What do you do when non of the traditional parenting advice works for you? Managing ADHD and non-neuro-typical kids

Raising a Neuro-Typical vs. a Non-Neuro-Typical Child


I have two beautiful, loving, bright little boys. As with many families with two or more children, one of my children is more challenging than the other. However, unlike most families, my oldest son has ADHD, and the other does not. In raising them, my husband jokes that we could send our youngest child off to boarding school, pick him up when he turned 18, and he would turn out just fine. Before my older child received his ADHD diagnosis, we were often left scratching our heads at the end of the day, unsure of how to exactly parent him. Most parenting methods simply did not work with him.

What do you do when non of the traditional parenting advice works for you? Managing ADHD and non-neuro-typical kids

Child Psychologists, C.B. McNeil and T.L. Hembree-Kigin, describe the difference between a neurotypical and a child with ADHD, when they write:

Suppose a child with ADHD and a classmate are both eating pudding and become silly. They make pudding mustaches and pudding earrings. You respond like most parents by saying, “That’s disgusting. You’re supposed to eat pudding, not play in it.” How will the calmer classmate feel? He will probably feel sorry that he disappointed you, and he will immediately wipe the pudding off of his face. Yet, when you use exactly the same parenting strategy with the child who has ADHD, what happens? He laughs, makes a pudding beard on his face, and throws his pudding at you. So for the average child, criticism is a very effective deterrent. That child will probably never put pudding on his face in your house again. But, for the child with ADHD, the criticism is like the tall glass of water for a thirsty person. He was under-aroused and the criticism provided the stimulation he needed to feel better. Rather than being a deterrent, the criticism was actually a reward.*

While I have never had a “pudding” experience, the psychologists summed up the experience of parenting my two children perfectly. My youngest child misbehaves, but he reacts to my behavioral corrections, frustration or disappointment. My oldest child often escalated his behavior when I tried to correct him or got upset. The old standby of positive and negative consequences either didn’t fully do the trick or took much longer to work than with my other child. For my oldest child, I read countless parenting books (123 Magic, Love and Logic, the Difficult Child, etc.). I read blogs and attended parenting lectures. Afterwards, I would leave each lecture thinking that I had tried all the old tricks and followed the advice of therapists, but my son seemed to be able to outsmart all parenting advice. He also pushed almost every limit, and he didn’t seem to learn from negative experiences or consequences (Why not touch that hot grill or jump out of a parked car’s window head first?). My youngest son tests limits, but he doesn’t test every limit over and over again. He also occasionally throws fits, but he doesn’t frequently throw such extreme fits that it sounds like someone is beating him. When he plays with friends, he doesn’t get so overly excited that he cannot calm himself down. As for the parenting books and therapist blogs, most of the parenting tricks work on my youngest son. In fact, I rarely need to do any research. I can just parent him. I love both my children with all of my heart. I am in awe of them and their individual strengths every day. However, I can say that parenting my oldest child has taught me a lot of humility in ways that parenting my younger child never will.


Perhaps the most difficult part about parenting my two children is the disparate ways that people react to them. When my oldest son was between the ages of 2 and 5, I rarely left the house without someone remarking, “Boy, you’ve got your hands full,” or “You must be tired at the end of the day.” I didn’t mind the comments, but viewed their remarks as coming from a place of sympathy. In truth, I did feel tired at the end of the day, and I did have my hands full. I did mind the people who judged my parenting by my oldest son’s behavior. Teachers asked me, “Have you ever disciplined your son?” or “Has your child ever had any structure?” Other people asked, “Have you ever tried telling him about inside voices and outside voices?” A well-meaning friend even offered, “Give him to me for a week. I think I could straighten him out.” In reality, we live by routine in my house, not because I am a particularly structured or organized person (in fact, I’m quite the opposite), but because my oldest son behaves much better when there is a routine. We have a morning routine prior to school, an afternoon routine and a bedtime routine with free time scheduled within each. For my older son, I have made behavior charts to encourage positive behaviors and given far more negative consequences (time-outs and taking away toys or television privileges) than I ever have created for my younger son. I also talked about inside voices and outside voices with him frequently (something I have never even had to mention to my younger son). In general, my oldest son acts pretty well at home. His main behavioral problems occur when he is over-stimulated, bored, around a lot of children, or in a new situation. Knowing this, I used role-play with him, demonstrating different ways to act when children wouldn’t share their toys, when he felt angry with a friend or when he felt overwhelmed. When we began therapy, the therapists were impressed with the amount of things my husband and I had tried.


