Being a parent is hard on its own, but it can become even harder if you’re living in a family where you’re parenting an ADHD child or and autistic child. That can be compounded when some of you are neurotypical, and some are neurodivergent.
In our family, with two of us autistic and two of us ADHD, we’ve had to do some hard work to understand each others’ perspectives and abilities.
As an autistic mom, I definitely had more challenges adapting to parenting an ADHD child, who can sometimes be rigid when she’s anxious or worried. But the work was worth it, and it definitely made me a better parent to both my children. Here are 5 ways my daughter’s ADHD improved me as a parent.
I’m an autistic mom, and I didn’t know I was autistic until after my first baby was a toddler. I was in my early 30s, so I’d had a lot of time to develop into somebody who wants things the way I want them. A lot of this is due to my autism and anxiety; those conditions mean that I don’t adjust quickly to changes in my plans or my environment.
I don’t change my expectations well, either. So I’d developed all these little rituals and routines that were, to me, the obvious and only ways to get things done, and I would fight to keep them that way.
Yeah, only allowing one way to get things done does not work while parenting an ADHD child. And it’s not like being an authoritarian with everyone in your life is a particularly helpful trait anyway. I was getting in my own way. So I knew that it wasn’t my kiddo that had to change; it was me.
I had to become waaaay more flexible
When my child turned 2 years-old, she started to develop her own opinions and her own ways of wanting to do things. We also realized pretty quickly that she could be as set in her ways as I could, and we started to clash heads all the time.
I cannot overstate how terrible it is to feel like you can’t get along with your own tiny toddler, who is barely even a sentient person all the way yet. I felt like the worst mother, and the worst person in general, because I knew that it was my inflexibility that was getting in the way.
But, because I was so used to the way I did things, and because of my autistic tendency toward inflexible thinking, a lot of the time I just could not see the alternatives that my child could see.
An example I often use is that for me, you need to wear socks and shoes to leave the house. For my brain, something like that is not just some random rule; it’s that obviously you must do part A to get to Part B. If you don’t do Part A, you can’t even get to part B.
So when my child didn’t want to wear socks, I got completely stuck. It was just like, “Oh, you don’t want to wear socks, I guess we can’t leave the house.” And then my routine would be interrupted, and my expectations for the day would have to change, and it was a huge upheaval in my brain.
It really caused me a lot of stress, and it caused my child a lot of unnecessary stress as well, which I don’t feel great about even to this day, knowing I did the best I could as a parent in difficult circumstances.
The only resolution to this issue was that I had to learn how to become way more flexible. My baby’s inflexibility was not her fault – we had the most trouble when she was two to three years old, which is tiny, and of course her regulation, her logical thinking, and her understanding of how the world works were not even developed yet.
She needed to do things the way she needed to do them because of her anxiety and because of her emotional regulation issues, which we now know stemmed from for her ADHD brain.
But my inflexibility? My inflexibility is half-trait, half-practice over more than 30 years of living, and I knew that if I worked at it, I could become more flexible. I didn’t want to, and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever challenged myself to do, but I knew I could do.
What ended up working for me was reframing it as an issue of prioritization. I’m really good at organizing problems toward finding solutions, and as soon as I was able to reframe my inflexibility as a problem prioritizing correctly, I was able to think through ways that I could prepare to be more flexible in advance.
Then I was able to teach myself scripts to use with my child in the moment when I got overwhelmed, usually when she was already overwhelmed. Then after some practice, I felt more prepared to handle her intractable periods. I also got better at creating multiple alternate plans ahead of time, so if I needed to switch tracks, it didn’t feel so much like an upheaval to my day.
Now, this kiddo is five years old, and I am definitely not the most flexible person you’ll ever meet, but I am miles past where I was a couple of years ago. And I’m ridiculously proud of myself about it, and much more confident as a parent because of the changes I made and the results they had.
My daughter and I still don’t get along a hundred percent, but we get along infinitely better than we did a couple of years ago, and we understand each other a lot better. A lot of that is because we have both worked so hard to get there, and we each are assured that we will continue to work together to solve problems in the future.
I had to become a better listener
So I’m actually a pretty good listener in general, and pretty good at putting myself in other people’s shoes to perceive their problems the way they perceive them. But that’s with other adults.
Children are coming from a completely different perspective, with completely different preconceptions and rationales, and it can be hard to figure out their goals and motivations in the best of times.
When your child is upset, disorganized, or suffering from stress or anxiety, it can be even harder to hear what she’s saying and understand her empathetically. Add some of your own stress, disorganization, or preconceived notions to hers, and you have a recipe for conversational disaster.
It used to be that when my daughter got upset about things, I would get stressed out and also get upset, and I would become much less able to listen to her effectively. Thus, I was unfortunately much less able to solve either of our problems.
As I realized what was happening, and as I got better at divorcing my reactions from my child’s reactions, I found that the best way to deal with her meltdowns was to calm myself down, get down to her level, and really hear what she was saying.
Kids are usually not worried about the same things as adults. it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to guess exactly what is going on with your baby unless you practice listening.
In one of the many parenting books I was reading at that time, I stumbled across the concept of empathetic listening. Empathetic listening is really hard, but it’s one of the concepts that has majorly helped my child and me communicate better with each other.
