Children with ADHD and their parents often share the same basic goals: for the child to be successful at school, at home, and in all other areas of life. But the journey to reaching these goals together can be challenging due to differences in how parents and kids perceive their situation, along with breakdowns in communication.
"The reason I wrote my book, What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew, is because I saw kids telling me one thing about living with ADHD and parents telling me something else," says Sharon Saline, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist based in Northampton, Massachusetts. For instance, parents might feel as if kids aren’t applying themselves if their grades are lackluster or their impulse control is poor, while the kids feel as if they’re trying their hardest to reach those goals but they just can’t yet. "I wanted to narrow the gap to improve communication," Saline says.
Especially when it comes to parenting, missteps can turn into opportunities to understand one another better. With awareness, these three common mistakes can be flipped into productive ways of interacting with kids who have ADHD and improving communication, and get everyone pulling the same direction toward common goals. Better communication can also help kids feel empowered, as parents acknowledge the effort they’re putting in, which can, in turn, raise kids’ self-esteem.
Mistake #1: Expecting Perfection
Consistency is key to parenting a child with ADHD. Parents need to be consistent with their expectations and how they respond to the child in different situations in order to facilitate effective communication. Additionally, they must recognize consistency in the child’s efforts as they work together toward goals.
"One of the things that happens for kids with ADHD is that there's so much emphasis put on the end product, but what's overlooked is the process of getting there,” Saline says. But “it’s not about getting it right all the time.” Instead, she recommends looking for — and appreciating — the moments when a child puts in the effort toward accomplishing a task or reaching a goal.
Consistently emphasizing that kids must apply themselves to the best of their abilities helps children tackle the challenge of cultivating a growth mindset. "A lot of people with ADHD have fixed mindsets,” she says. “They believe that both their strengths, as well as their weaknesses, won't change,” Saline notes. Without swapping this perspective for a more growth-based mindset, kids "aren't going to be able to make progress toward being different in ways that they themselves would like.”
With a growth mindset, challenges and frustrations aren’t permanent barricades to success. Instead, they present opportunities to work hard, learn new skills, and become resilient even if a desired outcome isn’t achieved. For instance, with a fixed mindset, a child might think “I can’t get an A on my spelling test, because I have never gotten an A on one before. Spelling is always going to be hard.” But with a growth mindset, they might think, “I’m going to study as much as I can. I know that if I work hard, I will get the best grade I can, even if it’s not an A.”
Parents can lead by example. For instance, maybe the goal is for your child to clear their plate from the table every night and they do that five times in one week. Instead of harping on the two nights that they didn't do it, recognize the effort they put in and recognize the days they did clear their plate. Encouraging that can make them feel empowered to keep working toward the goal of consistently clearing their plate every night.
Mistake #2: Skimping on Praise
Saline has noticed a common theme when she asks kids with ADHD and their parents about the balance of positive and negative feedback the child regularly receives: "The numbers I hear from parents? One positive for 10, 20, maybe 25 negatives a day. If I ask kids themselves, it's even higher," reaching 30 or even 40 negative comments for every positive one they hear, she says.
All that negative feedback takes a toll, leading to negative self-talk, which can hurt kids’ self-esteem and mental health. "That is such an imbalance in the brain. That negative voice is so loud,” she says. “The positive voice, the intuition, the part that likes yourself, really needs more fertilizer.”
Some experts discourage parents from giving their kids direct praise, Saline notes. "Their feeling is that kids become dependent on people giving them approval and they don't approve of themselves," she says. "That makes sense to me, but in the situation of kids who are neurodivergent, they have already heard so much negative stuff about themselves by the time they're even 7, that hearing specific praise when they're doing something to be proud of” helps counter the negative messages they’re often bombarded with, Saline says.
This praise doesn't have to always be a grand celebration with cake and balloons, but it does need to be specific. Sometimes it can be as simple as a high-five and a "good job at finishing your homework!”
Mistake #3: Leaving Kids Out of Decisions
Kids with ADHD have a hard time when they’re excluded from their parents’ decision-making, Saline says. "They can shut down when parents are stressed out in a 'my way or the highway' kind of situation.”
Kids with ADHD so often have others' behavior expectations put on them, even for things that are extremely difficult for them to do. To give them some needed relief from feeling that they don't have a say, Saline recommends finding ways to let your kid’s opinion count in your decisions. Collaborate with your child in this way helps them "feel that they have skin in the game," Saline says.
For instance, you might think your child needs to wake up an hour before they have to be at the school bus stop, but your kid might insist that a half-hour is enough. Try incorporating your child’s input by saying, “You can wake up 45 minutes before bus stop time if you get out of bed on your own and are ready for the bus in time. But if either of those things don’t happen, you will need to wake up an hour ahead of time.” Even if the negotiated time doesn’t work the first time around, you could offer that you’ll give them a second chance if they are 15 minutes early for bus stop time three days in one week.
Parenting a child through learning to manage their inattention, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness can be challenging, but it's important to remember one key thing, Saline says: "We all are doing the best we can with the resources we have available to us in any given moment.”