One of the foundational components I teach parents raising kids with ADHD and/or autism for success is utterly crucial idea of meeting our kids where they are. But, what does that mean, exactly? How do you meet your child where he is or where she is? I’m going to teach you how right now.
ADHD and autism are both developmental disabilities. That means your child is 20-30 percent behind his or her peers in development, and many life skills. A 16-year-old is could be on the level of an 11-year-old, or a 9-year-old on the level of a 6-year old. I’m not talking intelligence here. I’m referring to skills: social, emotional, executive functioning, etc. Expecting neurotypical behavior (age-level) from a child with developmental disabilities is NOT meeting him where he is. Setting expectations that align with his developmental age is.
That’s the first key element to meeting your child where she is — setting expectations that are attainable for her. Not the expectations of her peers, but expectations defined by her current developmental level and skill set. Expectations must be attainable for the child or there isn’t one morsel of success for anyone. If the child can’t meet the expectation, they feel like a failure and might act out. If your child doesn’t meet your expectation, you might feel like a failure as well, at parenting. You both may give up and quit trying. You both would feel bad emotionally. Expectations out of reach is expecting the child to reach a level she outside her reach, and most definitely not meeting her where she is.
Let’s consider an example. In our area, the orchards open their fields to the public to come and pick their own apples. It’s an activity most kids love. While you’re not really supposed to climb the trees to pick the apples, many kids do (and more adults than you’d think). Apple trees are smaller and more accessible from the ground and both my kids loved climbing in them to pick their very own apples (I guess that makes me a rule breaker too).
Imagine the branches of the apple tree as different levels of development, and the apples as expectations parents and educators place on our kids. Not all kids can climb to the top of the tree or reach to the end of the branches. There are various things that may hold them back from this — fear of injury or heights, small stature, short arms, undeveloped muscle strength, overestimating their climbing ability, etc. If we only expect them to pick apples on the branches they can reach despite any potential obstacles, they can succeed. However, if we ask our kids to climb higher than they are willing or capable, they won’t succeed at picking those apples and you both will be disappointed. If your little one was three branches up into the tree and you knew that’s as far as he could go, you wouldn’t instruct him to pick apples several branches higher than he can get to, right? Now you see how absurd it is to place neurotypical expectations on our kids with ADHD and/or autism, right?
How else can we meet our kids where they are? Offering validation and empathy is another key component. Out in the world day-to-day, and maybe even in your own home, you hear people say to their kids, “Quit acting like a baby.” It’s an accepted norm in parenting, really. But it shouldn’t be.
Let’s look at another example. Your son is 13 years old, but he’s getting emotional in the electronics aisle at Target because he doesn’t have enough money for the game he really wants. He tried sweet-talking you and then negotiating for next week’s allowance, but rules are rules. “If you don’t have the money, you can’t spend it.” You explain that you don’t get your paychecks early just because you want to buy something you don’t have the money for yet, so he can’t either. He really doesn’t care. When all else fails he begins to crumble emotionally and he starts to cry.
You have two options at this point:
- Impose your will. “Quit acting like a baby. I want you to get up right this second, dry your tears, and walk out of this store with me like the teenager you are. Teenagers don’t act like that.” OR,
- Offer empathy and validation (which is also setting appropriate expectations, by the way). “Oh, Buddy! I know it’s hard to wait for things you really want. I’ve experienced it countless times, and I often get really frustrated. When we don’t have control over things we want it can feel really upsetting. It really is hard. But I know you can do it. I know you can save your money for seven days and get this game you really want then. I’ll even promise to bring you back here on next week’s allowance day. I know that doesn’t erase your frustration and disappointment. How else can I help you?”
Take a moment to play those two scenarios out in your head. Which do you think is going to go better? Which do you think is meeting your child where he is, at that moment?
Yes, of course, the second scenario is a much more effective, and compassionate, course of action. The second scenario is meeting your child where he is right now.
Accepting the Facts
The real key to meeting your child where he or she is, is simply not expecting neurotyical behavior. Throw out that traditional parenting rulebook. Seriously. Throw it in the trash! It’s not helping you one bit with your child. It’s only holding you and your child back. When you throw out neurotypical expectations, you open the door to meet your child exactly where they are.
And that, my friends, is priceless.