5 Things a Child Psychologist Wants You to Stop Saying to a Child with ADHD

things not to say to a child with adhd cat

Parenting children and teens can be both rewarding and miserable. That’s the reality. Throw in a neurodivergent child diagnosed with ADHD, and many typical parenting strategies and approaches no longer work. Now what?

Let’s start with the problematic statements—how to spot them, how to stop them and what we can say instead to yield better results.

1. “Why can’t you sit still?

ADHD involves inattention, hyperactivity and/or impulsivity. It’s an executive functioning dysregulation disorder, so a “simple task” like sitting still can prove very challenging, even if you’ve practiced it before. Plus, moving around actually helps a kid with ADHD focus mentally, since they find it regulating and it balances out their system. Instead say something like, “It seems like you’re ready for a movement break,” “Time to get out the wiggles” or “Let’s walk around the house together while you practice your math facts.”

2. “Just focus!”

Remember, your child has a dysregulation disorder, and with the inattentive type of ADHD, staying focused is honestly a big challenge. Indeed, your kiddo may appear to be off in their own world or checked out…and telling them to focus doesn’t give them the tools they need to actually do so. Help them get back on track and increase their level of present moment awareness by saying something like, “What are you working on now?” or “Let’s practice mindful presence” or “Do you need help getting back to the task?”

3. “If you do your homework, then you can watch TV.”

Kids with ADHD don’t always respond well to rewards, punishment and consequences since their minds think in the here-and-now and have a hard time moving beyond that. They also operate under a crisis mode, so if an urgent deadline isn’t looming over their heads, the thing just isn’t that important. To create a sense of urgency and highlight short-term to-dos, use phrases like “Let’s chunk your homework” or “Go ahead and do five problems and then take a break.” This shows them tasks are manageable, and something they can do right away without getting overwhelmed.

4. “Why are you so upset? Just calm down.”

Remember, ADHD is a dysregulation disorder, meaning multiple areas of functioning are dysregulated (thoughts, behaviors, emotions). In turn, kids with ADHD can be easily triggered by seemingly minor events, and telling them to “just calm down” can feel invalidating. (Admit it: You don’t like when somebody says this to you either.) Instead say, “I can see you’re upset. How can I help?” or even “That was messed up. I know that doesn’t feel good.”

5. “What’s taking you so long?”

One of the executive functioning tasks often impacted by ADHD is time management. And besides, most kids have a really poor sense of time anyway. (Have you ever asked a six year-old to let you sleep for 20 more minutes? Case in point.) Asking why they are taking so long doing a simple task is an unrealistic expectation, and honestly just sets them up to feel bad about themselves. Instead say, “It seems like you need some help. Let’s do it together.” In other words, show them you’ve got their back.

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Freelance PureWow Editor

Dr. Ann-Louise Lockhart is a married mom of 2, living in San Antonio. She is a pediatric psychologist and parent coach.