My son, Ricochet, has dysgraphia in addition to ADHD, which is pretty common. He is in sixth grade, and his handwriting still looks like that of a kindergartner, at best. We have worked diligently to improve his writing, even doing the Handwriting Without Tears program with a private occupational therapist for many months. His handwriting will never improve.
Yet, on some days and at certain times, he can write more legibly. There’s no rhyme or reason to it, it just is. Sometimes. But many see this as proof that Ricochet can write legibly “if he wants to” and “if he slows down and takes his time.” The proof his current teachers cite is that if they make him write an entire assignment over again, he can write more clearly. Ergo, in their misinformed minds, he can write better, he simply chooses not to.
Nothing could be further from the truth. You see, the ADHD brain is motivated by interest, challenge, and a sense of urgency. It is not importance-driven. When met with a sense of urgency, the ADHD brain is more focused and motivated. However, this cannot be used to formulate a discipline strategy, at least not successfully.
“You can flog a horse and it will run faster — for a while. Then it collapses with exhaustion.” I read this analogy in an article on special needs recently and found it so fitting for the seeming ineffectiveness for punishment as a discipline strategy for kids with ADHD. If you threaten an individual with ADHD, they will likely be able to comply out of fear, or the feeling of urgency, but they can’t go on like that forever. They will give up out of exhaustion eventually, causing punishment to not work for kids with ADHD.
Put yourself in your child’s head for a moment. Let’s use the example of Ricochet and handwriting.
Ricochet is given an assignment to write a five-paragraph essay in class. Once last week and again yesterday, his special education teacher made him completely rewrite other assignments because his handwriting wasn’t as neat as she had seen him achieve in the past. She told Ricochet that if he just writes as well as she knows he can the first time, he wouldn’t have to rewrite anything.
Ricochet sits down at his desk and searches for paper and pencil. He can’t recall where his paper is, so he looks around the classroom for some. He is worried about his handwriting being good enough. He’s trying to think of an essay topic at the same time. And where is that stack of notebook paper he can use? He tells himself to think of a short essay topic because he can write better if he writes less. He knows that means a lower grade on the assignment, but he doesn’t care because writing is so hard and he will sacrifice anything not to rewrite things. Ah, there’s the paper! He grabs a sheet and takes the long way around the classroom back to his desk. “I hate writing,” he thinks. He doesn’t really know where to start, but decides to write about Martin Luther King, Jr. He jumps straight in and writes “Martin Luther was a… (oh no! Is this handwriting going to be good enough? Slow down, man! You don’t want to do this again!)… good guy.” He tries to erase “guy” and write it again because he’s sure his g isn’t good enough, but he’s not good at erasing and writes over it anyway, making it extra hard to read.
Ricochet is naturally overwhelmed easily due to ADHD and sensory processing disorder. Add the fear of punishment for poor handwriting and his anxiety hits the ceiling, causing him to actually perform worse than better many times. The threat of punishment is looming, but he can only work with the limitations of the brain he was born with. It’s as if he’s being flogged, and he’s getting more exhausted each day.
These analogies can ring true for any kid with ADHD. A sense of urgency and doom can be effective motivation, but parenting through fear isn’t okay, and will not remain effective in the long term. A positive parenting approach is much, much more effective. Give your kids strategies to work around their weaknesses (in Ricochet’s case in this example, it’s typing his work, but he often avoids it because it takes a lot longer to get a computer going and he doesn’t like to look different from his peers) and praise and nurture their strengths.
Leave fear out of parenting entirely.
Author: Penny Williams
Penny Williams guides and mentors parents raising kids with ADHD and/or autism. She’s the parent of a son with ADHD and autism, and the author of three award-winning books on parenting kids with ADHD: Boy Without Instructions, What to Expect When Parenting Children with ADHD, and The Insider’s Guide to ADHD Penny is the current editor of ParentingADHDandAutism.com, Founder and Instructor for The Parenting ADHD & Autism Academy, and a frequent contributor on parenting and children with ADHD for ADDitude Magazine and other parenting and special needs publications.