Raising the Consistently Inconsistent Kid

One day last summer, my daughter arrived for her swim meet in great spirits, as if she could tackle anything. She danced around with her friends, red-cheeked with excitement. When her group was called, she got up on the block, adjusted her goggles, and swam faster than any other six-year-old. She was in high gear, revved with self-confidence. And most importantly, she seemed to be very present. She was her best self.

But at her next swim meet the very next day, she was not interested in racing. It was raining outside, and she decided she wanted to watch Cake Boss and eat Chinese food. After I pried her away from the TV and loaded her into the car, I sensed doom. All the way to the meet, she kept telling me that the race would be canceled. When we arrived, she did not frolic with her friends as she had the day before. Her mood was ill-tempered and stormy. When I saw her take the block, I knew she was going to hold back. She finished the race, but she didn’t make very good time. Immediately afterward, she picked a fight with one of her friends, and I had to separate them.

If you are a parent of a child with ADHD, this scene probably sounds very familiar to you. For ten years, I have worked with hundreds of frustrated parents who have relayed similar experiences. Their children are erratic and inconsistent, and they don’t know how to improve or control their children’s behavior. Like these other parents, you probably understand how hard it is to raise an unpredictable child. One day your child is brilliant and confident, and the next day, your child is a raging ball of dark emotion. You never know which version of your child will be showing up to the party. Your child’s dramatic mood swings and undesirable behavior may also be causing to you to feel a wide range of emotions: anger, shame, confusion, guilt, or hopelessness. I’m here to tell you that these feelings are very common.

Many of my clients have been in the exact same position as you are right now. One thing I often tell parents of children with ADHD is this: from now on, expect the unexpected. Accept the fact that your child is going to be a consistently inconsistent child for a very long time. Go through a grieving process, if you have to, in order to move forward. Most likely, your child’s challenging behavior will arrive at the wrong moments—when you are least equipped to handle the drama. Try to come up with some coping strategies to calm yourself down when these challenging days inevitably arise.

After you have gained this knowledge and acceptance, you can begin the change process. Most inconsistent kids want to be good, but they don’t know how to be good. Ross Greene, a leading expert in child psychology, puts it this way: “Children exhibit challenging behavior when the demands being placed upon them outstrip the skills they have to respond adaptively to those demands.” In other words, when your child reacts explosively, your child lacks the skills needed to handle the situation. Inconsistent kids need help with building coping skills, seeing things from another’s perspective, and developing problem-solving strategies. These much-needed skills are called lagging skills.

One way you can identify your child’s lagging skills is by asking yourself the following question: “What is getting in the way of my child’s success?” Start by trying to figure out what the overall reasons are for your child’s inconsistency. Some kids freak out about timed events or tests. Some can’t handle peer pressure. Some don’t understand social boundaries. Some don’t know what to do when they make a mistake, and they fall apart and blow the rest of the race, recital, test, etc. Ross Greene’s lagging skills assessment can help you identify your child’s lagging skills.

There is Always a Label

A client brings me a video of a school play where a hyperactive kid rocks back and forth, fidgets and dances around. It is hysterical, but I understand painful as a parent to watch. Unlike other kids her age, the little girl knows her lines and her part. During the big scenes, the child is front and center. She lights up the stage and she has charisma. She twists her hair and rocks on her heels, but she also talks at age six with a British accent and steals the show.

Her mother even after watching this with me is so frustrated. She feels her daughter “won’t act normal”. I have heard this story many times. The kid who does not stand in line. The parents who wonder why a child who cannot self-regulate and touches other kids in the hallway or whose behavior is “too much”. My client with the video tape fears labels.

I hear this a lot. She does not want the ADHD label because of the stigma. I do get that, but I will admit to you – there is always a label.

These kids are often characterized as difficult or disruptive. Other parents offer unhelpful and unwarranted advice, many times unfairly judging the behavior as if the child is trying to be this way, but there is always a label. When a kid is placed in the hallway or has to go to the principal every day, there is a label. When they are reprimanded time and time again until they see no point in trying – they have a label, and it’s not good.

I wish there were no labels. In the land of unicorns and fairies, there would not be. The fact is that other parents, educators, and communities label children who struggle with behavior. Often the label is to “type” the kid as a class clown, odd, out of control, or worse.

