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.
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