I noticed it for the first time early on in my marriage. And then again with each of my kids. It's what we are up against in dealing with the Complex, or ADHD brain: the challenge of the well-meaning family member.
It started with a conversation I had with my husband about spending. “I don't want to police how you spend your money, but I have to manage the monthly budget, so please let me know if you are going to spend more than $50.” I promised to do the same. He agreed to it. But time after time, he didn't do it. He couldn't do it. It was like Groundhog Day.
I couldn't understand why it was so hard. Didn't he want to make sure we didn't overdraft? Weren't we sharing in the household expenses? Didn't it just make smart fiscal sense? For a while, I thought he was being deceptive. But he was a great guy and a good husband. I figured there was more to it, even if I couldn't understand what. I did what I could to make things manageable for me: separate finances!
Fast forward to when my oldest kid was about 14. There were many variations of this conversation, most while he was watching TV or playing video games. “Do you have a test in Math tomorrow?” “No.” “Are you sure?” “Yes.” Only to find out later that he did. He is a great kid. At that point, I guessed, maybe it was just easier for him to ask for forgiveness.
Fast forward again, this time to my middle kid, age 15. For weeks he had been “sneaking around” and playing video games at times when they weren't allowed. The last time it happened, the consequence was clearly communicated. If he did it again, the laptop would be gone. He's a good kid, he got it, understood the rule, even agreed with it. Things were great for days. Compliance was high.
Punch line: I walked into his room in the morning and found him asleep with the computer in his arms, his glasses still on his face, and his last entry on the computer log well after midnight.
At first, I got mad (okay, furious) – who wouldn't!? Open defiance, frustration, and mind-numbing behavior. Then the AHA! happened! I simply took the laptop and locked it up, kissed him good morning, and started my day.
What was the Aha (When your ADHD Kid Disappoints)?
It takes self-regulation not to do something you really want to do, and that's really tough for the ADHD brain. I mean REALLY tough.
The problem is summed up by something called the Marshmallow Test*. It was done in the 1960s by psychologist Walter Mischel. Preschoolers were left in a room with one marshmallow and a promise that if they didn't eat the marshmallow in 15 minutes, they would get another marshmallow. While many kids could do it, not all were able to delay that gratification.
That is what we are up against in dealing with ADHD brain. Self-regulation and impulse control – waiting for an appropriate time or doing the “right” thing – is really tough for the ADHD brain. Particularly so when it is overwhelmed or stressed.
So what's the solution when your ADHD kid disappoints you? Let them off the hook? Nope! Here are a few tips to handle the frustration that comes from living with someone who struggles with impulse control and self-regulation:
- Don't take it personally: We are good parents, and they are good kids, even when they break the rules. The bottom line is that there is a problem to be solved, and the more your stress increases, the less you are able to focus on solving the problem. It is reasonable to expect that kids with ADHD are going to slip in this area from time to time (or even quite often).
- Have compassion: If the ADHDer in your life is having a hard time doing the right thing – trust that it is hard for them, and let them know that you know it! Try to separate their actions (or misactions) from them. They are not “bad” kids just because they fail to manage themselves as well as you'd like (or, more than likely, as well as they'd like!).
- Help them stay accountable when your ADHD disappoints you: As frustrating as it is to say this, I couldn't leave my son alone with a laptop and expect him to be able to manage his impulse control for a while. Ultimately it's his “job,” but he still needed my help. Since, at the time, he was 15 (and developmentally closer to 10 in this area), I worked out with him how he can get access to a computer to do school work while keeping temptation at bay.
For a while after, the laptop was locked in my closet. That made me feel better because I knew I was doing SOMETHING that helped him in the long run. It also made me feel great that my kid knows I'm on his side. I trust that he's a good kid at the core, and I wanted to help him learn to manage himself successfully. He understands that is my motivation, and to me, that's everything! So when your ADHD kid disappoints you, remember they're good kids, they just need a little extra support.
*For more details on the Marshmallow test – Google it. There are great articles, videos, and even a TED talk about it (here's one of Cookie Monster that I loved.)