Handling Conflict with Complex Kids

Conflict is inevitable in any family, but those with complex kids may be more familiar than most. Here are a few ways we’ve learned to handle conflict with our complex kids.

Start With Curiosity When ADHD Kids Break the Rules 

I remember quite an adventure with rules one week. My son broke a house rule, and then lied about it.  My daughter then told on my son, breaking another rule. It ended with me feeling conflicted about which rule to enforce. Ultimately, it got them both in trouble. 

So, which is the worst offense, lying, breaking a rule, or tattling? 

It depends on your values and family rules. Perhaps it's more important to understand what's going on behind the action. 

Whenever rules are broken, start with Curiosity as your first line of defense: 

It keeps you calm and out of the threat cycle 

A little detective work can help you uncover opportunities to support your kids, and ultimately increase their success and responsibility. 

My Son: I talked with him about why he had taken the iPod on the bus. I found out he thought it might increase his social status. He has been feeling “friendless” and wants to be more popular at school. 

Opportunity for mom: Do some coaching with him around social skills and self-confidence.  Find some opportunities to increase his interactions with other kids. 

Lying is a complicated topic in ADHD land. Our kids are often so tired of being wrong that they'd rather risk being caught in a lie than being wrong again; or, they are simply avoiding something unpleasant. On some level, this is actually a normal response. 

My Daughter:  Let's face it, because of her brother's ADHD, she often is second in line for attention, support, time.  On top of that, she's really impulsive, so her mouth often gets her in trouble. Typically when she tattles, it's because she wants to even the playing field a bit. 

Opportunity for mom: Spend some one on one time with my daughter. Help her feel special. 

Our kids generally want to do the right thing.  When they don't it's often because their ADHD gets in the way.  When it's something else, get curious. It's a great opportunity to help them learn from their mistakes and to support them in a way you might have never uncovered if they hadn't broken the rule. 

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Stay Calm for Your Kid to Learn How to Stay Calm 

Cool, Calm and Collected 

So, you've read “Is it Naughty or Neurological?” and you've figured out that your child's behavior is not designed just to make you crazy. She's not being rude because of disrespect, she just doesn't yet have the self-regulation skills necessary to manage herself. 

Now, does that mean it's okay for her to speak to you that way, or to avoid her responsibilities? 

Well, of course not. 

But what's important in that MOMENT is that you understand what's going on for her, and not allow it to trigger you. You know that yelling at her, or giving her an unreasonable punishment that is hard to enforce (or likely to add to everyone's stress), isn't going to help anything. So if you're at the brink of breaking, then it's time to model self-control and take a time out for yourself. 

It'll be better for you. For your child. And for your relationship. 

Don't Lose Your Cool – No, It's Not Easy 

The point is this: you do not want to punish your child for something that is the very nature of her neurological challenge. You want to be supportive, and help her learn to manage her challenges, over time. But sometimes that can be hard to do! So it's really important for you to keep that in mind, and when push comes to shove, make it your “default” to focus on helping her learn to manage herself. Make that more important than any given task that might need to get done in the moment. 

Later, you can have a constructive conversation about what was going on – helping her begin to see how her stress or frustration was interfering with her ability to do what she wanted to get done (or was being asked to do). Later, you can focus on learning skills for navigating times of pressure. 

But in that moment, if you can keep your cool, and focus on calming down, you'll begin to shift the patterns for everyone in the household. 

And just in case you do lose your cool occasionally – because you are human, after all – then here's a good article about how to handle it afterwards: How to Apologize When You've Hurt Your Child's Feelings. 

De-escalating when Things are Heating Up 

How to Stop Your Kid From Being Naughty 

Change Starts With You 

Quite often, as parents, the biggest improvements we make for our kids come about when we start to think about things differently. When we change our mindset, the results can be extraordinary. 

The number one ‘mindset' shift that I use with parents – the one our clients tell us gets the most transformational results – is an idea that I learned many years ago from a wonderful child psychologist and mentor, Kathleen Platzman, PhD. It's based on a simple question: “Is it naughty or neurological?” 