With my youngest child, I generally receive positive feedback from both strangers and friends. I also rarely hear anything negative about him from teachers. His preschool teacher loved having him in class so much that she cried when I told her that he would be leaving preschool early last summer because we were going on vacation. People also rarely comment on my ability to parent him or give me advice about how to raise him. No one has ever offered to take him off my hands for a week, so they could parent him better than I did. While most parents probably would attribute their child’s good behavior to their parenting abilities, I don’t pat myself on the back for my youngest son’s good behavior. I feel much more successful as a parent when my older son behaves well in circumstances that are difficult for him to manage. That is when I know my husband and I have truly done our jobs as parents.

In the last year, since my son received his diagnosis, I now have a new lens through which to view his behavior. Because ADHD is often an inherited condition, I have stopped blaming my child’s impulsivity, hyperactivity, low frustration tolerance, or loudness on my own failed parenting skills. Instead, I try to provide him with tools to manage his own behavior. A year of family therapy has taught me that I couldn’t have intuited a lot of the parenting skills we needed to use with my son. Have you ever narrated your child’s play, step by step, in a neutral voice, to encourage self-talk and awareness? That was not something I would have initiated on my own. We also have to ignore a lot of non-harmful, attention-seeking behaviors that others probably would not, and praise my son when he behaves like your average, neuro-typical kid. A friend with a child, who also has ADHD, recommended Ross W. Greene’s book, The Explosive Child. Of all books, that one has helped the most, because it begins with the notion that all children want to act “good,” they just don’t always have the necessary skills to make the right choices in a given moment. Both my boys want to behave well, but my child with ADHD simply needs a little more guidance and coaching.

*C.B. McNeil, T.L. Hembree-Kigin, Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, Issues in Clinical Psychology, DOI 10.1007/978-0-387-88639-8_15, Copywrite Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010

Coming to Terms with ADHD

Coming to Terms with ADHD


Okay. I’ll admit it. Prior to having children, I didn’t really believe in ADHD.

Coming to Terms with ADHD

I thought that ADHD was either grossly over-diagnosed or that it was simply children’s reactions to being placed in unnatural environments with unrealistic and developmentally inappropriate expectations. After all, many schools limit recess time to 20 minutes a day. Under the pressure of testing, public schools have largely pushed academic learning and a more sedentary lifestyle on children at younger and younger ages. At home, children spend less time playing outside and more time indoors watching television or playing video games. In my naïve view, children, deprived of an outlet for their energy, would naturally act out.

The news media often corroborates this notion that ADHD is either a product of our current society or a syndrome invented by the pharmaceutical industry rather than a true neurological difference. In a 2014 Guardian article, Dr. Bruce Perry claimed that ADHD was not a real disease. “Part of what happens,” he A mom who confronted her ADHD skepticism.stated, “is if you have an anxious, overwhelmed parent, that is contagious. When a child is struggling, the adults around them are easily disregulated too. This negative feedback process between the frustrated teacher or parent and disregulated child can escalate out of control.” In the Psychological Today article, “Why French Kids Don’t Have ADHD,” Marilyn Wedge discusses how French psychiatrists, unlike their colleagues in the U.S., view ADHD as having social/emotional causes rather than neuro-biological ones. As a result, the French treat ADHD through psychotherapy rather than medicine. Other articles point to diet as a cause for hyperactive behavior. Many commenters on blogs or editorials view ADHD as the product of an undisciplined generation of children. They claim that if parents simply disciplined their children more or spanked them, then those children wouldn’t act so out of control. Finally, even psychologists, who believe in ADHD, question the dramatic increase in the number of children diagnosed with the syndrome after pharmaceutical companies began heavily advertising ADHD medications on television, radio or in magazines.

