Some days it can feel like your child with ADHD has a vendetta against you. You tell them to go out…they go in. You say stop…they go. You tell them to start their homework, and they look at you and turn on the television. When our kids show defiance and go against our warnings or directions, it can feel downright infuriating. And it can make you question whether you are even a good parent.
First, let’s normalize this: you are not alone! Defiance is one of the most common challenges faced by parents and teachers of children with ADHD. As a psychologist, whenever a parent tells me that their child is defiant, I always try to dig a little deeper to find out why?
The truth is that defiance is often a symptom of a larger problem for the child or with their environment.
Today, I am sharing four possible reasons for defiance in children with ADHD.
1) Executive functioning differences
I remember testing a young girl and asking her to complete some math facts quickly for 1 minute. After I gave her the instruction, she began yelling, “No, I can’t. I can’t pay attention.” It was towards the end of a long testing day, and I could tell from her fidgety behaviors and distractibility that this statement was absolutely true. Fortunately, this sweet girl was able to vocalize that she just didn’t have it in her to focus for one more minute. However, not all of our kids tell us when their focus has hit the limit. Instead, you might see arguing, avoiding, and negotiating.
The same can be true for executive functioning skills like organization and planning. Have you ever asked your child to clean up their room, and they immediately melted down saying they couldn’t? I know this is a common problem in my house. Usually, if I break down those large requests into easier, smaller tasks and provide a little assistance getting started, I begin to see less defiance. Sometimes our kids are just overwhelmed and don’t have the skills needed to complete a task that, to us, seems pretty simple.
2) Learning differences
If I had a nickel for every time I heard a child with dyslexia (a specific learning disorder in reading) labeled as lazy or defiant, I would be a rich woman. I remember the sweetest boy who was in middle school. He had dyslexia and was reading/writing at around a 1st grade level. His teacher had asked him to write a sentence in his general education classroom, and he had refused. In talking with him, he stated that he was so embarrassed to write because he couldn’t spell any words, and he feared his friends would see and judge him. This boy was showing defiance because he was struggling academically and just did not want others to see. By making some accommodations in the classroom, he was able to turn in work differently, so that he didn’t have to worry about judgement from other kids in his classroom.
I remember when my daughter first started into kindergarten, she refused to leave me at first and walk through the gate. She clung to me, cried, and said no! Was she being defiant? Well, technically yes because she was doing the opposite of what I asked. Was it because she just wanted to be naughty? Absolutely not. She was just really scared. When our kids are anxious, their body goes into fight or flight. I have seen some older children try to run off campus when they arrive at school or hit staff when they try to force them out of their car. These kids are often labeled as defiant and aggressive. Underlying this defiance though is an anxious child who is trying desperately to avoid a situation that is causing them anxiety and complete panic. All of us (adults and kids) will try to avoid situations when we feel anxious. It is our body’s way of protecting us from perceived or real danger. So if you see your child becoming defiant, check in to see what or why they might be avoiding.
4) Too much punishment/not enough connection
Have you ever spent the day doing laundry and cleaning the house, only to have your partner come home and complain that the dishes are piled up in the sink? I don’t know about you, but when my husband starts to correct me a lot at home, I start to become defensive and a little (ok, a LOT) irritated! The same is true for our kids with ADHD. The research shows that children with ADHD receive much higher rates of correction than their peers. And that high rate of correction and negative feedback can lead kids to feel defensive and angry. We can counteract this by increasing positive time spent connecting with our kids and noticing/praising the things that they do well. Just a little connection can go a long way!
Do you see any of these factors in your defiant child? Are there ones we missed? Tell us about it in the comments, or connect with us on social media. We would love to walk with you on this journey, to give you encouragement and remind you that you are never alone!
If you are looking for more tools and strategies for parenting ADHD, check out our course, Creating Calm.
We have an entire module dedicated to increasing connection with your child, and another module to help you create a personalized, simple system to help you find ways to effectively address those challenging misbehaviors. Trust us, you need this!
Have a beautiful week,
Lori, Katie, and Mallory