In our world, kids' behavior can be “bad” on the surface. They may be anxious, overwhelmed, impulsive or inattentive – and it comes out looking like anger, spaciness, disorganization, rudeness or disrespect. But nine times out of ten, what's beneath those behaviors is something really important for us to understand. Our kids are struggling with the challenges of a brain that is neurologically not as developed as we parents think it “should” be for their age. 

So when we pause and ask the question – “Is it naughty or neurological?” – we are able to approach our kids from a place of compassion. Not only that, but we can then set more realistic expectations, improve our relationship with our kids, and improve our kid's long-term ability to be successful. All with a simple mindset shift. 

Naughty or Neurological 

Generally speaking, kids with ADHD have trouble getting their chores done and their homework turned in. They find it difficult to do any number of things because of the way that their brains are wired. And it can be hard for us, as parents, to understand that our kids aren't messing up on purpose. 

But that is exactly why piling on punishments doesn't work to change behaviors. When a kid is already struggling to get his brain to respond the way he knows he should, constant disapproval just adds insult to injury. 

So, when your kids' behavior is less than desirable, it can be really helpful to ask yourself this question: Is It Naughty or Neurological? 

Is it Naughty? Is he really avoiding work just to be rude, difficult, ungrateful or disrespectful? Is he really ignoring your request to do a “simple” task? 

Is it Neurological? Is it possible that your child might not be handling stress very well, so it comes out sounding rude, difficult, ungrateful or disrespectful? Is it possible that he forgot, or never really heard the request in the first place, or the task actually isn't so simple for him? 

We often hear from parents, “I just don't know what to do anymore. There's nothing left for me to take away, and my son/daughter doesn't seem to care at all!” When you've tried consistent, appropriate consequences or punishments, and they don't really change behaviors, that's a strong indicator that what's happening has a neurological basis. 

Of course, there is always the chance that there is a little of both going on – both naughty and neurological. Still, we have found that when you suspect that there is a neurological part to the problem (and that's all you need at first – to Assume Best Intention), start there and treat it accordingly. The “naughty” usually disappears when your child feels supported and understood. 

When Someone Pushes Your Buttons . . . 

“I don't have to attend every argument I'm invited to.” -Unknown 

We all have people who push our buttons – but we don't have to participate! Our buttons are the things that make us angry or upset, that cause a strong negative reaction. Button pushing is not about the pusher, but the pushed. No one can make you feel anything, and you are in complete control. So, how can you change your reaction? Stop and take a deep breath. Ask yourself, “Do I want to act this way? What else may be going on here? How am I interpreting this situation? Which button is being pushed?” Then, knowing this: “How would I like to respond? What can I do differently in the future?” Be gentle, and practice without beating yourself up. Responding, rather than reacting, takes time. Luckily (I think), we get opportunities to practice all the time! 

Is it Worth the Fight? 

The kids are sniping, griping and just being sassy. You've gotta get dinner on the table and do 3 loads of laundry before bedtime. And there's clearly 2 hours of homework stretching out in front of you – even though you know it “should” only take 20 minutes. And then, it happens. Your daughter snaps back at you when you ask her to do something simple, like feed the dog: “No!” she screams, and stomps off to her room. 

Is it “worth the fight”? 

The short answer: No. 

But it's more complicated than that, isn't it? 

It's not that you don't address the issue, or hold your child accountable. There is a conversation to have (later, when she's not triggered), probably some natural consequence to follow. The dog might not be able to wait, so you may want to identify something else that could be expected of her, a “replacement” chore to communicate at a later time. 

When kids are emotional, or bratty, or difficult, something is going on with them – they are usually hungry, angry, lonely, tired, scared, disappointed, etc.  They have to learn to manage those difficult situations in life – and you have the opportunity to help them with that, as long as you don't take up the fight. 

