ADHD Parenting & Setting Realistic Expectations

ADHD parenting seems to be all about it going all in, doing what it takes and grinding through frustration.

I speak to parents trying really really hard most days of the week. If this is you, big hugs! You're amazing.

It's sacreligious to us DIEHARDGIVEYOURALL parents to do things a wee bit easier. But given we're in this thing for the long haul, ease is what we need.

One of the quickest, smartest ways I know to make ADHD parenting less fraught is to check our expectations.

Holding realistic expectations of our kids makes ADHD parenting much less frustrating, and make us more effective at supporting and scaffolding our kids.

I often see parents of kids with ADHD who are trying really hard fall into two camps.

Over my rocky ADHD parenting career, I've flopped between:

  • Having very low expectations of my gorgeous boy with ADHD, doing everything for him and essentially acting as his executive function
  • Expecting my child to function the same as a peer his age NOT impacted by a neurodevelopmental disorder.

Both of these approaches cause extra stress and worry for us and our kids with ADHD.

It’s completely natural to fall into either trap.

Our kids look like other kids their age, and can confuse us with their inconsistency by being very competent in some areas - especially if it’s something they’re interested in!

Adolescence holds some fresh challenges when kids are naturally wanting more independence, often well beyond what they have the skills to manage.

It’s important we have some expectations of our kids.

It’s respectful and empowering to believe your children are capable, competent and resourceful.

And we want our kids to be independent one day and do ourselves out of a job. So slowly ratcheting up the expectations is an essential part of our job.

But when we set expectations unrealistically high, it leaves us both feeling terrible.

Our kid will feel like they’re not good enough, not capable, and there’s no point in trying.

And we feel like we’re failing them as parents because they’re not doing things that other kids their age can do.

"But I don't want to use my kid's ADHD as an excuse!"

And I don't want you to either.

Having realistic expectations is very different from burdening our kids with the (very wrong) belief that they'll never be able function independently.

I'm also not advocating permissive parenting, where we ignore and dismiss every transgression as "an ADHD thing".

Some parents of ADHDers find it a little bit deflating when I suggest adjusting their age-based expectations of their kids.

But if you stay with me, I hope you'll see that it can take a lot of tension out of daily life. I truly believe that holding realistic expectations is optimistic and empowering.

Here's what the research says about setting realistic expectations in ADHD parenting.

Several studies have shown that unrealistic or developmentally mismatched expectations from parents can contribute to poor self-esteem, behavioural issues, and parent-child conflict in children with ADHD.

One study found parental expectations predicted ADHD symptom severity, with unrealistic expectations linked to worse outcomes. Adjusting for developmental age led to improved behaviour and parenting satisfaction.

Another demonstrated that parents who received training to set expectations aligned with their child's demonstrated abilities, rather than chronological age norms, reported less parenting stress and fewer behavioural issues.

And yet another study looked at the effects of a parent intervention program focused on setting developmentally appropriate expectations and found improvements in child self-esteem and reductions in parent-child conflict symptoms compared to controls.

How to know what’s a reasonable expectation for your ADHD kid

When you watch your kid struggle to meet an expectation, it’s an opportunity to pause and get curious.

A clue here that your expectation might not be a good fit for your child's developmental stage is those moments when you’re really frustrated. We all have those moments when we look at our kids with ADHD and think (or scream) “they should be able to do this by now!”

Our first go-to tends to be that we need to get a better strategy. But let’s step back a bit. We need to first establish: Is this a realistic expectation for my child? Not their sibling, not you at their age, not their friend.

One of the first things we can look at is whether that expectation is realistic for where our kid is at right now. Then we can make a decision on whether we need to adjust course or not based on whether there’s a lagging skill that they need some help with.

Developmental age vs chronological age

When expectations match a child's developmental level rather than age, they feel less stressed and defeated. And so do their parents!

Developmental age refers to the skills and abilities a child has regardless of their actual chronological age.

Children with ADHD may have a developmental age 3-5 years younger than their chronological age due to executive function delays with self-regulation, self-awareness, attention, time management, impulse control focus, organisation and working memory.

A seminal 2001 study by the Mac Daddy of ADHD Russell Barkley compared the developmental abilities of children with and without ADHD. He found ADHDers performed similarly to their non-ADHD peers who were an average of 3-5 years younger in areas of executive functioning.

Tasks that seem simple to your child's same age mates may in fact be very difficult for your child's developmental abilities.

Setting appropriate expectations creates a sense of success rather than failure.

And setting the bar at a little bit of a stretch from where your kid is at right now helps build your child’s confidence as they collect little wins.

What’s my child’s developmental age?

Here’s an easy 3 step process to check in on your expectations of your child:

Question 1:

What am I expecting of my kid in this situation?

Question 2: 

Subtract 3 to 5 years from your child’s age.

Question 3: 

Would it be realistic or fair to expect this of a child of the adjusted age?

Maybe yes, maybe no. This can be incredibly liberating for us as parents, and our kids. It helps us level the playing field and focus on what is possible for our child now.

Bottom line:

  • We need to have expectations for our kids - just realistic ones!
  • Setting parenting expectations for our kids with ADHD based on developmental age rather than chronological age in areas like chores, homework and self-care reduces stress and angst for us and our kids
  • When you’re unsure, just knock 3-5 years off your child’s actual age
  • Meet your child where they’re at and set them up to be and feel successful
  • Celebrate progress rather than stressing over milestones.
  • Notice where fear is showing up for you. This is our stuff as parents.
  • No matter what, sometimes kids won’t be able to meet expectations because they’re overwhelmed and exhausted.

What do you think, parents? Are you up for making things feel a little bit easier in your house?

Keep going. You're doing amazing

Liz : )

Life with ADHD doesn't have to be so hard.

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