People resist diagnoses and labels, but sometimes we need to reframe our thoughts. If the label says that the kid is not willfully being difficult, that he is doing his best but that he cannot boss his body. Then isn’t that a better way to think of someone than to think of them as difficult or challenging?

Everyone is Working on Something

“My son will not sit in circle time,” one mother told me.

“The principal is constantly calling about my son’s behavior on the bus. What can I do? I am not even there,” another mother bemoaned.

“The teacher keeps calling me to complain about my daughter’s slow pace. When my daughter doesn’t get her class work done, the teacher keeps her in during recess to finish her work, and she has a meltdown every time,” another parent admitted.

Do any of these statements sound familiar to you? If so, you are not alone. Millions of parents across the U.S. receive phone calls from schools, teachers, coaches, and other parents regularly about their children’s irregular behavior. These types of well-intentioned calls can be very draining. Parents with challenging kids often hear too much about things their children do wrong. Sometimes, behavior is aggrandized and made to look like a larger problem than it needs to be. Society is very critical of kids today. Adults often expect kids to be adults, or they expect kids to change their behavior overnight.

If you are the parent of one of these unique kids, the negativity is probably starting to get to you. These criticisms may be making you feel stressed, frustrated, or even ashamed by your child’s behavior.  Even though, deep down, you understand that change and growth takes time, you wish you could do something that would make your child “fit in” now so you didn’t have to watch your child struggle with the pain of being different.

Remember, other parents throughout the country are going through the same ordeal. Every child develops at his or her own pace. At a BBQ this summer, a mother of a challenging child said that what kept her sane was to remember that “everyone is working on something.” She went on to explain that even the well-behaved straight-A student in her son’s class was working on not fighting with her brother on road trips. Her son’s teacher was working on reducing her credit card debt. Her son’s coach was working on eating healthier and losing weight. By reframing the criticism in this way, you can put your child’s issues into perspective. Yes, your child may be lacking some skills, either socially or academically, but you can work on developing those skills—just like everyone else. Everyone is working on something.

When the phone calls start rolling in, and you are feeling overwhelmed, you can also use these tips to help you keep calm.

  • After you receive a phone call, do not talk to your kid about it the minute the kid walks in the door. The conversation isn’t going to go well if you talk to them when you are still angry and frustrated. Instead, wait a few hours and broach the conversation when you are in a positive frame of mind.

  • Next, allow your child room to explain what happened. You could say, “I heard you had a rough day. What happened?” Your child’s perspective may help you understand the situation more fully.

  • Get your child excited about and involved in the problem-solving process. Change comes easier when your child sees the value in changing.

  • Look for small wins and improvements. Real change takes years. Remember to acknowledge and celebrate your child’s small successes.

  • Find a network of support. Find other parents who are going through similar travails and talk to them about your frustrations.

  • Communications with teachers, administrators, coaches, and other parents should be more about problem-solving and less about blaming. If you feel like the phone calls are all about blaming, try to turn the tables and involve the caller in the problem-solving process.

  • When talking to teachers or administrators over the phone, ask for insight into why this problem happened. Because you can’t be at school to regulate your child’s behavior, teachers need to step in and encourage change at school as well. To get teachers to partner with you, you can ask them open-ended questions, such as, “What skills do you think my child needs to develop?” and “What are you going to do at school to help my child develop those skills?” and “What can I do at home to help my child develop those skills?”

  • If you receive daily phone calls from one adult, you could also ask for a summary of your child’s behavior at the end of the week so you don’t have to face the constant negativity.

  • If the same problem keeps popping up, try to arrange a meeting with your child’s school team (the principal, the teacher, the school counselor, etc.) and come up with a long-term skill-building plan together, keeping in mind that your kid is not going to change by next week.

Above all, when you receive a disheartening phone call, remind yourself of the big-picture perspective. You are not the only parent receiving these phone calls. You are not the only parent working with your child on big issues like behavioral problems, social skills deficits, or low academic performance. Everyone is working on something.

We May Have Eliminated “Last Picked” But Not “Picked On”

Gym class was 45 minutes of purgatory for me in elementary school. I could not catch a ball and I was just not athletic. Try as I might, I was last picked.

We have eliminated picking kids for teams and the torturous wait to see if anyone else could be the victim of being last picked, but here is the thing – we have not eliminated the core issue and perhaps we cannot.  