As adults, when we choose not to take their reactions personally, when we are clear and compassionate, then we don't need to fight with our kids. Instead, we can accept where they are in their stage of development. And we can create an environment that teaches them to correct their mistakes without shame. 

So if you make the decision that it's never worth the fight – what's the opportunity, instead? 

Keeping Cool: Don’t Take It Personally 

Emotions can run rampant in the ADHD household.  Tempers flare for no apparent reason, feelings are hurt, and the entire family dynamic can quickly end up in a hot mess. Add to this the natural tendency that most of us have to deflect responsibility, and everyone is getting blamed for everything that happens to everyone else. Next thing you know: 

“It's your fault!” 

I've personally been blamed for everything from my husband not paying his bills on time to causing the rain that ruined the toy that was left outside all night (which by the way was my fault too!). 

When this happens, my tendency is either to fight back or analyze the situation to death (to figure out how, in some small way, I might have helped to create the situation). 

Here's the tip: Don't take it personally! Know that it is completely normal for people to resist taking responsibility when they realize that they screwed up! We all do it! In that moment when we feel panic, threatened, or overwhelmed by reality, it's really difficult to simultaneously “own” what's happening. 

We might be able to take responsibility once we have calmed down (that's another blog). 

Here's how this is a self-care tip.  We can't stop people from losing their tempers. Getting into an argument with them about what “really” happened when they are completely fired up will likely have little success.  Also, it stresses most of us out when we argue or fight back. None of us needs more stress! 

So let your family (for now at least) vent and rant and point fingers.  I'm not saying to encourage it, just stand in your truth calmly, and don't react. That way, when it's time to take responsibility and help them figure out what to do, you'll have a good mindset and the energy to help. 

Find a Real Problem to Fix

Some people are “problem-solvers,” and they love to find solutions to puzzles. They tend to be great strategists, and resourceful fixers. They pride themselves on the accomplishment of helping others. 

Problem is, when there are not problems that actually need to be solved, these people tend to create them to keep life interesting for themselves. It can leave a whole lot of drama in its wake, and put a lot of unnecessary pressure on others. 

So the tip this week is simple: Pay attention to the “problem” you're trying to solve, and make sure it actually wants your attention. 

Get clear on: 

  • what is the actual problem? 
  • in what way is it a problem? 
  • who is it impacting? 
  • whose responsibility is it, really? 
  • what will happen if you do nothing? 

You might be surprised to learn that, with a little patience, the “problem” will work itself out. Or, better yet, your child will figure out what to do to fix things! 

If You Want Something Done Right…

I never liked the phrase, “if you want it done right, do it yourself!” I'm one of those people who tends to be overly responsible, so it sounds like a burden, like you have to “do it all.”  In a world where there is no right or wrong, (see my blog last week) here's another way to look at it:

If you want something done a certain way, do it yourself!

The truth is that it is unrealistic to think that your 10 year old will fold the clothes the same way (or as neatly) as you.  If you ask your 13 year old to sweep up the floor, s/he is likely to miss spots.  Your husband probably prepares curried chicken differently than you, too.

There is a trade-off!

Having help with chores and tasks is awesome. It teaches your kids responsibility, and gives you some help with all the things on the family to-do list.

At the same time, if you micro-manage your family members, it can undermine their self-esteem, and set the stage for resentment.

Here's a way to take care of yourself AND keep healthy relationships:  When you delegate something, be willing let go of the “how.” This means overlooking some things when it's not done your way. And, it means doing it yourself when the details really matter to you.  It will help your stress level, your relationships, and your sanity.

After a Fight 

Replace Shame with Understanding 

The Problem With Threats 

Often parents use the "stick" instead of the carrot – threats, idle warnings, taking things away. I often get calls from parents who say, "I just don't know what to do anymore. There's nothing left for me to take away, and my son/daughter doesn't seem to care at all!" 

Shame, guilt, threats – these don't tend to work for ADHD kids. If anything, they can reinforce their negative self image and make it that much harder for kids to get their stuff done. If they feel like they're just going to fail anyway, why bother? 

