I often joke that kids with ADHD would make great politicians or lawyers, because they never give up a fight! Trying to cope with a child who argues at the drop of a hat can test the patience of any sane person. Not surprisingly, over the years many parents have asked me what they can do to make the arguing stop. What you can do is help your children turn their ability to argue into a positive trait rather than a negative one.
When the word “no” is heard by a child with ADHD, it registers a “10” on their emotional scale, while it probably would be a “5” or less for the average kid.
Here’s a way to understand what’s happening in your ADHD child’s brain: Many experiences of kids with ADHD are amplified or more intense than those of average kids. So when the word “No” is heard by a child with ADHD, it registers a “10” on their emotional scale while it probably would be a “5” or less for the average kid. Quite a few of them also have a lower-than-average tolerance for any departure from what they consider to be fair, whether it’s rules for a game or requests for doing something around the house. Added to this is the fact that most of these kids are also not known for their patience or low-volume voices!
To help your child learn better coping and communication skills, the first step is to have a discussion about the level of arguing in your home. Now, doing this in the middle of an argument—or even right afterward—is certainly not the best time. Pick a moment when things are peaceful. Be sure to include all involved parties: the child with ADHD, any siblings and your spouse. Start the conversation by discussing how each person feels about the constant arguing. The goal here is to get everybody to agree on these three basic concepts:
1. The Importance of Good Listening. Discuss what you’ll do together when your child interrupts you to argue, or vice versa. You could use a phrase such as, “Please let me finish my thought, and then it will be your turn to talk.” If you tell an ADHD child to stop arguing, many will come back with, “I’m not arguing, I’m just disagreeing with you.” This just prolongs the argument—or starts a new one! A good solution for this problem is to agree ahead of time on a nonverbal prompt to remind your child to listen and not interrupt. Because your ADHD child is already in the arguing mode and starting to escalate emotionally, nonverbal gestures often work better than words. A neutral sign you’ve agreed upon ahead of time is perfect because it won’t get them more upset. An example of a nonverbal prompt you could use would be to hold up three fingers or to make the peace sign. Make coming up with the prompt into a fun exercise you and your child do together.
2. It’s OK to Disagree. You can “agree to disagree” on various topics with your child. You might even discuss what examples of these might be. With teens, this could include not supporting the same presidential candidate. For younger kids, you can explain how it’s OK for two people to disagree on their favorite flavor of ice cream, for example, to get the point across. It’s healthy to allow these kinds of disagreements in your home because it teaches your child that his or her opinions matter, and that people can love each other even if they don’t see everything the same way. Practicing healthy disagreements at home also helps ADD kids learn how to master this skill in the outside world.
3. Mom and Dad are in Charge: It’s essential for kids to realize who’s in charge. I tell the ADHD teenagers with whom I work, “When you get a job, what’s going to happen when you argue with your boss? They’ll just fire you.” Explain to your child that you’re responsible for their health and well-being. Remind them that you are the boss. You can say, “You don’t have to like it, but that’s the way it is. It’s the same way at work when you have a supervisor you don’t like. You still have to do what they say because they’re the one in charge.”
The next step is to define the problem that prompted your discussion about arguing in the first place. Is it not taking “no” for an answer, not wanting to comply with reasonable requests, or always having to be right? Once you have agreed on what the problem is, you can move on to the solution phase. Here are some basic suggestions on how to handle these three types of arguing:
Not taking “no” for an answer: If the problem is not taking "no" for an answer, you can start with a system to reward the child for improving their ability to accept the answers they do not want to hear. Why “reward,” you may ask? Well, you have probably been rewarding the opposite behavior from time to time by giving in. Now you need to stand your ground and say something like, “I know you don’t like my answer, but you need to take a deep breath and accept it because I believe this is the best decision.” If the child accepts this without the prompt, they should be given praise such as, “Thanks for accepting my answer without arguing. It helps us to get along and makes it easier for me to say ‘yes’ sometimes.” If this simple approach works, great! If not, move on to saying that for every day that goes by without an argument, your child will get a star on his chart. When all 30 squares are filled, he will receive an agreed upon reward. If this does not resolve the problem you may have to “kick it up a notch” and add a time-out for arguing or have him write, “ I will calmly take no for an answer even though I don’t like the answer” five times. This works well for ADHD kids because it’s shorter and takes less time than writing out a few paragraphs on what they did wrong, an effective approach for non-ADHD kids. With a child who has ADHD, they’re apt to write a paragraph explaining why you’re wrong! All in all, having them write sentences helps you avoid a power struggle.
“I won’t do it!” If the problem is noncompliance with a reasonable request, make your child a member of the "First Time Club". This is similar to the reward chart above. In the First Time Club, your child is given a point or star each time they comply with a request without an argument the first time they are asked. When the thirty squares are filled, give them a reward. Periodically, give verbal praise or a pat on the back when your child complies the first time they are asked. You can do this while they are on the reward chart system, and keep it up less frequently after the chart has been completed.
I’m Right, You’re Wrong: Finally, for kids who always have to be right and feel the need to have everyone agree with them on every issue, some coaching on listening skills is in order. Practice discussing issues with your child, teaching them how to be a good listener, and showing them how to understand others points of view by asking questions such as, “That’s interesting, what made you think of that?” Practice phrases that show respect for others even when you have a different point of view. For example, “That’s an interesting point of view and I can tell you feel strongly about it. I think I understand what you’re saying, but I have a different take on it.” Coach your child by saying that if the other person asks for his or her “take” they can briefly share it. If they don’t ask for it, tell your child that they need to let the subject drop.
Your ADHD child may like to argue, but it doesn’t have to become the main method of communication between the two of you. As a psychologist and the father of a child with ADHD, I’ve used these techniques to teach hundreds of kids how to stop arguing and communicate more effectively. Remember that the point is not to stifle individuality or assertiveness, but to teach our children how and when to exercise these qualities in a positive, appropriate way.
Dr. Robert Myers is a child psychologist with more than 30 years of experience working with children and adolescents with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD - ADHD) and learning disabilities. Dr. Myers is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at UC Irvine School of Medicine. "Dr. Bob" has provided practical information for parents as a radio talk show host and as editor of Child Development Institute's website, childdevelopmentinfo.com. Dr. Myers earned his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.