Kids are still going to be picked on at school and we should not underestimate the power of that dread. As we are well into the school year, many kids are falling victim to the class bully. Others may be suffering from being left out of the “in” crowd, silently scolded for being different simply by the fact that they are on the periphery and are not welcomed into a group.

This is a lonely place, yet there is a solution. Don’t focus on the bully. Focus on the kid who is left out and his specific challenges with appropriate social skills. We can rightly report the bully, but many times the shunning is subtle and it leaves the left out kid with no recourse.

Now I was never going to be first pick, but it was social skills and being good at something else that saved me. So let’s look at a few things that kids can change.

Here are some suggestions:

1. Try to understand what social skills the child may need to develop.  Then work on how he can develop those skills. This will take time but often kids are left out because they do not know how to present socially appealing behaviors.

2. Give him a place to be happy, to be a star in HIS comfort zone where his talents can shine through. A safe harbor or comforting atmosphere is important so the child can feel that he is talented, which will, in turn, help him feel better about himself, and help him preserve his self-esteem.

3. Create a plan for him to implement when he comes up against someone teasing or bullying him. Work on role-playing and rehearsing his response to his classmates who are picking on him. Be sure to protect the child. Make a point to visit the school so they are aware of the situation and can provide the physical safety he needs.

4. Arrange play-dates and activities with kids who have similar interests. This will provide him with another social outlet. When a child is unique they may have to seek a new pool of friends; having someone who they can connect with is crucial. 

5. Talk openly with him about what he feels and help him name his emotions. Ask him questions about what his day is like. Brainstorm ways he can navigate the social scene more effectively. Often, left out kids do not know how to join a group or know how to approach potential friends.

It’s natural to worry about your kids. But remember, a child doesn’t need to be in the “in” group or be good at sports or invited to a lot of parties. What’s important at this stage is to help the child understand what his strengths are and where he can showcase them. By helping him build a toolkit so he can identify his emotions and understand his actions and how others perceive him, is a great start to identifying those positive social behaviors. 

As Parents Are We Doing Enough?

A girl with a snotty tone is standing in front of me in line to a haunted hayride. She says snarky things to her friends – clearly a queen bee. She is mean in that cruel, covert, and subtle way. It’s all about the tone and how you look at the person as if the “mean girl” is gauging how mean to be while the victim prays for mercy. The mean girl’s mother is with her and does not even seem to notice, much less care to reprimand her. I’m intrigued. We can’t control everything our kids do, but we can do things to help the bullied children. Often, these kids are left out and struggling right before our eyes, and many parents are not aware of this.

People are having a lot of conversation about the bullying epidemic on social media and coffee shops these days. On the other hand, many parents are washing their hands of the problem, as if to say, “I see it going on around me, but it’s not happening in my house”. Please understand, I am not condemning parents. I am simply asking that we all do our part and try to be more aware. Mentally sign a manifesto to care about what is happening within our control. Talk to your kids about the proper way to treat people, and furthermore, model that behavior. Sit with the mom who pleases you less or maybe is even a bit boring or strange; give her a chance and you might be surprised what you learn about her. It is important we all do this, because our kids are watching.

Some things to think about:

  • Invite everyone or no one

  • Don’t send paper invitations to school

  • Talk to your child about who they interact with to better understand who might expect an invitation

  • Call out kids on mean behavior

  • Set an example of being nice to people in front of your kids – they are watching

  • Ask your child to be sensitive to other people’s feelings and show them what it looks like to be kind to someone

  • Ask your child what he or she may be thinking when someone is harsh or makes fun of them. Expect your child to model a kind tone even with kids they don’t like

We tend to worry more about academics and sports these days, but developing well-rounded, good human beings is actually one of our most important jobs as parents.

A Castle with Walls Too Thick to Penetrate

One of my clients this week told me that social life is like a castle. The walls are just too high and too thick to climb and you cannot get in unless someone lets the draw bridge down.  

So many kids feel this way. They do not know what to do – so at lunch they head for the library or to the bathroom to bide their time and hide out. Maybe you were one of these kids and you can relate to the feeling that the social world is just an insurmountable tower of terror. Kids and teenagers often share with me that they cannot figure out how to change things. They are unsure how to climb the tower walls or even cajole people to let the draw bridge down. And so they avoid social interactions all together.  

Avoidance is a sign. Not a sign that the child does not care. Or a sign that he lacks motivation, is resistant, or is just uninterested in having friends, but a sign that he does not know how to break down the barriers so he can participate, or “join in”. Without a roadmap or help with his social plan, children and teenagers often shut down.  