Where To Start? 

It's hard for us parents to understand that our kids aren't really avoiding work just to be rude, difficult, or disrespectful. They don't have a mechanism to get themselves activated, and trust me – they already find that a little embarrassing. They certainly don't need us reminding them all the time, much less making them feel bad about it! We must be clear when the challenge is naughty, and when it's neurological – and treat it accordingly. 

So here's the tip – START with understanding and compassion, and try everything you can to stop the shame game. It's not helping your child perform any better, and more than likely, it's damaging your relationship. 

Wiping the Slate Clean 

Disagreements are a part of life, and sometimes they get heated. A key to keeping relationships healthy is finding a way to move forward when hurtful things happen. Some people are good at letting go, and others of us end up with ulcers and stress! Where do you fit on the continuum? 

A friend of mine had a routine she would use with her son as part of “making up” after they had an argument. They would put their hands together (like playing patty cake) and together move their hands like they were cleaning off a blackboard. Then they would hug and go on with their day. It was their way of starting fresh by wiping the slate clean. 

It can help to take the perspective that our friends and family members always have good intentions. Typically, we don't go out of our way to hurt each other's feelings. Giving the other person the benefit of the doubt is the first step in moving forward. Recommitting to the relationship and moving forward with forgiveness comes next. 

What makes this a self-care tip? Ultimately, forgiveness does more for the forgiver than the offender. So look around. Where could you benefit from starting with a clean slate? 

A Simple Strategy for Getting Over Upsets: Clearing

Sometimes, when our kids are feeling something intensely – or when the thoughts in their ADHD brains are swirling at a thousand miles a minute – it's really hard for them to concentrate on anything else. “Clearing” is a great tool to help them make room in their brains for concentration.

The feelings that come up for typical kids – fear, loneliness, isolation, and doubt – can seem magnified in an ADHD kid. As parents, we might get annoyed by our child's negativity, or try to talk him/her out of feeling overwhelmed. But it doesn't work. When kids bottle up thoughts and feelings, it can be SO DISTRACTING!

“Clearing” can help. Set the timer for 2 minutes, and encourage your child to get it out: vent, clear, kvetch, moan, cry…whatever it takes. Just keep asking, “anything else?” or “what else?” and let them tell you everything that's on their mind.

Once they let intense emotions “out,” they will usually run their natural course and dissipate. And then, your child will be better able to concentrate on whatever else is on the agenda for the day.

By the way, this technique works great for spouses at the end of a long day, too! Just don't forget to set the timer!

Why Rewards are More Effective Than Consequences 

If you don't, if you don't, if you don't… 

If you don't clean your room, you lose your favorite game 

If you don't get to the bus on time, you lose your sleepover 

Does this sound all too familiar? As defeating as it is for an ADHD kid to hear again and again, it is equally demoralizing for parents to keep repeating. The truth is that negative consequences, threats, and yelling do get a reaction. They tend to get our kids to do what we want – in the short term. 

But do they change the behavior in the long term? Probably not. Do they make everyone stressed and anxious? No doubt.  So, what works? 

Rewards. Kids tend to respond more favorably to the carrot than to the stick. If there is a behavior you want to change, find a clear motivator and use it to support her behavior. If it's cleaning the room, give her an immediate reward: clean room = 30 minutes of screen time. Rewards focus on the positive, supporting good behavior, rather than focusing on bad behavior. This change, alone, can make a powerful difference for ADHD kids – and their parents! 

Handling Conflict with Complex Kids

For more tips, check out our Manage Emotions and Impulses and Maintain Healthy Relationships categories and our posts on communication and relationship building:

3 Steps to Respond without Reacting

How to Apologize When You've Hurt Your Child's Feelings

Are You in Threat Mode? 6 Tools to Stop the Yelling

3 Step Method to ACE Communication with Complex Kids & Teens

Pick Your Battles to Achieve Family Peace

Relationships By Design

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