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How NOT to yell at your ADHD child

Posted Jun 09 2011 10:19pm
Let me start by admitting that I still sometimes raise my voice to Luke, my eight-year-old son with ADHD. And sometimes is a whole lot less than the frequency he used to experience. Seeking calm in the face of ADHD has delivered positive differences I now see in myself, our family, and, most importantly, in Luke.

Luke was diagnosed with ADHD over two and a half years ago. Before that day, he probably heard, "why can't you just..." multiple times every day, when he was hearing what I said anyway. He experienced someone raising their voice to him at least once a day as well. After all, his undesirable behaviors just looked like willful defiance to us. It felt like he was not complying with our requests just to get a rise out of us. We punished, we yelled, we mucked around in a deep sea of frustration that was rapidly becoming quicksand. Home life felt awful for me, Daddy, and Luke's big sister, Emma. It was always loud and tense and uncomfortable. We didn't yet know there was another way.

Once Luke was diagnosed, I quickly submersed myself in all things ADHD. I read every book I could. I spent countless hours on the internet researching. I stalked online forums to hear real-life parenting experiences as they related to ADHD. I wanted to know how to help my son and I wanted to know right away.

It didn't take long for me to realize we were punishing him and yelling in instances that were not within his control. I immediately made a conscious effort to not get riled up about and to not punish ADHD behaviors. Easier said than done, but I was determined. In my fear of punishing Luke for behaviors he couldn't control, I swung too far in the opposite direction and began using ADHD as an excuse for everything . That too was no way to parent this kid. He began to feel like it didn't matter what he did because he could blame it on ADHD.

Then, about six months ago, I read , by Dr. Ross Greene. No, Luke is not explosive, but Greene's book  provided such a common sense explanation for meltdowns that I had to read his other title. It is, hands down, the best thing I have done to date for Luke, and for our family. It opens a window on the process of frustration in these children that so perfectly explains the nuances of my child (and ADHD children in general). This entire book was my ah-ha moment of the decade!

Now I had the knowledge to stop yelling at my son. Here are the steps to achieving more calm in the face of raising a child with ADHD (or any child for that matter)

  1. The first step is to truly understand the child and why they do the things they do, especially those things that look and feel like willful disobedience. Believe it or not, sometimes it can look like a duck and quack like a duck, but turn out to be a duck goat. I'm not saying that an ADHD child doesn't have moments of willful disobedience like any other child, I am saying they are no more frequent that a neuro-typical child, despite seeming so. Most children with ADHD have very little frustration tolerance. Many are also quite inflexible. Those two things are the underlying whys in a nutshell.

    How many times has your child asked for something and then completely melted down when they didn't get it? When they are two or three years old, you expect that. When they are eight or nine years old, you think they should know better. You try to impose your will and put your foot down and they spiral out of control. You think it's all because they didn't get their way. But it's not. That's right, they're not throwing a fit to get you to give them what they want -- it's not even a fit in that sense at all. They melt down because they don't have the skills to see that there's more than one option and they don't have the skills to handle the frustration they feel when the one and only thing they knew to be true in that moment isn't.

    Here's a simplistic example we neuro-typical parents can understand: You're on your way to the grocery store in your car. You pull into the center turn lane to turn left into the parking lot. Then you realize that the entrance is blocked off for road construction. You need to go to the grocery store right now, but you can't access it your usual way. You and I would probably merge back into traffic and continue on to look for another entrance, or even park at a neighboring business and walk over to the store. But, for "easily frustrated, chronically inflexible" kids, they are stuck in the turn lane with their signal on and panic and frustration ensues because they can't access the grocery. All they see at that moment is the grocery store behind a blocked entrance. They don't have the skills to problem-solve and find an alternate acceptable solution in that moment. Happily, we can teach these skills through repetition, role-play, and helping them brainstorm to determine a solution.

    Part of understanding why they do the things they do is also looking for triggers. I watched very closely when Luke's behavior was undesirable and took note of the physical environment, if he was tired or hungry, and what had taken place just before. You will begin to see a pattern and be able to make adjustments to try to prevent some undesirable outcomes. Preventing these outcomes will prevent the need to yell.
  2. You must not engage; remain detached in these situations . You do that by remembering that your child's behavior, as much as it may seem so sometimes, is not a personal attack on you. By not taking it personally, you have a much better chance of staying calm.

    Just last week Luke had a meltdown at the grocery store because I wouldn't buy him the cheesy popcorn he wanted (that I'd bought him two days before and emptied in 30 minutes). I reminded him that I picked up two items not on my list because he requested them already and that was all I could do that day. He was screaming, "I hate you" and "you don't love me" and "I'm gonna run away tonight." I could have engaged and given him an ultimatum to stop or else... but I didn't. I chose to detach and not take it personally. By not believing his insults, I didn't get riled up but instead remained calm. I shopped a bit quicker but I didn't threaten, I didn't punish, and I didn't yell, because I knew he didn't have the skills to handle the fact that his request was unmet. The meltdown was much shorter because I remained calm.
  3. Work together and teach them lacking skills in these moments. If your child is frustrated because their playdate is cancelled, talk through the situation with them. Show empathy for how they are feeling. Talk about when you could reschedule it and what they might do when they get the opportunity to finally play with that child. Talk about what you might do with that time instead, now that it's free. This not only teaches them to think through options, but it distracts both of you from being emotional about the situation. (I usually try to prepare Luke for possibilities like this: "You are supposed to meet Billy tomorrow afternoon at the park, but if he can't make it, we'll plan it another day and play at the park anyway.")

    View everything as a problem to be solved and take the opportunity to teach problem-solving skills. (Playing strategy games like Chess and many others is a great way to teach problem-solving skills too.)
  4. Lastly, remember who really has control of the situation -- you, the parent. Don't relinquish that control to your child or to an undesirable situation. There are plenty of ways to regain control and authority besides raising your voice or laying down a mandate.
Some other ideas to prevent yourself from yelling:
  • sing a song or hum a tune in your head to distract yourself 
  • walk away from your child until they're calm (be careful, sometimes this escalates a meltdown)
  • redirect their attention
  • go in another room, close the door, and yell into your pillow instead of at your child
How do you handle situations with your child with ADHD? How do you prevent yourself from yelling?

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