So I ask parents to reframe their thoughts about a child or teenager who avoids socialization. Hiding in one’s room playing video games is not always about a bad attitude. Sometimes children just do not know how to climb the walls of the castle and break in.

If you are waiting to see if things will change without help, let me share with you that they will not. The child alone does not have the skills yet to navigate this kind of change. They do not know how to enter the lunchroom and connect with their peers, and sit down and join a group. 

Good news!! When children receive guidance and are provided with specific steps on how to navigate social situations to make friends, they build new skills and often become more interested in joining in.

Birthday Parties, the Cafeteria, and Other Social Obstacles

You learned that your middle-schooler is skipping lunch to avoid the cafeteria. Should you address it head-on, giving her advice that she probably won’t listen to, or demand that she go to lunch? It is hard to know. The cafeteria is where everyone comes together to socialize and hang out. For a child with ADHD, lunch can be very challenging.

Social struggles are not restricted to school. Children have the same deficits at home, at stores, on the ball field, and in every life setting. Many kids want to improve their friendship skills, but don’t know how. That’s where you come in.

Working with your child to meet social challenges leads to behaviors that your child can use everywhere. The following strategies will help your child make friends – and move through the socially difficult years of adolescence more easily.

How do I help my son stop avoiding the school cafeteria?

Children avoid the cafeteria because they are bullied, but also because they don’t know how to interact with peers, join a conversation, or even where to sit.

> Debrief your child. Without telling your child he is doing anything wrong, ask open-ended questions to find out what he thinks is happening. Ask about whom he sits with, when he feels uncomfortable, or if there are friends he would like to sit with.

> Practice skills. Nothing is tougher for kids than joining a conversation that is in progress. Suggest a little detective work. Ask your child to go to lunch, listen to what everyone talks about, and report back. You and he can role-play conversations that build on the topics the group talks about most often.

> Get outside help. Avoidance is not a plan, so if your child can’t navigate social situations, have her work with a professional social skills group.

How can I help my child when she isn’t invited to class parties?

If a child isn’t invited to birthday parties, concerts, or other peer activities, it is time to team up and find out what might be causing the problem.

> Discuss things, without blame, to help your child diagnose why she isn’t fitting in. Walk her through her day at school and ask her to recount one or two of the social interactions she had – what she said to a classmate, how that child reacted – and discuss what she thinks she could have done differently.

> Talk about different types of friendship. Many children with social challenges try to make friends with kids who do not share their interests, or they misinterpret social cues and think any friendly person wants to be friends. Help your child understand different kinds of “friendships”: There are people you say hello to, acquaintances, people you interact with, and real friends. Brainstorm with her about ways to befriend children with whom she shares interests and who treat her well.

> Find ways to meet others with similar interests – social clubs, youth groups, and other interest-based activities. These places give your child a chance to socialize by talking about things the kids like in common.

How can I make group projects less intimidating for my daughter?

Group projects are tough for her because she has to contribute, advocate for her ideas, participate in the discussion, and present a final project. The following case study shows how to make group projects less challenging for your child.

Ali is 12 years old, and she hates group projects. She and her mom write the teacher asking for advice about what she can do better in the next group project. The teacher says Ali should speak up more and identify a role she would like to take on in the project.

Ali’s mom understands the unspoken social dynamics in play – children meet in large groups, and assumptions are made about Ali and what she might be able to do on the project. Ali is left out of the decision-making because she doesn’t speak up. Ali and her mom discuss the personalities within the group, their likes and dislikes, and so on. Ali puts together a social database about her partners in the group project, so she can talk more comfortably with her peers.

Ali does better socially when she has a plan. She and her mom look at the project rubric and discuss which components seem interesting and manageable to Ali, and decide what Ali would like to take on. They rehearse possible scenarios. Role-playing, and learning how to ask open-ended questions, helps Ali build the confidence to speak up during the group’s discussions.

With all the prep at home, Ali slowly overcomes her social struggles and plays an important part in the group. And she has a plan she can use for the next group project.

My son has lots of virtual friends, but how do I encourage him to develop friends he can talk with one-on-one?

Connecting to other people, adapting to their needs, and engaging in the give-and-take of friendship are important skills all kids need to learn.

