Coping well with ADHD: Tips for parents
“I’ve had it!” Every parent has experienced reaching the limit of patience and losing their cool with their ADHD child. Perhaps they may even cross the line and say words they end up regretting. The regret registers as quickly as the hurt look that comes over their child’s face, or the terrified look that acknowledges the power of a parent to carry out spirit-crushing threats. Many parents are familiar with the ensuing self-blame over damaging words that, once said, can never be taken back.
As a psychologist helping both kids with ADHD and their parents, I am familiar with the frustrations and feelings of inadequacy that loving parents can experience in their daily struggles of parenting an ADHD child. Because parents who have reached their limit may do and say detrimental things, I have summarized five coping strategies to help parents to keep their cool and love their kids through the tough moments:
1. Accurately attribute your child’s behaviour to ADHD, not a personal failing
A forgetful child is called irresponsible. A child with difficulty focusing and completing homework is called lazy. Another child who struggles to listen when spoken to directly is called rude or disrespectful. These words when spoken to a child convey personal failings that can damage their self-esteem and leave a lingering legacy of inadequacy and self-doubt. Remember that ADHD presents in ways easily mistaken for a moral or personal failing. Proper reattribution of the behaviour to ADHD can therefore help to reduce anger at the child and increase the capacity to parent lovingly through tough moments. Reattribution can take the form of consciously changing one’s self-talk from, “Johnny is so dumb for not being able to follow my instructions,” to “This is Johnny’s ADHD expressing itself.” Reattribution can also entail replacing charged or negative terms with more neutral ones, such as saying “inattentive” instead of “dumb.”
2. Focus on primary issues, not secondary ones
By the time parents come to me for help, there is often the sense that they are in crisis mode because the unmanaged ADHD has gotten so out of hand. Often I find that parents are overwhelmed because they are failing to distinguish between primary (or underlying) issues and secondary (or symptomatic) issues, and they are devoting scarce parenting energies to dealing with secondary behaviours that are driven by a more fundamental, underlying issue. Recently, one mother sought help to deal with a laundry list of problems with her son, “Tom.” Tom was oppositional, anxious, disorganized, failing in school, had low self-esteem, and there was significant tension in the family around Tom’s issues. After a couple of sessions with Tom, I found that most of his problems were driven by academic concerns – he was anxious and rebelled against studying because he lacked adequate organizational and study skills. Recognizing this helped Tom’s parents to focus on helping Tom improve his academic skills, pick their battles more wisely (e.g., they are no longer hell-bent on winning every argument), and feel less overwhelmed.
3. Forgive quickly
Let’s face it: Out kids can make us really mad sometimes. This is when the power of forgiveness can make a difference in how we cope. But what is forgiveness? It is easy to talk about forgiving but how do we actually do it? Forgiveness isn’t an attitude or a feeling. In a pragmatic sense, forgiveness is an act of giving up the right to stay angry at someone, with the understanding that you have every right to be angry and punish the wrong to obtain a “just” outcome. There is an implicit “justice seeking” mindset among parents who punish their children abusively – they carry out harmful punitive actions against their kids as “payback.” When parents forgive, i.e., give up their right to be angry and exact that payback, they will discipline with firmness and love but not punitiveness. A massive body of empirical and clinical evidence also indicates that they will feel calmer and cope better with their emotional stress.
4. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is a mental and emotional posture of neutrality and detachment. A central component of mindfulness is non-judgment. Mindfulness can reduce stress by helping parents to change their evaluation of stressors from “bad” to neutral. We naturally judge any negative situation as “bad” because it is unwanted. However, many of the stressors attendant to parenting a distracted and/or impulsive child are not bad in a moral evaluative sense. Stealing, hurting people and other moral transgressions are bad, but that same value judgment cannot be applied to your child’s ADHD traits. Moreover, stress itself is not bad – it is only stress (admittedly not good, but not bad either). The more we can see a trait or feeling as neither good nor bad but just is, the calmer we will be because we increase our acceptance of the experience and are more willing to work with it, rather than trying to get rid of the experience (after all, you would be more willing to have a neutral thing than a bad thing in your life). Take up yoga or meditation – these practices help to reduce stress by facilitating mindfulness.
5. Ask for support from your spouse or partner
In my clinical experience, the burden of dealing with the behavioural difficulties of kids with ADHD seems to fall on mothers. Typically, it is the mother who initiates the call, brings the child to my office, attends parenting sessions, reports ongoing issues and interacts with the feedback that I share. Many mothers that I work with report feeling stressed due to the lack of involvement of their husbands or partners. The burden of parenting behaviourally difficult kids needs to be shared. It is absolutely fair to ask for the support of your spouse or partner and convey an expectation of increased involvement. It is not hard to see that having added support will decrease your stress level in a number of ways, but sometimes asking for help is the difficult part as this can trigger conflict and bring up deeper marital issues. This is when a trained therapist can assist by helping couples to dialogue and agree on more reasonable parenting expectations. Asking for needed support and being able to count on that support is an important part of containing stress and preventing that scarce commodity of you from becoming depleted.