Crime and Punishment and ADHD: When Parents Disagree on Discipline

Published in ADDitude magazine on Oct. 29, 2021

by Megan Taylor Stephens

“Crime and Punishment and ADHD: When Parents Disagree on Discipline”

Has a crime occurred?

From another room, I hear my husband proclaim, “Why is there trash in the car? We have told you a million times. You’re supposed to leave it clean after you drive.”

“Just a second – I’m busy,” says our son, who is wrapped up in a critical siege in his videogame.

My husband is fuming. He believes that our 17-year-old son is being egocentric, disrespectful, and self-entitled. Furthermore, he thinks our son needs to be banned from driving for a week. I agree with the adjectives – they are kind of teen specialties, after all. But I disagree with the nature of the crime in the first place, and with the consequences part as well.

My husband thinks I’m coddling our son by not agreeing to a sizable consequence for his repeated misdemeanors. I don’t want to dismiss the situation entirely, but I fundamentally disagree with many of my spouse’s accusations. I believe it all boils down to a misperception about our son’s intentionality.

Is It ADHD? Or Bad Behavior?

My husband says there’s no way that our son doesn’t remember what he’s supposed to do, ADHD or no ADHD. After all, we have told him the rules countless times and threatened to take away the car keys if he doesn’t get his act together. But repeated infractions suggest that our son is willfully snubbing us and doesn’t care because we don’t crack down on him. To my husband, we are essentially raising an irresponsible brat who will not be ready to enter society as a fully functioning high school graduate in one year.

I, on the other hand, think that our son is just being a dingbat, to put it diplomatically. I don’t call my son names or anything, I just truly think he is being oblivious. Our son usually has his hands full when he exits the car (full of camera gear since he has been out doing photography for hours) and it probably escapes his mind that he needs to look around the car for his fast-food garbage and other semi-moldy detritus.

Even when he’s empty-handed, our son’s brain has likely moved on once he turns off the engine. He is on to grander notions than dealing with the empty Boba tea cups that leave residue on the floor of the car.

In a nutshell, I don’t think a real, intentional crime has occurred and, therefore, I don’t think punishment is necessary. I think we just need to tell our son to go back to the car and tidy up.

What Are Fair and Effective Consequence?

Let’s put aside the fact that we can’t agree that a crime has even occurred. In a court of law, the next step is to determine the punishment. Prior to doling out sentences, judges consider intentionality.

The concept of mens rea (Latin for “guilty mind”) plays heavily into the trial and sentencing. A verdict of involuntary manslaughter vs. first-degree murder depends on things like planning, knowledge, and intentionality. The same goes for petty theft versus armed robbery. Accidental fire versus arson. We need to determine if the accused was careless, oblivious, and spur-of-the-moment. Or reckless, aware, and premeditated.

Except for certain heinous examples, I think that most of these crimes fall under two distinct categories: spontaneous adolescent versus hardened criminal.

Invariably, my husband tends to see our son’s actions as intentional or, at the very least, flagrantly careless. He goes for big punishment that I think is often totally unrelated to the incident in question. I am constantly suggesting smaller, more natural consequences that I think correspond better to the type and severity of the situation. Community service rather than jail time, if you will.

This difference in perception and interpretation regarding our son’s level of consciousness is a huge sticking point. It spills over into how we interact with our son, and the consequences we dole out.

We’re often at a stalemate and could really use an educated judge and a panel of jurors to help us out. Or at least more lawyer friends.

Talking Through our Differences

The mismatch in how we attribute intentionality in our son’s behaviors puts a strain on our marriage for sure (as is the case for most parents of kids with behavior challenges). I must admit, there were years when it almost seemed like a good idea to split up and co-parent in our own disparate ways.

Fortunately, my husband and I are pretty good at talking through our differences. Often, we come to a middle-of-the-road punishment, such as taking away the car keys for one day or making him vacuum out the car to “drive home” his responsibilities with a shared car.

I also have to admit that my logic often prevails. I remind my husband of all the times I’ve entered the garage, only to see his junk piled up everywhere after a million requests to return things to their original spot! In those instances, I tell myself that my husband doesn’t purposefully or maliciously disorganize the garage. He probably thought that he would deal with the mess he created later, I tell myself. Like my son, he was being a negligent scatterbrain rather than a conscious hooligan.

In the midst of my empathetic and gracious daydreams, I hear my husband say, “Son, we asked you hours ago to take out the garbage and recycling and mow the lawn.” And I hear our son reply mid-videogame battle, “Oh, yeah. I forgot. Gimme a minute.”

Chore Time
Car Cleaning

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