> Let him have virtual friends. Facebook friends and Twitter buddies may be your son’s only friends right now, and you don’t want him to lose them.

> Talk to him about why he needs other friends. Ask your child what he likes about the virtual world. Find another activity that he may like – a course in robotics or computer coding – in which he will interact with people.

> Work on social strategies. Whether it’s engaging in chitchat, turning an acquaintance into a friend, or arranging to see people outside of school, it is essential that your son knows how to approach people. With consistent practice, he will get what you and every child wants: good friends.

This article was originally published at ADDITUDE. Reprinted with permission from the author.

Your Child Isn’t Defiant — His Skills Are Lagging

You wouldn’t expect a child to hit a baseball before learning how to swing the bat. Many children who struggle with behavioral challenges don’t have the skills they need to do what’s expected of them, and unfortunately, ADHD behaviors can lead to harsh — and mistaken — assumptions. There is the child who barges into a room, disrupting the conversation, or the one who laughs at a joke after everyone else has moved on in the conversation. These children may appear rude or awkward, but not all we see is what it seems.

How ADHD’s Executive Dysfunctions Impact Behavior

Certainly there are times when a child seems stubborn or selfish, but neuroscience suggests that it is a lack of skills, specifically the brain-based “executive function” skills, that hold him back — not willfulness or laziness. Executive function is the brain’s hub of skills — memory, organization, planning, self-regulation, and the ability to modify our behavior in response to others.

When these skills lag, advice about pushing through does not apply. Blaming and shaming only make matters worse. This is especially significant for children with ADHD, due to their complex differences in the brain’s pathways and processes for attention and behavior.

The conversation about ADHD and executive function skills most often focuses on academic skills. What’s missing, however, is recognition of how executive function affects social behavior. Social challenges are often traced back to underlying ADHD. Read on to learn how — and then, the next time your child’s behavior frustrates or baffles you, remind yourself: “If he could, he would.”

Kids Want to Please Their Parents

Generally speaking, children do not want to fail at being a kid or to disappoint their parents. Every child wants to succeed; every child wants to grow up to become a capable human being. The idea of “would if he could” is a lens through which you look at your child and reset your understanding of him. Once your child begins to develop executive function skills — whether by getting homework done or managing big emotions — his success will motivate him to want more.

[Self-Test: Does Your Child Have an Executive Function Deficit?]

Set aside discouraging assumptions about your child’s behavior and replace them with If he could, he would. A child needs continued support to navigate the academic learning curve and the social learning curve at the same time.

Here are some steps to turn this approach into action:

  1. Believe that your child has the capacity to learn, and that he has good intentions — because it’s true!

  2. Go for responses that encourage, illuminate, and engage.Recognize the qualities of character and effort that your child shows: when he shows empathy for someone, takes pride in something he does, or rebounds from a failure. Use comments that begin with “I noticed…” or “You showed…” to highlight the positive.

  3. Identify sources of stress and distraction for your child, and find specific ways to minimize them. Stress in one area leads to stress in other areas.

  4. Talk with your child about what he thinks is going on. Show curiosity and respect him as the expert on his own feelings and perspective. By doing so, you give him a chance to practice connecting internal feelings to outward behavior. That’s the executive function skill he needs to change behaviors that aren’t working for him.

It’s easy for a child to lose heart in the struggle to learn and grow. Show confidence in the qualities she brings to her challenges. The truth is that everyone is working on something.

[8 Confidence Builders for Kids with ADHD]

ADHD Success Story: Matt Overcomes School Hurdles

Matt, who is six, was barely through mid-autumn in his first-grade class when he started to not want to go to school. He had meltdowns when it was time to get in the car, or on the way. He hated school and his mother could understand why. He spent most of the day either making trouble in class or being reprimanded for it.

We talked with Matt about what was so hard about the school day, and we identified some of the problems: Matt had reading problems that needed to be addressed with one-on-one tutoring. Stress of any kind overwhelmed him, whether related to reading, communicating about a difficulty, social anxiety, or upsetting interactions with his parents and teachers. Matt needed help with his communication and self-regulation skills.

When Matt’s challenges were acknowledged, his parents got the help he needed to address them. Matt began to develop skills, and his behavior improved. Matt wanted to do well in school, and once he had what had been missing, he could.

[Free Handout: A Parent’s Guide to Ending Confrontations and Defiance]

This article was originally published in ATTITUDE. Reprinted with permission from the author.

 

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