Imagine a Butterfly: How to Parent a Kid with ADHD

by Megan Taylor Stephens, M.A., M.S., CCC-SLP

Jan. 2, 2022

We learn in the struggle. If you deny the child the struggle, you deny them their growth, which is its own reward. –Lara Cannon

SOS for ADHD

Send in the experts! Our teenager has ADHD, and it’s high time we get some proper professional help. Here’s the essential conundrum: My husband and I are often at an impasse about how to manage our kid’s behavior.

We often find ourselves entrenched in the opposing stances of prosecutor versus defense attorney when it comes to our son’s transgressions. We make our case for how egregious or petty we think the crime was. We make judgments on his frame of mind at the time of the misdemeanor. We decide how intentional or premeditated the action appeared to be. We sometimes even refer to historical precedents or bring in key eyewitnesses, like the little sister or the dog. I wrote a whole guest blog on this topic for ADDitude magazine called “Crime and Punishment and ADHD: When Parents Disagree on Discipline.”

Well, I finally found someone to give us sage advice. I reached out to Lara Cannon, a licensed professional counselor and ADHD specialist, with this question: How can families cope with divergent attitudes, especially when it comes to behavior and discipline, with their kids with ADHD?

Cannon’s take home message is that the more you can model awareness, flexibility, and problem-solving skills, the better you can activate the child’s desire to want what you want and the more likely you are to avoid conflict. Let’s break that down into specifics.

Here are Cannon’s five pro tips and my own interpretations in italics:

1. Educate Thyself

Parents should learn more about ADHD. When a child has a diagnosis of ADHD, it is important for caregivers to be on the same page about what it means and what it does not mean. In essence, ADHD is an effort regulation problem. Relying on the child’s internal regulation system (i.e., braking system or decision-making ability) when effort, focused attention, or self-control is required is a set up for failure.

Medication can be helpful, but it is not enough. Mindfulness and emotional regulation are skills that can be taught. Learning about how the ADHD brain works is also helpful. The role of the prefrontal cortex, limbic system, norepinephrine, and dopamine are a few of the buzzwords that caregivers should be knowledgeable about.

What I am taking from this is that our son is perfectly capable of attending to things he is interested in because it is effortless for him. Photography and videogames come to mind. However, he lacks attentional regulation and self-control when it comes to effortful things like household responsibilities. This is not a willful, intentional oversight. The idea of chores doesn’t light up circuits in his prefrontal cortex, arouse his limbic system, or reward him with buckets of norepinephrine and dopamine. All these things feed off of each other to perpetuate his neglect of responsibilities. Got it.

2. Reduce Friction

Parents should avoid power struggles. Pick your battles. Kids want autonomy, but kids with ADHD get ten times more corrections than neurotypicals. Reduce the number of commands. Let the small things go. It’s okay if your daughter didn’t manage to brush her teeth before school. Power struggles occur when caregivers and children have differing interests, which lead to a motivation mismatch.

Find out what motivates your child because these are high interest areas. Pay attention to what they naturally move toward, and power struggles will diminish. For example, if your child wants your attention (high interest), give it to them while you are doing yard work together (low interest). Or if they love dinosaurs (high interest), use them as a launching point for learning about other subjects like writing or math (low interest). If your teen wants to drive the car (high interest) then pair it with the responsibility of cleaning it and filling it with gas (low interest). Make sure the low interest responsibility is accomplished first, because once they have what they want, the motivation is gone.

So, basically, we need to dangle the car keys or computer mouse in our son’s face and tell him that he’ll only get them once his chores, homework, and other obligations are finished. But we should also let the small things go. Like maybe we shouldn’t care if his room is a pigsty, even if his damp towels and food-encrusted dishes are a bacterial hazard that seem poised to give him a respiratory infection.

3. Imagine a Butterfly

Parents can model emotional regulation. It is not easy to raise a child with ADHD, but responding to challenges in anger rarely ends well. Conflict is fueled by emotion, and emotions are contagious. Anger increases escalation, while calmness creates an anchor and helps maintain control. When you are experiencing anger, imagine that a butterfly has landed on your shoulder and you want it to stay. What do you need to do to keep it there? Be still, don’t make sudden movements, lower your voice volume, talk less, and observe what is happening around you.

Kids learn by example. When the child’s caregivers model mindfulness and emotional regulation, they are giving their child tools to regulate and modulate their own emotional responses in difficult situations. Learning mindfulness skills is an important key to a child’s success. 

