10 Red Light Words for Parents of Kids with ADHD and/or Autism

When we work from the premise that “Kids do well if they can,” as Ross Greene, Ph.D., teaches us, we automatically create a list of words and attitudes that are no longer appropriate to use in regards to kids with ADHD and/or autism. I call these words and phrases red light words. If you find yourself thinking or uttering these, that's your red light — your signal to stop immediately, reassess the situation, and adjust your mindset and approach.

These words are a signal that you do not have the right mindset about your child's behavior. You're getting swept up in the illusion that underlying problems create on the surface. You're seeing behavior as “bad,” and as though your child is choosing to disobey or give you a hard time. Remember, your child wants to do well. He or she isn't giving you a hard time, they're having a hard time. There's a monumental difference.

If you don't consider these words and phrases to be red lights, you cannot be successful with your child. That's right, I didn't say “may not” or even “won't”… you cannot be successful with your parenting unless you change your perspective and move away from red light thinking.

Let's look at each red light word or phrase:


10. Smart Enough

My son gets this one a lot at school. He has a gifted IQ but struggles to pass his classes. How can that be? Because intelligence and day-to-day functioning are two different parts of the brain. The functioning aspect comes from executive functioning skills, often deficient in kids with ADHD because it comes from the frontal lobe of the brain, which is greatly impacted with ADHD. When someone says “You're smart enough to ______” to a child, it likely means there's something else going on and it's something outside of that child's control. Because… “Kids do well if they can.”



9. Manipulative

I see parents talk about how “manipulative” their child is so very often. It's always a red light signal. There are a couple possible explanations for what looks like manipulative behavior with kids with ADHD. First, kids (and most human beings) have a natural instinct to avoid pain. That avoidance can look like manipulation if you're looking at it through that lens of choice. If you reframe that perspective and ask yourself why your child is working so hard to change the situation, you'll see that it's not willful in most cases. Secondly, many kids with ADHD and/or autism have a dogged determination coupled with a very narrow point of view. What appears argumentative can often be the product of this restricted way of thinking.


8. Lazy

Lazy is so cliché for ADHD. Again, this is a matter of can't versus won't. Is your child choosing to be lazy, or is there something else going on that simply looks like laziness on the surface? Put on your detective cap and dig deeper before deciding that your child is being lazy.


7. Unmotivated

It's part of our culture to value self-motivation — to be driven for achievement. Often, we see our kids as unmotivated. Then, we take it a step further even, and decide that it's a character flaw and an impediment to any potential success. That's a life sentence we're attaching to one behavior, and a behavior that likely isn't even what it looks like on the surface. Seeming lack of motivation can be avoidant behavior — doing whatever it takes to avoid perceived pain. It can also signal that there's a whole lot more going on. It could be poor executive functioning, learning disability, expectations beyond capability, anxiety, fear of failure, and so much more… Your child wants to succeed as much as anyone else, so why can't he or she?


6. Selfish

Again, many kids with ADHD and/or autism have a very narrow perspective. They often can only see black and white, and only one way. That narrow point of view doesn't make them selfish, even though it can certainly look that way on the surface. Before deciding that your child is being selfish, ask yourself why it might look like your child is being selfish. What could be behind that facade?


5. Defiant

Defiance is a tough one for a lot of parents. We are programmed in American culture to view successful parents as those who are authoritarian and in control of their kids. The parent creates the law and the child better abide by it or else… I call this Crime & Punishment Parenting, and it's damaging to our kids. It's unhealthy for all kids, but especially so for kids with invisible disabilities like ADHD and autism. This definition of parenting automatically defines behavior outside of a parent's control as “defiant.” If that were true, a child's anxiety about the dark is “defiant.” As I outlined with unmotivated above, what looks like defiance can be due to a lot of different underlying struggles. For instance, my son wads up his math worksheet and throws it on the floor after arguing about needing to complete it for 30 minutes. That certainly looks like willful and defiant behavior. However, I know my son well enough at this point to know that there are many underlying circumstances playing into that behavior including, dysgraphia, overwhelm, wanting to avoid pain, time blindness, and some learned helplessness. I can call him defiant and punish him for the behavior. That won't change the behavior next time, or the time after that, because I haven't identified and addressed the root cause of the behavior. Of course my son wants to do what he's expected. He wants to have completed homework to turn in to make his teacher happy and his grade stable. Of course he does! Kids do well if they can, folks!