Thus, I too questioned the prevalence of ADHD. I viewed the syndrome as more of a behavioral problem than something stemming from neuro-biological differences. Then, I had my son, Sam. He was a happy, fat, wonderful baby (of course, all babies are wonderful). I breastfed him until he was over a year old. When he started eating solids, we limited sugar and fed him primarily whole foods. Except for plane or car trips, we didn’t allow him to watch television or play video games. Because we live in a moderate climate, he played outside almost every day. Yet, at 22 months, my son, like most toddlers, started having behavioral difficulties. Unlike most toddlers, my son didn’t grow out of many of the challenging behaviors, and those challenging behaviors seemed more extreme than those in other children. I attributed his behavior to the terrible twos and threes. Because I also blamed myself for Sam’s behavior, I read almost any kind of parenting book available about strong-willed and spirited children. However, none of the advice I read in therapists’ books really worked with my son. When Sam was four years old, I had an easier time parenting him, but he was still more challenging to raise than my younger son. Most people described him as having a lot of energy.

A mom facing her ADHD skepticism.After a tumultuous first semester in a traditional kindergarten, which I documented in my first blog post, I decided to take Sam to a specialist. After two days of extensive testing, including brain scans, the neuropsychologist diagnosed Sam with ADHD. In our follow-up appointment, the neuropsychologist spent over an hour describing how ADHD affects a child’s executive functions and how the frontal lobe develops differently in children with ADHD. My husband, who also attended the meeting, said that the neuropsychologist could have been describing him as a child. However, because psychologists did not diagnose children as having ADHD at the time, my husband was simply called “stupid”, “bad”, or “un-teachable.” My husband, who completed a master’s degree in his second language, obviously does not have any cognitive deficits. However, he does have problems with following directions, planning activities, listening, sitting still and solving problems. He has many strengths, but he also probably has undiagnosed ADHD. In some instances, ADHD helps him to hyper-focus on things he likes to do, but it also hinders his abilities in other areas.

Listening to the neuropsychologist, I also began to think about my mother’s first cousin, who was always described as a “wild child.” I only knew him as an adult, but he had boundless energy, couldn’t sit still, talked very loudly and with a lot of profanity, and slept very little. He was also a very intelligent, sweet and caring man, who became a wonderful father, husband, entrepreneur, and outdoorsman. His path to adulthood was not easy, and he had a very strained relationship with his parents throughout his adolescence and early adulthood. I started thinking about all the children, who were deemed troublemakers as young children, and the effect that those labels had on them. Even though people sometimes claim ADHD didn’t exist when they were children, kids with ADHD-like behaviors and neurological differences have always existed. Parents and teachers just didn’t have the tools to deal with the behaviors. I don’t think any child wins when that child has been pigeon-holed as a bad child at an early age. That kind of labeling only exacerbates situations rather than ameliorates them.

Finally, ADHD affects so much more than a child’s ability to sit still in class. My own son, when interested in a topic, can sit still for hours or hyper-focus (also a symptom of his ADHD). He can listen to audio-books for hours, build elaborate lego creations, and draw. However, during hyper-focus, he cannot pay attention to anything else but the task at hand. Unless you touch him on the shoulder and look him in the eye, he won’t hear his name being called. He also won’t stop what he is doing to go to the bathroom. At school, he has difficulty sitting criss-cross applesauce in a group, walking silently in a line, concentrating in a normal-sized classroom of 22 children, and following multi-step instructions. His ADHD affects his visual tracking and focus. His optometrist told me that whereas only 5% of the population has problems with visual tracking and acuity, 80% of her patients with visual tracking problems also have ADHD. Other studies show that children with ADHD concentrate better when they move, as opposed to neuro-typical children who become distracted by movement. In short, children with ADHD are simply wired differently.

If you've ever doubted an ADHD diagnosis, read this.

