It’s 9 p.m. and your 13-year-old daughter with ADHD is rushing around the house frantically looking for her social studies book. She’s just realized that she has to read a chapter and answer five questions to prepare for the quiz tomorrow. You calmly offer to help her find the book and review the material but, instead of graciously accepting your assistance, she screams at you “Why can’t you leave me alone? I don’t need you!” You snap back, “Well actually you do or you’d know where your book is and you’d have finished your homework by now!” Then you both stomp off to your respective bedrooms, wondering why things devolved so quickly into a yelling match.
Irrational upsets, misunderstandings and poor cooperation can leave everybody in a family feeling disconnected, unhappy and disempowered. When you offer choices and negotiate collaborative solutions, your frustration decreases and your child’s sense of competence increases. I call this approach the 5C’s of neurodiverse parenting: self-Control, Compassion, Collaboration, Consistency and Celebration. My 5C’s offers families living with neurodiverse children and teens (those kids with ADHD, learning disabilities, twice exceptionality, level one autism, anxiety and more) a roadmap for reducing stress and improving day-to-day living. You start to shift attention from what’s not working (anger, disappointment, frustration) towards building closeness and cooperation, teaching essential executive functioning skills and fostering lifelong success.
The 5C’s approach relies on strength-based thinking, mindful awareness and personal accountability. Here’s how it works:
- self-Control: Manage your own feelings first so you can act effectively teach your neurodiverse child to do the same. If you are dysregulated, it’s like throwing fuel on the growing fire of distress in your youngster. Just like the instructions about oxygen masks on the plane (put yours on first, then on your child), parents and caring adults need to make sure that they remain centered and neutral when dealing with an upset child or teen. Neurodiverse kids have repeatedly told me that it is much harder to manage their strong feelings or irrational thinking when an adult loses it too.
- TIP: Take a pause in the action. Think about what words or behaviors really trigger you. How do you typically respond and what would you prefer to do? Reflect on what helps you calm down and recenter. In heated moments, many parents (myself included) benefit from any of these options: Breathing by numbers (in for four, hold for four, out for six), going to the bathroom (wash your hands or your face, say something encouraging to yourself in the mirror “You’ve been here before; you’ve got this”), getting a glass of water or opening a window. Do whatever works for you but do something. You can’t think clearly or teach self-control when you are angry or frustrated. Once you are calmer, you can deal more appropriately with anything.
- Compassion: Meet your child where they are, not where you expect them to be based on comparisons to neurotypical siblings or peers. This lies at the heart of satisfying and positive parent-child relationships. If you can accept the uniqueness of their brain and consider what it might be like to spend a day in their life, you will greatly assist them on the path to accepting themselves. Compassion also means being kind to yourself: embrace what you do well as a parent and stop aiming for perfection. Parenting neurodiverse kids has many wonderful moments and some very intense challenges.
- TIP: Zoom out and respond rather than react. In those tense and difficult moments, it’s tough to remember that both you and your child are doing the best you can to manage what’s going on with whatever resources you each have available. When people are flooded by strong emotions (especially neurodiverse kids), it is easy to become overwhelmed and impulsive and harder to make positive choices. Instead of you asking “What’s wrong with them?,” withhold judgment and zoom out. Look at the big picture and, relying on empathy and kindness, attempt to understand what’s going on in this situation. Use reflective listening: repeat what you hear them telling you and ask if you get it right. Then you can neutrally share your observations or perceptions. Later, if you need to, vent with a partner, friend, etc.
- Collaboration: Work together for solutions to life’s daily challenges in ways that include negotiation and compromise. Many kids with neurodiverse profiles think that compromise means that you agree with what they want. Of course, this isn’t true. A good compromise means that each person gives a little, and, while nobody may be perfectly satisfied, the agreement is good enough to move forward. Collaboration with outside-the-box thinkers especially depends on listening to their ideas and respecting their input. You work with them to create solutions instead of flatly imposing rules on them. When you include at least one of their ideas in any solution, you increase their buy-in. Of course, you are still the parent and, in crises or certain matters safety or health, you get the final word. But, you can expect more cooperation when you approach things with a ‘we’ rather than a ‘you’ attitude. Collaboration may not be appropriate.
- TIP: Use incentives to foster collaboration. To develop collaboration, rely on incentives that matter to your kids. Punishments don’t work because they don’t teach any skills. When you use incentives, you teach your child or teen that “have-to’s” come before “want-to’s” which improves their cooperation and their motivation. They learn to develop an earned privileges mentality which is fundamentally challenging for many kids with ADHD, ASD and LD who want to do fun things NOW. Talk with them about the concept of collaboration and how you’d like it to work in your family. Make a list of things they love to do and link these desired activities to things like chores or homework which are less appealing. Incentives can include screen time, a later bedtime or curfew, extra social time or time with you doing something fun.
- Consistency: Aim for steadiness instead of striving for perfection. It’s doing what you say you will do, most of the time. Consistency refers to sticking with a plan, and when you cannot, allowing for exceptions and being clear that the exception is not the new normal. Neurodiverse kids find routines comforting: they know generally what to expect and what is expected of them. Although they may struggle with learning and following these routines, many kids with ADHD, LD, 2e and ASD have told me that predictability helps orient them to situations and their environment. Consistency fosters the cause-and-effect learning that these outside-the-box thinkers really need.
- TIP: Nurture their efforts to do their best and do the same for yourself. Consistency depends on efforting — the process of trying to do things. Hopefully the tasks are accomplished but it’s actually noticing this process that is equally, if not more, important. Efforting shows us that kids are engaged in applying themselves and it is this involvement that makes all the difference. When you notice efforting, you encourage neurodiverse kids who often expect criticism to continue. You’re fostering the self-confidence they really need. Nurture their capacity for efforting by talking about potential obstacles to tasks like homework, chores, being kind to a sibling, timeliness, etc. in advance and brainstorming possible solutions. Consider implementing timed work periods and breaks to support efforting and build persistence.
- Celebration: Offer more positive feedback about what your child is doing well in their lives than focusing on what isn’t working. Kids with ADHD, ASD, LD and 2E hear many more criticisms about what they should be doing rather than validation about what they are doing. Whether it’s a frustrated redirection, a judgmental reaction or a corrective instruction in front of peers or siblings, these comments contribute to the persistent negative voice in their heads, low self-esteem and anxiety. They ask themselves repeatedly “When is the next time that I’m going to mess up? Why can’t I do things right?” To counteract this process, you’ve got to offer more words of encouragement, validation and specific praise than you probably do. Studies have found that a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative comments can significantly promote behavioral changes and can-do attitudes. This isn’t cheerleading, but rather genuine observations of solid efforts and good deeds.
- TIP: Notice the small successes along the way. Celebration isn’t about baking brownies because your child cleared their plate from the table or took a shower when you asked. Rather, it’s about letting them know that you appreciate their actions. Look at them and tell them something positive about what they did or thank them with a high five. Be specific: instead of saying “Good job walking the dog,” try “I liked that you walked the dog with one reminder. That’s great!” This way, you are giving them positive feedback and telling them specifically what they did that you appreciated. If kids brush you off, inject some fun and ask them to repeat what you said with good humor.
The 5C’s approach can help you reduce conflict in your family by improving your connection with your kids. You will manage daily challenges with more calm and collaboration so that there’s more time for laughter, fun and closeness.