Positive Parenting

The (Reactive) Parent Trap

Your child’s behavior never ceases to amaze you. “Again? Really?” you say, “I’ve had it!” The exhaustion is real, but continuing on the road you’re traveling won’t solve that. Instead, you need to replace your reactive parenting with proactive strategies such as these.

Father with daughter

Before entering parenthood, you never imagined that someone you loved would affix 23 Pokémon stickers inside your rear car windows. Or pour shampoo in the washing machine “just to see.” Or scream directly in your face over taking out the recycling. But here you are — facing the reality that parenting a child with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) is a daily (if not hourly) test of your patience.

Few would blame you for yelling out “I’ve had it!” Your frustration, anger, and exhaustion are understandable. But that doesn’t mean they are healthy — to either you or your child.

To see real change and growth in your child’s behavior, you’ve got to make a fundamental shift from reactive (“I’ve had it!) to proactive parenting. What does this look like? Proactive parents do the following:

  • Speak with intention and consistency
  • Create plans and follow routines
  • Reward direction over outcome
  • Accept and learn from mistakes — their own and their child’s

How Reactive Parenting Sucks Us In

“She’s trying to drive me crazy.”

“How many times do I have to tell him?”

“Why is he doing this to me?”

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These are the thoughts that sow the seeds of reactive parenting. They result in feelings of frustration, self-loathing, and worry, and they produce actions such as yelling, punishment, and abandonment. When emotions are running high, it’s difficult to remember that children with ADHD face some unique neurological challenges beyond their control:

  • Heightened Emotionality and Reactivity: Emotional sensitivity and rejection sensitive dysphoria are common among children with ADHD. Both may trigger what appears to be deliberately inappropriate or disrespectful behavior, like yelling at the top of their lungs or slamming doors.
  • Insensitivity to Feedback Clues: A neurotypical child might notice if Mom comes home weary and worn out from her day at work, and consciously give her space. A child with ADHD likely will not; he may demand the same level of attention that he would normally expect, despite his parent’s emotional state.
  • Impulsivity: If a child has hyperactive/impulsive ADHD, she may be unable to stop and think about the consequences of her actions before executing them.
  • Difficulty Learning from Experience: Whereas a neurotypical child can be expected to avoid past mistakes in the future, a child with ADHD rarely has the necessary executive-function faculties to do so.
  • Difficulty replaying A+B=C: Children with ADHD struggle to connect the dots between what happened, what reaction ensued, and the final result.

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How to Adopt a Proactive Parenting Approach

When faced with an upset child, stay neutral and trust that you are helping your child take over his own problem-solving process by slowly building these skills until they become internalized and adopted:

  1. Empathize: A child needs to know that her parents understand what she’s feeling and stand with her. By empathizing, you open up a parent-child dialog that may stem a shut down. If, instead, you start by grilling, “What happened?” or “What did you do?” your child will feel backed into a corner.
  2. Get Neutral: Understandably, your first reaction to your child’s bad behavior might be, “Seriously? Again?” Instead, try to read this incoming information neutrally, and remember to listen.
  3. Narrow: After a child has shared everything on his mind, focus the conversation by asking a question like, “So, tell me what is bothering you the most about this situation.”
  4. Optimize: Receive the information your child has shared without argument; instead look for ways to work cooperatively on solutions by asking, “What kinds of things can you do about it?”
  5. Get Moving: Remember your ultimate goal: Help your child become more independent and solve her own problems.

Common Parenting Traps

Communication is the root of all good and evil in a parent-child relationship. Here are common traps that lead to misunderstandings and negative responses.

Ineffective Directives: Establish that you actually have your child’s attention before getting angry that he isn’t doing as you’ve asked. Children with ADHD struggle with attention, so it’s quite possible he didn’t hear or process the request the first couple of times it was made.

String Commands: Avoid long lists of commands. If you ask your child to take out the trash, feed the dog, fold their laundry, and set the table, it is unlikely she will remember anything beyond the trash.

Repeated Frustrations: No one likes repeating the same request over and over again, but you must resist the urge to yell out of frustration. You don’t want to train your child to listens only when he or she is being yelled at.

Interrupted Commands: Avoid interrupting a command by going to complete a different task or respond to a question. Remain focused if you’re requesting focus.

Vague Directives: Vague commands such as “Well, I’d really like it if you were more respectful to me,” are perplexing for children with ADHD. What does that mean — “more respectful?” How does that get conveyed? What is respect? Be clear about what, exactly, you are requesting.

Question: Avoid phrasing requests as a question: “Hey, how about you organize that backpack?”

Let’s: Avoid saying “Let’s clean up your room,” and start to make the motions of cleaning because that gives your child the option to say, “Let’s not.”

This article was adapted from Cathi Cohen’s 2018 CHADD presentation, Raise Your Child’s Social IQ” and the forthcoming book on this topic, “Raise Your Parenting IQ: Moving From I’ve Had It! to I’ve Got This!”

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