In many ways, I am grateful for the ADHD diagnosis, because there are a lot of research-based methods proven to help children with ADHD. I also realize how mistaken I was. All of the things that I thought might cause ADHD (schools with limited recess and emphasizing rote learning, poor diet, excessive screen time, lack of outdoor time, etc.) were not present in my son’s life. Yet, my son still had ADHD. When we moved my son to a wonderful school with an hour and a half recess, project-based education, small student-teacher ratios, and tactile learning, my son’s ADHD didn’t disappear.  He still struggled. However, the teachers at this school were willing to implement accommodations to help him succeed.

As far as parenting, my husband and I have attended lectures and therapy sessions to learn how to parent our son better. Because psychologists have been studying ADHD for over 50 years, we have benefited from their research and findings. My son is a creative, sweet, thoughtful, passionate, energetic and smart little boy. Like my husband, ADHD both helps him in some areas and hinders his abilities in others. I would much rather live in a society that gave these kids the tools to succeed than a society that penalized these children for being different. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that scientists blamed autism on the autistic child’s “frigid” mother. As for the claim that French children don’t get ADHD, research reveals that approximately 3 to 5% of French children have ADHD just like the rest of the world. ADHD may still be over-diagnosed in the United States, but I think the next generation would benefit much more from a society that helps kids with learning differences succeed. No one wins in a society that refuses to accept the fact that some kids are wired differently and may need different tools and accommodations at home and in the classroom.

Helpful Links

ADHD Resources from the CDC

ADHD Myths

ADHD Blogs

Collaborative and Proactive Discipline



Childhood Mental Health Awareness

Parent & Teacher Resources for Childhood Mental Health


Childhood Mental Health AwarenessSomewhere between 13 and 20% of kids in the US experience a mental health disorder each year (CDC). That’s 1 in 5 kids – each year.

If you are looking for help understanding common childhood mental health disorders, check out these resources that we’ve put together for you in honor of Childhood Mental Health Awareness Week.

What are Childhood Mental Health Disorders?

An Overview of Childhood Mental Health Disorders

What is ADHD? 

What is an Anxiety Disorder?

What is Depression? 

What are Eating Disorders?

Resources for Parents and Teachers - Childhood Mental IllnessResources for Parents

Treatment for Children with Mental Health Disorders

The 10 Big Questions for Parents

Signs of Mental Health Issues in Teens

Executive Function & ADHD

9 Things Every Parent with an Anxious Child Should Try

Antidepressant Medications for Children and Teens

Suicide Prevention

School Accommodations: IEPs v 504 Plans

Resources for Teachers

How Anxiety Leads to Disruptive Behavior

Tips for Teachers of Anxious Children

Classroom Management Strategies for Kids with Anxiety

School Tips – Helping Kids Who Struggle with Executive Function

Classroom Management Tips for Students with ADHD

Five Common Distractions for Kids with Focus Issues

Common Classroom Manifestations of ADHD

Depression. Helping Students in the Classroom

School and Classroom Strategies: Depression

Responding to a Student’s Depression

Statistics, Data & Policy

Stats from the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

A Bill of Rights for Children with Mental Health Disorders and Their Families



Strengths Based Parenting

Strengths-Based Parenting. How to build on the positive.


Parenting is hard. You’d think that 10 years and two kids into it, we’d be getting into a groove. But in reality, each year brings new challenges. The challenges are certainly different than in years past – we’re no longer focused on the basics like teaching them to feed and dress themselves – they figured those things out a while back.

These days we spend a lot of time trying to figure out homework routines and coaching the boys through their first crushes. We’re working on emotional self-regulation, personal advocacy and self-management related to homework.

It seems like the stakes get higher each year and the emotional stuff becomes increasingly complex. I imagine that you, like me, are intensely motivated to raise happy, healthy children – children who will become happy, self-sufficient adults.

Strengths Based Parenting

At our house, we focus on a Strengths-Based Parenting approach. It’s not a fluffy, no-consequences kind of approach. Rather it requires that Rob and I focus on the good in our kids, that our first goal is to build on their strengths. We don’t always get there.