4. Won't

Won't or can't? I guarantee you, 9 times out of 10, it's “can't,” at least, can't under the current circumstances and expectations. This is an easier pill to swallow if you think about anxiety. Imagine your child has an anxiety disorder and a specific fear of rollercoasters. You could say to yourself that your child “won't” go on rollercoasters, implying that they could but choose not to. Imagine that you instead say to yourself that your child “can't” go on rollercoasters, because they can't of their own free will. I challenge you to pause when you're thinking or speaking this red light word and consider fairly if it's “won't” or “can't”.


3. Chooses

Oh, boy! “Chooses” is a super big and bright red light in your face. If you catch yourself saying that your child “chooses” to do something, you need to stop and reframe your perspective right away. Kids with ADHD and/or autism do not choose to fail. If their behavior really was a conscious and controlled choice, don't you think they'd chose to do the right thing, to please you? Absolutely! Of course they would! You can not be an effective parent for a child with ADHD or autism if “chooses to” is part of your vocabulary in describing your child. See the red light, stop, and find a different way to look at it.


2. Refuses

I wonder how many times parents use the word “refuses” in their child's lifetime. Far too many to count. This goes back to our culture expecting the parent to be authoritarian and the child to be subservient. If the child isn't subservient, then they are “refusing” to comply and that makes them “bad.” No, no, no! Kids are people, too. They want to succeed. They never want their parent to be angry with them. When you think your child is “refusing” to do something, step back, take a breath, and brainstorm all the other potential reasons for their behavior, other than outright refusal.


1. Should

Should is the #1 red light word. Parents of kids with developmental special needs especially use the word “shoul”d a million times a day. “Johnny should be able to tie his shoes already — he's nine.” “Cindy should be able to make friends by herself.” “Charlie should know better then to walk into the street without looking.” “Jenny should be able to clean her room on her own.” In every case, the presence of the word “should” is a glaring invitation to ask, “So, why isn't he?” “Why can't she?” I once heard Elaine Taylor-Klaus, of ImpactADHD, tell parents to “Stop should-ing all over yourselves.” Yep, it feels pretty much like a sh*@-storm when it's happening, especially for your child. You're not going to stop using the word “should,” but you should immediately stop and question it when you hear yourself say it.

Share your thoughts.

  • I like the idea of most of these, but I can definitely say that “won’t” is more appropriate than “can’t” in most of my ADHD son’s scenarios. He gets frustrated if something is difficult, and wants to give up. We don’t allow him to give up, and nine times out of 10, he accomplishes the task when given no alternative. Every kiddo is different though, of course.

    • Of course. And all kids won't sometimes. I'm talking about the bulk of their behavior. I challenge you to think of the frustration as a hurdle or road block. Your assistance in addressing that turns a “can't under current circumstances and without help, that looks like won't” into a success. 🙂

Leave a Reply

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!

Pinpoint the
Help You Need
right now

Take my free quiz to cut through the overwhelm and get focused on the information and resources that will help you and your child RIGHT NOW.

free video series
Quick Start: 3 High-Impact Actions to Transform Behavior

Transforming negative or unwanted behavior is a long and complex process. HOWEVER, there are a few actions you can take right now that will provide a big impact. These 3 high-impact strategies address foundational aspects of behavior, empowering you to help your child feel better so they can do better.



Makes time visual for those with time blindness.


Blends gaming with off-screen activities to teach coping skills through play.


Manage chores and routines while building self-confidence and independence.


A chair that gives kids a sensory hug.

Start Typing