than one sleepover each week” or “Phones are parked in the kitchen and do not come out during dinner.” Each family will find a system that works best for them, but keep it simple and easy to manage:

  • Review Love and Logic (, a program to improve discipline and parenting.

  • Identify situations that affect your ability to manage. Prioritize the top three and post them in a spot where you can see them several times a day. Place a second copy in your wallet, so you can remind yourself regularly.

[“Overwhelmed Mom Syndrome” Is Very Real]

Focus on consistency in one area only. Don’t expect to be consistent with everything at once. Start with the way you approach a specific behavior you want to improve in your child — maybe your daughter is sassy or your son refuses to go to bed on time. Pick one behavior and work on it until it improves.

Collaborate with your child. This is not being permissive, but acknowledging that you have a problem with your child and are willing to work on a solution together. When you get your child’s perspective, you can often eliminate the stalemates that cause you to lose your temper.

Get support. Find your resources — a trusted girlfriend, a therapist, or a coach. Look for someone who listens and understands.

Prepare a response. Children with ADHD are champion negotiators — wearing you down, nagging, asking for privileges, treats, or answers. Have a prepared response ready for this kind of nagging. Discuss nagging with your child and listen to his response. Have this conversation when things are calmer, not in the heat of the moment. By doing this, you let the child know that you are not going to give him what he wants when he is in this state. At any time, you can let him know that you are going to pause and take a break. To minimize the back-and-forth banter:

  • Give your tween a cue, such as, “When I say thanks for the information, we need to take a break from the discussion.”

  • Suggest a replacement activity for your tween to get her off the topic she’s focused on.

[Stay Calm and Mom (or Dad) On]

Determine the seriousness of the worry. Sometimes we over-react to our child’s behavior based on societal pressures. Check in with yourself. Is this such a big deal? Why am I so worried? Could I be overreacting because of my symptoms?

  • Write down your worry. Ask yourself, “What is the size of my worry, and why this is such a big deal?”

  • Visit Social Thinking ( It has a tool called the “Size of My Problem Poster.” It features a problem “thermometer” to help you see the “size” of your problem. It is a good tool for you and your tween.

This article was originally published at ADDITUDE. Reprinted with permission from the author.


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