The last few weeks have been a struggle. There have been days that I thought the plague had descended on us – a kidney infection, migraines, a concussion, new ADHD medications, a stomach bug. Drop into the mix a new job for my husband and we’ve all been a little frazzled.

I’ve been short-tempered and grumpy. The boys have been hassling each other. Nothing is catastrophic; rather, I’ve just been off my game.

Last week I decided that I needed to course correct. Our family works much better when Rob and I focus on our kids’ strengths and stop trying to correct small annoying behaviors.

This isn’t as flighty as it sounds. These are the practical ways we use a strengths-based parenting approach:

Know your kids.

Don’t just know what they like, know what makes them tick. Know what they look forward to every day and how they express and receive love. Know their strengths. We have used Gallup’s work on Strengths Finders to find common language for our family’s strengths.

Help your kids know their strengths.

We keep our strengths displayed on our fridge. It’s a quick reminder that each of us has unique gifts; that each of us brings value to the family and to every situation we encounter. We talk about how these strengths benefit them and those around them. We work to instill pride.

Strength Finders

Promote a positive self-dialogue.

If I want my kids to think positively about themselves and believe in their strengths and innate goodness, then I have to teach them. I have to teach them how to use positive language when thinking about themselves. If this doesn’t come naturally to my kids, then I have to show them consistently how do to this. My words matter. The especially matter when teaching tools to combat the self-doubt that destroys self-esteem.

Set them up for success.

Davis is a relator. He builds long-lasting, deep friendships. He also likes to explore new things. Sometimes these strengths clash. Our job is to help him navigate and balance the old and the new.

Catch them doing a good job.

Do you know about the Magic Ratio of Praise to Criticism? It says that you should provide praise 5 times more frequently than you criticize. 5 TIMES! Honestly, we should probably be closer to a 10:1 with Davis because of his anxiety disorder. (If you need a place to start, check out the Rubber Band Method of Discipline and build from there.) When we provide positive feedback, it gives him confidence that we know him inside and out. It lets him focus on the good and build on a firm foundation.

Develop a sense of family pride.

We work hard to develop a sense of family pride. It’s something I’m hyper focused on now, during their pre-teen years. I want my boys entering their teen years with a healthy sense of self and a firm foundation of our family values before they have to experiment in creating their own world order!

It seems that the language we have about our strengths, along with our Family Code of Living, helps build a sense of belonging. (I’ll write about our Code of Living soon.)

It doesn’t hurt that all four of us are “Relators,” meaning we like to build deep, lasting friendships.

Focus on their innate goodness.

Kids make mistakes. I try to operate on the assumption that my kids (all kids, all people) are well intentioned. It helps me to see their mistakes as growth opportunities and a normal part of growing up. The malicious attempt to deceive or disobey is rare. My focus must stay on guiding them past a mistake and learning a new way of handling the problem they face.

Give them a chance to shine.

Patrick likes to be the center of attention. Most of the time, it is his “Presence” strength shining through. Davis’ sense of “Confidence” has been known to end in boasting or taunting during a pick-up basketball game. When these get out of hand, it is normally because they don’t have a pro-social way to display these strengths. It’s good reminder for me to channel their strengths into activities that let them shine – like public speaking and drama for Patrick and social justice opportunities for Davis.


This parenting thing is hard. We all want the best for our kids and none of us want our decisions as parents to limit our kids in their adulthood. The stakes are high and we are hard on ourselves. (Check out these 10 Tips for Guilt Free Parenting!)

Take a few minutes to think about your kid’s strengths – think about their personalities, not their accomplishments. Find a ways to help them understand what makes them unique and how they shine. Be gracious when they mess up, so they know that their mistakes and missteps don’t define them – their strengths do!


How Full Is Your Bucket Gallup Strength’s Finders for kids ages 4 – 9

Strengths Explorers Gallup Strength’s Finders for kids ages 10 – 14

Strengths Finders Gallup Strengths Finders for adults

The Magic Ratio

Praise’s Magic Reinforcement Ratio

The Ideal Praise to Criticism Ratio – Harvard Business Review

The Rubber Band Method of Discipline