I love my family. My husband and I have been married for 23 years. We have six amazing children. I may be biased but I find them unique, creative, smart, energetic, and goodhearted. Of the six, five and my husband have severe combined type Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). We enjoy being together though there are times when we’re all over each others’ last ADHD nerve. We are loud and messy and fun.
But to say it’s all sunshine and roses would be a lie. We fight daily battles with ADHD symptoms, anxiety, depression, sensory processing disorders, as well as learning disabilities including all the dys-es as one daughter likes to call them (dyslexia, dyspraxia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia). My husband always says, “ADHD is a gift with a heavy price tag – pay the price of managing the symptoms and the gifts come pouring out.”
Over the years we have found some strategies that work. They’ve helped us get us over some of the tougher hurdles so we could feel the benefit of those gifts.
Punishment or Discipline: Finding a Way to Teach
She was sitting on a chair, banished, while I cleaned up royal blue fabric paint off the cream carpet. I was fuming. It was my third go around with the paint. This time she’d scaled the counter and somehow reached cabinets that were a good three feet over my own head to find the paint, sneak it, and create another destructive masterpiece. She was four years old. While she was sitting there I laid out a punishment. “You will lose television for a week.” She countered. “I’ve been meaning to watch less TV.” I added. “You’ll lose your My Little Ponies for a week.” I thought I need to up the ante if losing TV meant nothing to her. She countered. “I need to play outside more anyways.” We went back and forth. It seemed no matter what I took away she could figure out how to make it work for her.
Understanding Impulsiveness Changed Our Parenting
Discipline has been one of the toughest hurdles for us to master with our ADHDers. Most traditional discipline methods just don’t seem to work with ADHDers. As I started learning about ADHD I began to understand why. Impulsiveness means that my child wasn’t thinking about past experiences and punishments when she was about to do something wrong or future consequences. Blue fabric paint, nice clean palette, was the only thing on her mind. It was the least of my worries. What if she had fallen getting the paint from the cupboard? She could have seriously injured herself. Those things never crossed her mind because the idea and the impulse to do it were louder than anything else to her.
As parents, we realized we weren’t after punishment. We wanted them to learn and develop skills that would create some space between idea and action. Our hope was to insert some thought between the two. My husband and I changed how we approached discipline problems. Our goal would be to teach and reinforce missing skills.
First get Their Attention, Then Teach
We have a very simple formula. If a child is non-compliant or throwing a fit they put their nose on a blank wall. It’s not really a time-out it’s more like a reset button. There are two ways off the wall. One, calm down. Once a child is calm and no longer throwing a fit they can get off the wall. Sometimes it takes a try or two. If they start the fit back up – it’s back to the wall. Two, they have to be ready to listen and talk about whatever happened. Or, if they are on the wall because they aren’t doing something they should be doing, a chore for example, they have to be ready to do it. Similarly, if they aren’t really ready to take action they go back to the wall until they are. There are no time minimums or maximums. It’s all about getting control over their emotions and being ready to do what needs to be done.
We always take the opportunity to teach. We break down circumstances and talk about why things didn’t work and rebuild them by discussing better ways to handle themselves in the future. We ask for their input and suggestions, including them in finding solutions.
You may be wondering why that blank wall has worked so well. Our children let us know. Putting their nose on a blank wall is boring. There is almost nothing an ADHDer hates more than being bored. It’s a great motivator.
Meltdown on Aisle 4
Emotional meltdowns, fits, tantrums, are a part of childhood but like everything else about ADHD it takes what’s a normal behavior and turns it into a much more extreme and frequent problem. To an outsider it may look like bad parenting, like no one has taught that child how to behave. In reality, it is a lack of skills to handle their circumstances.
Figure Out the Cause
Children’s meltdowns have many sources. We found that by understanding what’s causing the meltdown we can help our children learn the skills they need to manage their own behavior. With the right skills they can avoid meltdowns altogether. I am always struck by the intense guilt and shame my children feel after falling apart. One thing I’ve realized over the years is that they don’t want to meltdown anymore than I want them to.
We tried to have birthday parties for our second daughter but each year she would come to us crying, begging us to let her leave her own party. We finally got the clue, she didn’t like them. When she was finally diagnosed with ADHD we realized she was extremely sensitive to sound. Parties weren’t fun for her, they were torture. Later she would put it into perspective for me by talking about how loud some people wrote on their paper when doing classwork at school. Once she could articulate her experience she made it even clearer. “It’s like I have no sound depth perception. I hear everything, it’s all loud and intrusive.”
Armed with knowledge I saw their meltdowns in a different light. If our child’s falling apart because they’re overstimulated in certain social situations (at a store, in public, at a party or in a class activity) then we needed to focus on teaching them to recognize when they are starting to feel overwhelmed. The next step was teaching them appropriate ways to take a break from the stimulus before they meltdown. Because they may not always be able to get away we’ve also worked on ways to calm themselves. Drawing, counting in their head, fidgets are all ways my children and husband cope with overstimulating situations.
Change is Difficult: Whether it’s Good or Bad
Life is all about change, it’s a skill they’ll need to cope with day to day life. Change, good or bad, can be a consistent source of meltdowns. We work on appropriate ways to express their frustration over change and learn to adapt by finding a new perspective. Often when change happens what was seemingly small part of their day gets blown out of proportion as if they were looking at it through a telescope. It’s suddenly bigger than everything else. They lose perspective. It’s like taking the bottom orange out of the stack at the grocery store, all of a sudden everything is out of place and threatening to scatter across the floor. Just like being overstimulated, the way their brains react to change isn’t going to change. However, how they deal with it can. We work on skills to find a new perspective and adjust.
These are skills that aren’t taught overnight – progress is often painstakingly slow. We try and adjust until we get a system that works for each individual. Then we add new alternatives so they have as many tools in their toolbox as possible to prepare for whatever life throws at them.
Take it One Day at a Time
In all of this juggle called life we have found it very important to be flexible. Bend or brake, we choose to bend. By that I don’t mean the standards or boundaries we’ve set for our family bend. As we tell our kids frequently, understandable doesn’t make it acceptable. We understand how their brain is functioning. We teach them to be self aware and understand their own experience. It helps them manage and cope with so many of their day to day symptoms. We teach them to be accountable for their actions. It helps them learn. Being flexible, patient, loving and communicating allow us to take one day at a time, one issue at a time and work at it.
Often people ask me if I could change it would I take away their ADHD. I can’t even imagine that. ADHD is woven into everything they are and do. It is as much a part of their beautiful creativity as it is their meltdowns. It’s what makes them act so quickly, impulsively giving love and compassion. It’s also the part of them which acts or speaks before thinking. It is easily responsible for their mastery of one subject with obsessive hyper-focus as it is blame for their inability to focus on subject less interesting. It is them, the very fabric of who they are, and I love them and believe in their ability to shine as I help them learn and grow.
by Lisa Aro (aka “Queen of the Distracted”)
Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/digimist/3196525925