One of my readers writes the following:
Dr. Cale, My son, Sam is six and has ADHD, and is on Ritalin. Everything is a battle with him. He fights. He swears. He kicks and screams and cries. Have you any tips on how I can handle him better? I always seem to be on his case. Any advice you can give would be appreciated. Thank-you. Karen.
Here’s my response to Karen…
This is a question many parents are asking these days. The struggles and frustrations you may be feeling at times are shared by a lot of parents I work with. That fact doesn’t necessarily make it easier, but it may help to remind you that your feelings and reactions are quite common and in essence…you are not alone!
Having said that, let’s focus on what you can do to make things better. Each tip that I offer is just that…a tip…it’s not the whole story. So please use this article as a foundation for these important strategies. It will get you and your kids started in a new and healthier direction.
The diagnosis of ADD brings with it a GIGANTIC story. The folklore of that story varies; depending upon which book you read and which expert you consult. For this brief discussion, let’s pay minimal attention to the “folklore.” Why? Because it pulls your energy and attention into a sphere of mental and emotional thoughts that are mostly out of your control. That can make you feel more and more out of control!
Instead, I will ask you to focus on your source of power…which is your own actions. This seemingly subtle shift brings you back to the only world you can really control…and that is your own.
So, rather than discussing your son…let’s talk about parenting your son. Here are five essential tips for reducing these frustrating moments with out of control behavior that your son exhibits at times.
TIPS FOR PARENTING THE CHALLENGING CHILD
1. Don’t take his actions personally. It’s not about you.
If you do his misbehavior personally, you will get caught up in “reactive parenting.” This will only make things worse. Likely you have seen the result of reacting with threats, yelling or even spanking. If you fall into this pattern with your son, he actually feeds on that energy. (Why he does that…well that’s another story. For now, just notice the truth in this conclusion.)
When you aren’t reactive, you can now be proactive. You can be mindful. You can be creative. You can be effective. You can even be a terrific parent who uses tough moments to teach critical lessons. This of course…is only the beginning. Next, …
2. Make a list of “Weeds” and “Seeds”
What do I mean? Weeds are the actions, behaviors, and emotions you would rather not have in your home. This is the negative stuff you want to get rid of. Write it down (in a private place).
Seeds are the actions and behaviors you value. This is the stuff you want to nurture and grow. Write it down, and BE SPECIFIC.
Contemplate these two lists as you consider this: Regardless of how or why your son carries the ADD diagnosis, his behavior (good or bad) expands based upon the amount of attention it gets. Many of the classic ADD behaviors tend to PULL you into them. You then give those “Weeds” lots of your energy. Thus, the weeds just multiply.
This leaves little opportunity to give energy to the “Seeds” of success and happiness. If you want things to get better, you must turn this dynamic around first. The success of every other strategy and approach will depend upon how this fundamental is handled. So, the next step…
3. Make a commitment to starve the “weeds”
Make sure you walk away from all the weed-like behaviors in your home. If it’s not threatening health or safety, walk away. Starve that weed.
When you do, things will get worse for a while. That’s right. It will get worse BECAUSE the weed is used to getting fed, and it will be screaming to pull you in. DON’T DO IT! When your son tantrums, you need to walk away…and stay away. You must resist getting pulled in, and instead…
4. Patently wait…and obsess on catching every “seed” you can find.
When your son’s tantrum is over, then casually walk by and touch him on the shoulder. Or you could just smile, or give him a “thumbs up.” Contrary to many of the books you read, it really doesn’t matter how you water the “seeds of healthy behavior”…. it’s just important to make sure that these moments start getting MOST of your energy.
We can predict the quality of your relationship with your son, as well as his success in school, based upon how this pattern unfolds. You have control…not on whether he tantrums…but on whether you feed the tantrum with your energy. Your energy is like water to that weed…. you keep feeding it…it keeps growing.
I didn’t make up the rules. It just works that way. Finally…
5. When and where you set limits, do so with action, not with words.
Up to this point, you may think that I’m a softie when it comes to consequences. I am not.
Consequences are critical in the learning process. Use them to teach limits, and make sure you don’t use feeble threats. Make your action speak the dominant message. When your son’s actions do pose a threat, or he is out of control, teach him with a firm consequence. Not a lecture. Not a frustrated look. Not a threat. Use action to teach these limits…especially for your son with ADD. He will thrive on these learning opportunities.
However, he will not get these critical lessons if you skip steps three and four. These earlier steps create an environment where your son can now learn from his choices. You can learn more about the use of effective consequences on my website, at Terrific Parenting.
In closing, keep in mind that this will not be easy. But it helps to remember that this is a learning process that takes time for you and your son to master. Don’t expect magic in three days. But you can expect real results in a few weeks if you remain true to these fundamental principles. Best of luck Karen.
One closing comment that I did not have time to share with Karen. There is much for all of us to learn from children who present such challenges. Perhaps one of the most valuable lessons is to realize the power of consistent, pre-determined action. When combined with an understanding of the role of “weeds and seeds,” there is no problem pattern that is beyond your reach as a parent.
On the other hand, without an understanding (and eliminating) the feeding of the weeds, there is no long term hope for improvement. Furthermore, without mastery of clear, consistent limits…taught with precise, impeccably maintained consequences, there are only moments of spotty improvement.
This is not necessarily true for every child or every home, but it is true for every home with a challenging, oppositional child.
Randy L. Cale, PhD