Empathic listening is a style of listening where you are really trying to understand what the other person is telling you. You are not trying to give advice, solve a problem, or fix anything for them. You are just trying to hear them and make them feel understood.
- Get down to your child’s level.
- Ask her questions, listen to her responses, clarify with her if needed.
- Repeat what she’s telling you and ask her if you understand correctly or not.
- Give her time and do not talk over her.
- Take your time to think through her responses.
- Only once you are sure you understand her goals and concerns, may you suggest one or two options for how to fix things.
I find that if my child notices that I am focused on her 100% and hearing her, it helps her calm down a lot, and helps her speech get stronger and clearer. We are usually able to solve the problem together, listening to each other and suggesting alternatives together until we find something that works.
Empathetic listening takes a lot of time to learn and practice correctly, but once you’re in the habit of it, it becomes a lot easier. Also, once your child knows that she can expect you to listen to her respectfully and hear her opinions, she’s likely to start calming down from tantrums a lot more often.
I find personally that a lot of kids reduce tantrums overall and get better at intervening themselves earlier when they notice something going off the rails. My daughter will now come up to me and say, “I’m really worried about going to the grocery store today because what if they don’t have the cookies I like?”
Before, that would have been a tantrum while we’re trying to get our shoes on, after her brother was already in the car, which would have ruined everybody’s afternoon. If you show your child you will hear her, she will trust that you respect her and will ask for your help more often.
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I had to become more realistic
I think we can all agree that, wherever you live, there are cultural norms and expectations for how children should behave at any given age, in different environments.
Children should sit in church and listen to the sermon. Children should not yell indoors, or run around inside. Children should speak respectfully to their parents in public. Children shouldn’t hit or kick or push or throw rocks or climb fences or run in busy parking lots.
These are all great goals to strive for, but a lot of our children will not achieve these goals at the same ages as neurotypical children do. A lot of our children will never achieve these goals at all.
It’s really hard, as a parent, to figure out where to put your energy most effectively, to decide where it’s worth it to try to match society’s expectations, and where society’s expectations just don’t apply to your family.
If you have a list of ways your child is seen as different, do you continue to work with your child on all of them, even though that’s exhausting for both of you? Or do you work on the safety issues and helping them develop into an empathetic, confident, authentic version of themselves, and let the rest of it go?
I had to become realistic and decide not to judge myself too harshly for the frankly ridiculous number of times one of my children has run full-speed into a wall or fallen off the porch. They’re both sensory-seekers; these things will happen.
Just because society has deemed their behaviors abnormal or rude doesn’t actually mean they are. Society wasn’t built with sensory-seekers in mind. That’s society’s problem, not mine, and certainly not my childrens’.
I will love the child I have, not the one I expected
You know, I think everybody goes into parenthood with this generalized idea that it will be difficult, but obviously rewarding. You think of your baby smiling at you, you think of birthday parties and walks in the park and how cute they will look when they’re sleeping.
You don’t necessarily think of bedtime battles and tantrums about shoes and your child running away from you in a busy parking lot because they got distracted at an inopportune moment. And you don’t think about people in the grocery store judging you, silently or aloud, for your child’s loud and excitable behavior.
But the truth is, kids are all different, and even neurotypical kids will have problems occasionally. Growth spurts, for example, create behavioral issues and sleep regressions for tons of kids. It’s just that neurodiverse kids tend to experience those behavioral issues and sleep regressions much more acutely than typical kids, and so, as a parent, you have to get a little bit more proactive about dealing with them.
I spent the first couple of years of both of my kids’ lives relatively sure that they were neurodiverse, but also worrying that I was just an over-reactive parent. Also, I did worry that I was maybe not a very good parent. I couldn’t get my kid to put her shoes on.
I couldn’t get my kids to sit at the table for a long enough to have an entire meal. My daughter routinely climbs too high and can’t get down by herself, and surely I was just doing a bad job of impressing safety routines on her.
By judging myself too harshly, I was also judging my kids too harshly, and you can’t have a good relationship if you don’t trust that yourself and your kids are doing your best. Your kids are amazing, truly. I couldn’t see that right away because I was exhausted, didn’t have enough parenting breaks, and didn’t know enough about neurodiversity.
Now that my kids are older and I have more processing time to myself, their amazing-ness is easier to see. But if you’re not in a place where you get enough support, please try to believe me – your kids are good kids. They’re doing the best they can. You’re doing the best you can. Don’t judge yourself too harshly.
Friends, my seven-year-old runs everywhere, vocalizes constantly, can’t sit at the table for a full meal most of the time, and can’t find any object in a slightly cluttered space. He is also the sweetest kid, great at math, loves to draw, is good to his sister, And he can monologue at you about weather phenomena for as long as you will let him.
My five year old climbs on everything, yells a lot, also can’t sit for very long, has strong opinions about every little thing, and impulsively pulls the cats’ tails when she’s having a bad day. She is also a fantastic singer, helps her brother solve problems when he gets stuck, and can be outrageously sweet.
Your kid might not be the kid you expected to get. That’s okay. Your kid is someone else instead, and it’s truly your joy and privilege to help them blossom into whoever they’re going to be. Blossom with them.