Communicating with Children with ADHD

Everyone can learn to improve their communication, whether with spouses, bosses, neighbors, or children. With everyone’s different personalities, wants and needs, it is hard to get along with everyone all of the time.


Probably the most popular book on talking to children is How to Talk so Kids Will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk (Faber & Mazlish, 1999). It addresses common communication problems in order to build foundations for lasting relationships between adults and children.



ADHD and Us

Perhaps the most difficult communication is that between a parent and a child with ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder). Yet, I am certain that anyone reading this article either knows someone who has been diagnosed with ADHD or has a child with ADHD. Dr. Russel Barkley, a world-renowned ADHD researcher, describes it as a “specific developmental disorder…comprised of deficits in behavioral inhibition, sustained attention and resistance to distraction, and the regulation of one’s activity level to the demands of a situation (hyperactivity or restlessness).” Barkley emphasizes that ADHD is not primarily a disorder of paying attention, “but one of self-regulation.” This may impact those with ADHD’s sense of time or the ability to complete tasks in a timely manner.


Communicating with a child with ADHD is different than talking to one without the disorder. Special care should be taken when reacting to a child, student, or friend with ADHD.


Image result for adhd children


They Act… and We React

Although it may seem that children with ADHD are acting stubbornly or impulsively, these children very often do not have total control over their behaviors. Of course, we all have some control over what we do. However, those with ADHD have a particularly difficult time managing similar behaviors.


For example, you and your family are about to have a nice Friday night dinner. The beautiful singing to open sets the stage for an uplifting meal. During the singing, your 11-year-old (with ADHD) is seen poking her younger sibling, despite being told many times to stop, or given that look (you know that look). Yet, this child cannot stop the impulse and continues to poke. How do we react to this child in such a situation? For many, the natural reaction would be one of criticism and disappointment.


While it is crucial to set limits and foster expectations for our children, our reaction to a child with ADHD should be chosen with care and skill. Those with ADHD do not choose to have it, just as parents do not give their child ADHD. Still, being present, it must be dealt with properly. I’d like to offer just a few suggestions.



Reacting Compassionately

It may be helpful to respond to a behavior privately, rather than in front of the family, and especially guests. A child should also never be made to feel that they are bad for doing something which they may not have complete control. Often this child will carry around a lot of guilt, depending on how others react to them. This child, particularly, needs to feel accepted and understood.


Dr. Barkley stresses that parents should not personalize the child’s problem, expecting them to be able to control impulses in the way the parent, a sibling or friend might be able to. Doing so is unhelpful. It is most probable that the child with ADHD will not be able to live up to that comparison. Parents should stay calm and try to find a way to keep in mind their child’s neurobiological challenges. At times, this may require a parent to walk away before responding. Simply telling a child with ADHD to “focus more” or “try harder” is ineffective and may have a long-term, negative impact on their self-esteem. However, validating the child’s struggle allows the child to feel accepted as who he or she is and builds their confidence.



Accentuate the Positive

Acknowledge the child’s positive behaviors and accomplishments. This should apply even to behaviors that are expected (i.e., homework, cleaning up, bathing). Rather than tell a child to stop doing something, try telling the child what to do. I have heard that by the time a child turns 12-years-old, they will have received approximately 20,000 negative comments! That’s a scary figure.


To conclude, parenting is a challenging job and tends to be more challenging when raising a child with ADHD or other behavioral issues. It is important for a parent not to feel like a bad parent if a situation does not go as smoothly as one would have liked. There are going to be tough situations, and there is not necessarily an easy answer for each one. The most valuable thing you can offer your child is your understanding, as well as your flexibility in learning to better accommodate them.


Chaim Wolfish
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