She’d just cut a hole in newly folded sheets with her scissors. Or, drawn a mermaid on the wall with crayons. Hit her baby sister for no reason. Or, smashed the snow-globe into a million pieces. “Why did you do that?” I’d yell. My little girl, with her beautiful blond ringlets and big green eyes, would look up at me almost as perplexed as I was at her terrible behavior. She had no good reason, and she’d invariably do it again. All day. She was exhausting.
She was supposed to have been just like me — quiet, obedient, studious. Instead, she was a Tasmanian devil on fire, and I had no idea how to parent her, other than reprimand, yell, or any number of ways of implying she was a disappointment.
When she turned 10, I became a psychotherapist. It was life-changing for all of us. I finally understood that she had ADHD—and what it meant: that her brain was different, that she had little control over some actions, and that she lacked a pause button. I also understood that perplexing look she’d given me after she’d done something wrong: she genuinely didn’t know why she did it. She hated what she’d done. Worse, she was starting to hate herself. Because all day long she was told—by me, her teachers, her friends—that she was messing up. Doing it wrong. Misbehaving.
The Ah-ha! Moment
I felt like the worst parent ever. I remembered myself at her age — all I wanted was the love and praise of my parents. Their pride was like rocket fuel. And my poor child was getting sorely little of that, no matter where she turned. I realized then that instead of constantly asking her to change, I needed to ask it of myself. Here’s what I did:
1. We named it Kevin. In narrative psychotherapy, people are helped to feel less shame and more in control by “externalizing” the behavior or disorder. It isn’t you; it is something that visits you or happens to you.
So, when my daughter’s hyperactivity would show up, we’d say, “Oh, look! It’s Kevin!” (after the silly bird in the movie, UP) It kept her mindful of her actions in a way that wasn’t shaming. And, kept us smiling with the silly image of the bird, instead of annoyed by her behavior.
2. Smother her with love. Kids with ADHD need their unconditional love bucket filled all day, even more than most, because they are constantly questioning their worth. So, I’d wrap her in my arms and squeeze, “Oh, dear! I see what you’ve done, and I love you all the same. You’ll get it next time.” Feeling and sharing love instead of frustration made me feel better, and made her feel less shame over something she couldn’t control. There would be plenty of time later to dissect what went wrong and what she could try differently.
3. Home is where the mistakes are. Home should be a safe place to make mistakes, and to know that all will be forgiven. Mistakes are how we learn. If we yell at a child for a mistake that he or she can’t control because of an impulsive brain, that child’s take-away will be that they are bad. Instead, with humor and love, I’d say, “Oops! Looks like Kevin was in control just then. If we ask Kevin to leave, what could you do differently?” This way, she was less likely to get defensive and lie, and mistakes became a learning opportunity.
4. I’m laughing with you, not at you. I was exhausted. Keeping up with her antics, energy, disorganization, aggression — it was so easy to get annoyed and yell. I wondered, instead, if I could laugh.
The next time she did something wrong, I greeted it with laughter. Late for school again, forgot her homework, room a mess, won’t go to sleep, won’t sit down to eat — really, none of it is the end of the world. Worse was the gut-wrenching sense that she was bad and a disappointment. Laughter kept us sane.
5. You are wonderful! Imagine you’re at work, and all day your boss points out all the things you do wrong. Day after day. How would you feel? If all he ever saw were your mistakes, would you give up? Now imagine he focuses mostly on where you went right. It feels good and motivates you. It’s the same for your child. When you praise your child, it creates dopamine — the neurotransmitter his brain lacks which causes the ADHD symptoms — and the dopamine helps to better control behavior. Point out your child’s “wonderful” and you may find he does more wonderful tomorrow.
The road to books
As my daughter entered middle-school, we struggled finding books about kids with ADHD. I wanted to write a story where ADHD was accurately shown – the bad, and also the often creative and unusually positive. My middle grade, Trouble with a Tiny T (Capstone, 2021), is about a boy with ADHD who finds magic and impulsively creates a tiny T-rex in his bedroom that he can’t get rid of. In the end, his creative talent helps to untangle the chaos.
In my first picture book, My Whirling, Twirling Motor (Magination Press), Charlie’s ADHD motor causes him to mess up all day long. At bedtime, he thinks his mom will be angry. Instead, she reads him a Wonderful List of things he did “right” that day, settling Charlie’s motor to a purr.
My Wandering, Dreaming Mind (Spring 2020) shows Sadie similarly struggling with inattention and parents who reinforce how amazing she is. My hope is that these stories will help orient parents to the positive, while also helping children to have compassion for themselves and others who struggle with impulsive/inattentive behavior.
I spent my daughter’s middle school and teen years undoing the harm my earlier frustration and disappointment wreaked on her by slathering her with unconditional love, humor, and praise. She is 22 now, pre-med, and is a funny, kind soul who can advocate and care for herself. I like her a lot. And, thankfully, she likes herself, too.
Also, please check out these two bonus resources – A Guide to Using MWTM and A Guide to ADHD Classroom Interventions – here: https://adhdparentclinic.com/eguides.html
Merriam Sarcia Saunders, LMFT is a psychotherapist specializing in ADHD, Adjunct Professor of Psychology, VCFA Student and Kidlit author. She is the co-founder of A Novel Mind and lives in northern California with her family, a big lab and a tiny chihuahua. You can visit her at www.adhdparentclinic.com and HowToParentADHD on Instagram.