Accept and Believe in Your Child

Mother and daughter having fun in park in autumn
This post was originally published on Parenting ADHD & Autism on July 5th, 2016. 

It’s critical to not be critical.

I’ve been listening to the podcast Invisibilia, and this week’s episode is on The Problem With the Solution. It’s about a woman’s search for effective supports for those with mental illness. She finds herself in the town of Geel, Belgium where families agree to host people who have significant mental health challenges. The families are not told what their boarders’ diagnoses are, and they act as hosts for an average of 28.5 years. The host families in Geel do not feel a need to know the diagnosis, because they prefer to understand their new tenants as individuals, without preconceived notions.

Later in the show, Lulu Miller interviews Jill Hooley, a researcher in the psychology department at Harvard University, who studies the factors that lead to psychiatric relapse in patients with conditions like schizophrenia and depression. Dr. Hooley described the work of a British sociologist, George Brown, who found that patients who were suffering from chronic schizophrenia did a lot better when they didn’t return to live with their families after being released from the hospital. Furthermore, Dr. Brown discovered that if the patient did return to live with his family, the more critical, hostile, and emotionally over-involved the family members were, the more likely the patient was to relapse.

We all know what critical looks and sounds like.

  • “How come you never pick up after yourself?”
  • “Stop picking!”
  • “You need to work on having more friends.”

Hostility is defined as a state of ill will and bad feeling and family members are probably also familiar with how that sounds.

  • “You clearly don’t care about the rest of us.”
  • “I hate you when you do that.”
  • “You have ruined my life.”

We intuitively know that statements like these hurt.

Be cautious of your message.

But it turns out that emotional over-involvement can be just as damaging. Emotional over-involvement is when family members treat their children as if they will not be able to live a productive and constructive life unless they change. There’s a constant push to “make it better”. Sometimes parents will blame themselves for their child’s disability and openly pity the child.

  • “It breaks my heart to see him suffering.”
  • “I’d do anything for her if it would help.”
  • “There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for my child.”
  • “I know he hates going to therapy, but I want him to have the skills he needs.”

Why is this harmful? Our children hear the message that they are not good enough, that we would love them better if they were different from who they really are. That really hurts.

The Invisibilia episode ends with Lulu Miller talking to her own family about her sister’s trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling). A particularly poignant moment comes when Lulu tells her parents that her sister had to leave home because she felt that her family wanted her to be someone that she was not. Her father recounts a scene when Lulu’s sister was 2 or 3. She was having a major meltdown at three o’clock in the morning, “just screaming and yelling in her bed. And I went in there, and I got angry at her…. I said stop it, stop it. And I remember in her tears, as I was getting angrier… she kept saying, ‘I can’t help it. I can’t help it.’ And I didn’t hear that. It’s something I will always regret — my feeling anger instead of empathy.”

Let your child’s truth be your guide.

In her book, The Insider’s Guide to ADHD, Penny outlines 12 ADHD Truths for effective parenting of kids with ADHD that she learned from surveying and interviewing 95 adults with ADHD. One of those strategies is “Discover, listen to, and accept your child’s unique truth.”

So, how do you do this? There are four strategies that can make a big difference.

  1. Time-In (sometimes called Special Time).
    • Time In is a specific time during each day when your child gets a chance to feel appreciated and understood for who they are. It gives children one-on-one positive attention on a daily basis just for being themselves. It’s one of the most powerful techniques I know for restoring the guiding relationship.
    • Learn how to do it by reading this article I wrote for the site ExpertBeacon.
  2. Use more declarative language (fewer questions, fewer commands).
    • Declarative language is when you state out loud what you are thinking in the form of a comment. Examples include sharing an opinion (I love spaghetti!); making a prediction (I think we are going to the movies tomorrow.); announcing or celebrating (We had a great time today!); observing (I notice that your friend wants a turn.); reflecting on past experience (Last time this stopped working we checked the batteries.); or problem solving (We need tape to fix it.). It does not require a response. Rather, it invites experience-sharing, and provides an ideal social framework for later conversational interactions. I aim for four declarative statements for every question or command that I give to my kids. And I force myself to make four positive declarative statements before I’m allowed to issue the question or command. This sounds simple, but it is incredibly difficult. It also makes a big difference!
    • Learn more about declarative language by reading this article by Linda Murphy posted on the Relationship Development Intervention website. (It’s where I got the examples listed above!)
  3. Monitor and control your body language.
    • Kids with ADHD and autism are keenly sensitive to your body language, so you really need to watch it. Use body language that is open, friendly, and respectful of your child. An open and welcoming posture, friendly (not forced) facial gazing, giving your full attention, with a calm and pleasant expression on your face. No rolling your eyes, looking away, refusing to shift your focus to your child, exaggerated sighing, or scowling. You want your child to get the strong message that you want nothing more than to be with them.
    • Read this article by Julie-Ann Amos on the Body Language Expert site to understand why this is so important.
  4. Presume competence, but provide appropriate support.
    • Kathie Snow says in her article Presume Competence, “Low expectations are the norm [for people with disabilities]. Hopes and dreams are stripped away by physicians, educators, services providers, and even parents…. If a person isn’t considered ready for [fill-in-the-blank], it’s thought he could be harmed. But think back to when you left your family’s home: were you ready? Were you competent to go out on your own? You most likely believed you were, but what about your parents? …[You] learned from your mistakes, found the help you needed from others, picked yourself up, and made it – one way or another! ….Why can’t people with disabilities have those same opportunities?”
    • Sometimes we ask more of our kids than they can handle. That’s okay – be sensitive to when that is happening, and push your kids a bit, but not so much that they are overwhelmed. The goal is to believe that they can do it, and to keep pushing them to be the best version of themselves that they can be.

Sometimes when I tell parents to “get off the negative and focus on the positive,” they ask how their child will learn to function effectively in society. The answer is that kids do well when they can. Give them the tools. And keep in mind that the most powerful motivator in the world is a caregiver’s unconditional love.

The language we use with our children has a tremendous impact, whether it's emotionally charged, commanding, or body language. Let your child's truth be your guide!