A couple weeks ago, Mayim Bialik (of The Big Bang Theory fame, and Blossom, if you’re as ancient as I am) released a video rant (I use that term lovingly — I’m a fellow ranter) on why it’s a bad idea to refer to women as “girls.” She made a valid point, but gender inequality isn’t why I’m writing today. In the video she said, “language sets expectations,” and I stopped in my tracks, grabbed my iPhone, and wrote it down. That phrase really resonated with me in relation to parenting kids with ADHD and/or autism — you know, this super-tough special brand of parenthood we have in common.
Be the Change
In my books and courses and coaching practice, one of the things I find myself sharing again and again is how crucial remaining calm and modeling appropriate emotions and reactions is for parents of kids with ADHD and/or autism. You can’t stop the yelling, outbursts, and emotional reactions in your child if you are also acting the same way.
“Do as I say, not as I do,” is total BS.
Parenting by example is more important than ever for kids with ADHD and autism, who often lack the appropriate skills and emotional awareness required. Language sets expectations — if you speak to your child calmly, you’re setting the expectation that they do the same, and you’re modeling exactly how to do it.
For us, parents of kids with ADHD and/or autism, this phrase is about a lot more than behavior and expectations. A. lot. more. Language sets expectations of success or failure, too. Consider the following example:
My son, Ricochet, wanted to go on the 3-day, 2-night eighth grade trip to Atlanta (true story, he’s there right now as I write this). Of course, I had my doubts about his success on a trip like this. He’s never been out of town without his dad and I in all of his 14 years, and he has a lot of anxiety and a need to spend a good amount of time alone (impossible on a trip with 180 students, 40+ on each bus, 6 in each hotel room).
I was certainly anxious. It would have been a lot easier for me to just say no. Granted, it was a choice I could make (and one his dad favored) — but was it the right choice?
Let’s get to the “language” of it all.
Option 1: “Buddy, I just don’t think this trip is for you. You’ve never been away without mom and dad. This is two whole nights! You know you like to have alone time. You know loud noises make you upset. And you might meltdown in the crowds. I don’t think you should go — you’re just not up for it.”
Option 2: “Wow, Buddy! That trip sounds like a lot of fun! You really liked the World of Coke and the Aquarium when we went. And your trip has lots of other stuff too. With your friends going, I know you’re going to have a great time. And we can make a plan for anything that you’re anxious about. I’m so excited you get the opportunity to go on an awesome trip like this!”
Now, which one do you think sets the expectation of success? Which one would make Ricochet feel optimistic and better about himself, which, incidentally, would lead to more success? The 2nd, of course, and that’s pretty much how I handled it (hey, we’re all human).
I first did a little reconnaissance with one of his teachers about how roommates would be assigned and if she thought he could be successful on the trip. Then I talked to Dad about how Ricochet needs to have the opportunity to experience childhood like everyone else, and that we could help make sure the trip was a success for him.
They left before dawn yesterday morning, a caravan of excited young teens eager to assert their independence all over Atlanta. Ricochet called me once yesterday when the power went out during the storms. He texted me a few hours later to say all was well. I haven’t heard from him since, despite texting him twice today (the likelihood that he forgot to charge his phone or forgot to take it when they left the hotel is very high). I’m actually not worried though. I used calm and positive language to set the expectation that he will succeed on this trip, and that’s exactly what I expect. (And a teacher would have called me if they lost him…)
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.