What “I don’t know” really means for your child with ADHD, autism

What "I don't know" really means for your child with ADHD, autism

The standard answer that makes parents crazy.

Ricochet just plopped into my car at the curb of the high school. As we roll slowly out of the parking lot in stop-and-go traffic, I follow my parental instincts and ask him about his day…

“How did school go today, Buddy?”

“I don’t know.” He doesn’t even look in my direction, trying to end any conversation before it starts.

“It was a good day then?” I probe.

“Yeah,” he answers, without any consideration or sincerity.

Then, I feel a little crushed and let out a big, long sigh. All I want is to be part of his life, to know what he experiences when I’m not with him, to be able to converse about his day. I’m learning that this expectation may be outside of our reality.

You see, Ricochet has ADHD and less-visible autism.

I’ve known for a few years now that he doesn’t like to be questioned. So much so that he refused to eat family dinners anymore about a year ago, because he didn’t want to be questioned about his day, and school, or anything at all really. It broke my heart a little a lot. But, I take my parenting cues from my son’s personal truth, and this is a part of his truth.


What “I don’t know” really means.

I sort of understood this, but suspected I was still missing part of the story. Yesterday, as I was moderating the ADDitudeMag.com forums, this “I don’t know” crisis came into focus. An adult with ADHD wrote on the forum:

“I was never able to find the words to describe how I felt [as a child], so my go to answer was always ‘I don’t know.’”

{Mind. Blown.}

Of course! That makes perfect sense. When our kids with ADHD and/or autism say to us, “I don’t know,” it’s not that they don’t know, it’s that they don’t know how to communicate it.

Many kids with ADHD — but especially those with autism — struggle with identifying, labeling, and communicating their feelings and emotions. Instead of saying, “I don’t know how to describe it to you,” they just fall back on the standard, “I don’t know.”

I imagine this is about as frustrating to you as it is to me, especially when it’s used to avoid a conversation they don’t want to have, like, “What do you have for homework?” or, “What are you supposed to be doing right now?”


When you know the why, you can change behavior.

Now that I really understand why Ricochet says “I don’t know” to me all the time (or “Fine,” I hate that one too), we can work on improvement. Remember, when you know the WHY, you can change behavior. In this case, the WHY is that your child doesn’t know how to identify, label, and/or communicate his or her emotions.

Now that I understand WHY Ricochet says “I don’t know” so often, I’m going to further the conversation by asking if he truly doesn’t know the answer, if he’s not sure how to explain or express it, or if he’s trying to avoid conversation or the potential outcome of the conversation. I encourage you to do the same.

Be sure to show empathy and validate your child’s feelings when they try to express them, as well. That is key if you want your child to keep talking to you and turning to you when they are emotional.

You can use our Survival to Success Accelerator™ with Regulation Toolkit to help your child build regulation skills and emotional intelligence. This will help your child learn how to regulate and to express their emotions more effectively and appropriately.

Share your thoughts.

  • Thank you so much for answering this frustrating question for me. My 12 year old has just recently been diagnosed with Level 1 autism as well as ADD about 2 years ago…and I can’t tell you how many times I got this answer from my child. My current struggle as a parent is to figure out if I’m dealing with ADD, ASD or just plain immaturity. I’m sure it must be the same for him. Any suggestions? Thanks again!!

    • Sometimes it can be hard to know which “condition” is causing which behaviors. While that’s nice to know, it’s not imperative if you address behavior as communication and work to discern and address the reason behind behavior.

      • You are wise in your explanation of the occurrences, but please share with us how to overcome these “I don’t know” responses. How do we parent in these situations? When a parent has told the child to do the same thing almost every day of their life and you still have willful disobedience, where do we go from there? We have even asked our son to set reminders on his electronic devices to overcome “ forgetfulness”

        • The majority of the time, it’s NOT willful disobedience. The key is to look at intention and to remember that your child isn’t giving you a hard time, they’re HAVING a hard time. You have to discern what strategies will work for him. Maybe he finds setting electronic reminders overwhelming, or he forgets to set the tool to help him not forget. What other interventions can you try to help him mitigate his poor executive functioning?

  • I’m not a parent, just a former child who came across this article by accident. ????

    I’ve recently come to the conclusion that I may be undiagnosed autistic. I’m sure my parents and former teachers would agree that “I don’t know” was my go-to phrase of choice to any line of questioning.

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I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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