I tend to be calmer than my husband when it comes to our son’s little lapses of judgment and small peccadillos. But when I do get angry, I’m known to climb up on a lectern and not descend until I have run out of oxygen and so has the entire room. All the butterflies have flown away to quieter pastures. I think I might singlehandedly start them on their biannual migration. There is clearly lots of room for improvement for me if I hope to be a Butterfly Whisperer.

4. Support Them Where They’re at

Parents can help their children form habits. Children with ADHD often have mind blindness. They are probably not paying attention to things that are boring or mundane. They may not even be aware of what they are doing until seconds after they have done it. That is because their powerful emotional and instinctual brain is way ahead of their slow-moving prefrontal cortex. Parents can support their child in creating effortless habits through “point of performance support.” This means that life skills are coached in baby steps with extra support in the beginning.

For example, the parent can hang out with their young child while she cleans her room. Someone could greet the teenager at the car with a trash can and tell him cheerfully that it’s time to tidy up. Maybe the kid has decided that it would be helpful to have a small bright trashcan in the car. Whenever possible, make the hard task easier to accomplish. Also, create systems for compliance and buy-in on more important things. Visual reminders and predictable schedules are another form of support that, over time, can instill habits in kids.

As a special educator, I am used to tailoring the level of support to my students that they require. I just forget that even kids who are perfectly capable of doing something—like my son removing trash from the car—may need a bit of guidance getting it done. Even if it just means that I’m waiting on the porch while he does it. I think my husband would say it’s preposterous to baby our teenager, but this Point of Performance Support may only need to happen for a short while before it becomes a habit that our son accomplishes independently. I’m really not sure when to expect independence, but as long as he’s semi-autonomous before he runs off into the sunset (or the basement bedroom), I’ll consider my job done.

5. Be a Guide

Parents should adopt a coaching mentality. A good coach has empathy, is understanding, and is a collaborative problem solver. They are not opponents or authoritarians. We’ve all had coaches who yelled, shamed, and punished, and we’ve also had coaches who nurtured, encouraged, and mentored. We know which ones we preferred.

Coaches are also not rescuers, they are guides. So don’t swoop in with a fabulous solution. You are stealing your child’s opportunity to learn that they can solve problems. Let your children have the fun and reward of discovering what works for them. Don’t do it for them, teach them how to do it. Repeat often. Teaching good habits is the key to success with ADHD. As much as possible, parents, help your child invent and create solutions on their own.

It’s hard to use an encouraging tone of voice when it’s the five thousandth time we’ve asked our kid to take his dirty dishes to the kitchen or pick his wet towels off the floor. I’ve found that saying “LBY” in a peppy voice has helped me feel like more of a coach and less of an angry nagger. LBY is our code for Look Behind You, because each and every time he moves from one room to another, there is guaranteed to be flotsam and jetsam left behind that needs tending to. Now the trick is to let our son come up with his own strategies to manage his ADHD. He’s about to be a full-fledged adult, and pretty soon his parents won’t be there to constantly coax, remind, coerce, nag, reward, or discipline him. Or, if he lives in the basement for decades, at least our voices will be significantly muted when we coax, remind, coerce, nag, reward, or discipline him.

In Conclusion, Have a Growth Mindset

I suppose Cannon didn’t directly help me and my husband on the issue of merging our divergent viewpoints. She didn’t give advice on how to dole out consequences to our child for his peccadillos. She didn’t really bolster my arguments as lead defense attorney. Instead, she gave us preventative tips to reduce conflict in the first place. This makes a lot of sense, I suppose.

Our judicial system, like our homes, focus too much on crime and punishment. Which side is guilty? Which side is victorious? What are the consequences? But if we would just create a better environment in the first place—one that focuses on nurturing, awareness, mindfulness, problem-solving, teamwork and success—our society would have a lot less parental bickering and a lot fewer court cases. The case of Stephens v. Stephens would be settled long before it comes before a judge.

But it’s not about the fictional attorneys or which parent won. It’s about the kids who we are trying to raise up into functioning adults. This endeavor is no easy feat. Our children have to learn by trial and error, and the trials and errors are extra when ADHD is in the mix. Fortunately, according to Cannon, “We learn in the struggle. If you deny the child the struggle, you deny them their growth, which is its own reward.”

Forget crime or punishment. Let’s focus on growth, for the parents in particular. I’ve got a pet butterfly that I am determined to keep perched my shoulder.

Lara Cannon, M.A., LPC is a child and family therapist and owner of ADHD Child and Family Services in Tigard, Oregon. She can be reached at: info@adhdchildandfamily.com

Photo by Boris Smokrovic
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