Parenting the Neurodivergent

Hello, may zebras and spoonies! Thanks for coming in visiting with me today. I’m glad you are here.

Today I’m gonna be talking about ADHD. Big surprise. I know, right? Because when do I ever talk about that?

One of the things that I see parents of children with ADHD frequently ask in the support groups is what they can do to be better parents for children who have ADHD. And I’ll be honest, that in the support groups thus far, I have never answered this question. I’ve never felt like I had a good answer to this question. And I’ve spent a lot of time trying to think about what my parents could have done differently; could have done better to have given me a better start in life. And instead, I shifted it and started thinking about what it was in my childhood that marked me the most and gave me the most struggles as an adult. So I’m going to start my discussion there.

The thing that I have struggled with the most to deal with from my childhood baggage has been the self value and self worth issues. I’ve had a lot of issues with poor self esteem because of the messages that I received surrounding my ADHD and my autism. It’s not that I think that any of the adults in my life intentionally sent the message that I had no value, but a lot of the things that they did and said, did get interpreted and internalized that way. One of my personal ADHD things is that I have a lot of impulsive and pressured speech. I talk a lot and once it gets started, it’s really difficult for me to turn it off. And I was frequently told “Can’t you be quiet?” or “Just be quiet!” or “stop talking!” And what I internalized when adults said this to me was that what I have to say is not important. Even more importantly, I asked myself the question of, “why can’t I do this thing of not talking?” when they seem to expect it of me? I looked at my peers and I saw that they could do it; they could be quiet. And it made me constantly feel like I wasn’t good enough. And it felt like they were constantly pointing out the way that I wasn’t good enough. I was getting this constant: “Inherently what you are, is not what we want. Stop being this thing that you inherently are.”

And that’s just one example. There were these messages constantly being sent this way from all the adults in my life. Whether it was moving around too much, fidgeting, or talking. All the behaviors that come with being ADHD and Autistic, that are different than a neurotypical child, were targeted behaviors. Which means that every day of my childhood, I was receiving hundreds of verbal and nonverbal cues from adults that I was not the desired child. I was not the good child. All of that resulted in me feeling as though I was broken inside and that I could never be good enough. I carried that baggage into my adulthood. I still struggle with this baggage now and I’m 40.

Every child needs to believe that they have personal self value. Every child need to believe that their inherent self, that person that they are at the very core of their being, is desirable, wanted and loved. How do you go about doing that? As parents, we need to give our children a safe place within their home. This needs to be the one place that they know they will always find safety, love and acceptance.

The first thing is that you need to accept that your neurodivergent child isn’t a neurotypical child. Then you need to allow them to be that, in whatever way that it presents. Sometimes that means that you’re not going to understand what they are doing or why and that’s ok. Truth is, that’s just part of parenting. You never get to fully understand what’s going on in the world and lives of your children.

Every day, when you first wake up in the morning, commit to not yelling at or punishing your child for being neurodivergent. I promise you that your child will overstimulate you at times. It is going to happen. Children are loud and unpredictable creatures. Even more so when they are neurodivergent. But instead of yelling at them to stop whatever it is they are doing to overstimulate you, try to take charge and self manage your feelings. This will eliminate the negative message to your child and will teach them (through modeling) how to handle their own episodes of being overstimulated.

What is being overstimulated? First, this is a human experience that is not exclusive to those who are neurodivergent. Those who are neurodivergent are more likely to become overstimulated, but it is something that every human experiences during their lives as some point. Overstimulation, or sensory overload, is when your senses are just completely overloaded with information, making it difficult (or sometimes near impossible) to fully process the information you are receiving. What does that look like?

  • An inability to ignore loud sounds, strong smells, or other sensory information. For example, when there’s a siren outside, you may jump or clasp your hands over your ears.
  • A loss of focus
  • Feeling overwhelmed, agitated, irritable
  • Feelings of anxiety (restlessness, uncontrollable worry, negative thoughts on a cycle)
  • A general sense of discomfort
  • Extreme sensitivity to certain types of textures or clothing
  • Difficulties with sleeping
  • Even digestive distress, eye strain, heart palpitations, and lightheadedness

For some, overstimulation happens gradually, even without realizing it’s happening. And for others, well, it can happen all at once all of a sudden. When you’re a parent, your children are likely to be a source of overstimulation. They come with intense energy that they pour onto you all the time. Instead of yelling or letting that irritability come out, grab onto your coping skills and let your children see you doing it. Start by stating that you’re overstimulated and then what you’re going to do about it. If your children are too loud or talking too much, you could use noise canceling headphones. Make sure that you are making it about you and not them: “I’m feeling really overstimulated right now and I need a little time of quiet, so I’m going to put on these head phones.”

See how that sends a different message? While the parent is acknowledging that they have the need for a quieter environment, they are not projecting that onto the child. There’s no message saying, “You are awful for being loud” or “You have no value in being loud.” The other thing that it does is that it teaches children, how to deal with their own behaviors related to being overstimulated. If a parent can model what this child should do when being overstimulated then the child can start learning how to manage their own overstimulation and you can start giving them a demonstration of coping skills of the things that they can do.

As a person with ADHD, I completely relate to feeling overstimulated. It is something that happens often. If you put it in that language, if you frame it as “I am overstimulated right now, and I need to go do something to reduce my stimulation” you can separate how you’re feeling from a value judgment of your child. This will allow your home to be a safe place for them to be who they are. Whatever that crazy messy, chaotic, loud, high energy ADHD is.

I’m not saying that you shouldn’t intervene in behavior that is unsafe or reckless because when kids are impulsive, they do stuff that they shouldn’t. So yeah, you need to intervene when your kid is doing something dumb that can get them hurt. But for the most part, that’s not what’s going on. For the most part, what’s going on is that your child is overstimulating you, then the adults react in an angry, negative, judgmental way that sends the message to this neurodivergent child, that their fundamental self is a bad way of being.

I think that the most important thing that you can do for neurodivergent child is to give them a safe place to exist.

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