I recently read this excellent post in Additude Mag’s positive parenting section written by Merriam Sarcia Saunders that talks about how she started using positive reinforcement for her child with ADHD rather than constantly reprimanding her.
It was touching and I think there’s a lot of good stuff that could be translated into adult life, so I thought I’d write up my own article about how to use these positive reinforcement tactics with your favorite ADHD adult.
Do you know an adult with ADHD? Are YOU the adult with ADHD? Maybe you can share this article with the person/people you spend a lot of your time with to help them learn some healthier ways of interacting with you.
In Merriam’s post she talks about the times her daughter would do something bad, like cutting a hole in newly folded sheets with her scissors. Her daughter would look up at her with this perplexed look, as if she was just as shocked by her behavior as her mom was. Before her mom knew that she had ADHD, she was completely baffled by the behavior and would immediately reprimand her. Later when she learned of her daughter’s disorder, she began to understand the perplexed look she had given her.
She was shocked by her own behavior.
She really didn’t know why she couldn’t control herself. She hated that she had done something bad, and worse, she began to hate herself because she was being told all day long by her parents, teachers and friends that she was bad. She was misbehaving. Messing up.
She realized that it must feel awful to wake up everyday and continually disappoint everyone around you. All you want as a kid is praise and love from your parents but if you’re constantly doing things that cause you to be reprimanded, you’re going to have a lot less praise and love and a lot more scolding.
This all struck me as very relatable. Yes, relatable to my experience as a child, but also to my experience as an adult.
When I mess up, I feel genuinely shocked by my own behavior. I instantly feel ashamed. Right away I begin to hate myself. How could I have lost my temper and broken another plate? How could I have spent that money on a new outfit when I knew I needed it for groceries? What is wrong with me?
If any of that thought process is familiar, you are probably well aware of the shame spiral that comes along with adult ADHD.
And for those beautiful souls that decide to live with us, this erratic behavior can be difficult to handle.
Merriam discusses five ways she uses positive reinforcement with her daughter now that she understands how hard it is for her daughter to control her behavior. She didn’t want her daughter to grow up feeling like a bad kid, hating herself for something she couldn’t help.
So she implemented these five things:
- Naming her bad behavior
I talked about this in my recent article about changing the way we think about our emotions but now I know there’s actually a name for this. It’s called Narrative Psychotherapy. In Narrative Psychotherapy, people are made to feel less shame and more control by naming their behavior or disorder and therefor externalizing it. This helps them to see that the behavior or disorder isn’t them, it’s just something that comes to visit them or happens to them.
Merriam decided to name her daughter’s bad behavior “Kevin”, and whenever her hyperactivity showed up in the form of bad behavior, she’d say “Oh look, it’s Kevin!”. By doing this, she kept her daughter mindful of her actions in a way that didn’t make her feel shame. It kept them smiling and added some silliness to the situation, rather than being annoyed by her behavior.
I think we can use this in our adult life. In the ‘changing the way we see our emotions’ article I talked about how we can name our depression or anxiety. In the same way we can name any of our behavior that makes us feel shame. For instance, when I get angry and impulsively put a plate down too hard (breaking yet another plate), I can have a name prepared for that behavior. It definitely won’t be Kevin, because that was my dad’s name and he was probably the most put together person I’ve ever known. But I can name it… Henry. That works.
I can say “well there goes Henry being cranky again”. And if I know that I’ll have trouble doing this for myself in the heat of the moment, I can ask my boyfriend to point out to me when Henry is visiting so we can laugh about what a cranky guy Henry is instead of letting me go into a shame spiral.
- Unconditional Love
Merriam talks about how children with ADHD need an extra helping of unconditional love, because they are always feeling like they’re disappointing the people in their life. This doesn’t stop being true when we become adults. Most of us don’t grow out of our ADHD, we just learn how to live with it. We still need that extra helping of unconditional love.
This was something I had to help my boyfriend understand about me. We used to get into arguments when I would have an anger outburst because, obviously nobody is going to respond positively to someone suddenly exploding with anger. When my hyperactivity and impulsivity manifests negatively, it’s usually in the form of random anger outbursts. It’s a cause of a lot of shame in my life. As a teenager it was much worse, then it died down as an adult, resurfacing big time after my dad died during the grieving process. And now it’s back to normal, maybe happening once or twice a month (usually due to pms).
My boyfriends instinctual reaction was always a mixture of confusion and anger because it didn’t make sense that I was behaving like that, and even though I tried to make sure I didn’t direct the anger at him (just at whatever plate I was holding at the time) he would take it personally because he was the only person around so he assumed he was somehow the cause. It took a long time to make him understand that he wasn’t the cause, that this was a random build up of hyperactivity and that the outburst itself was a random impulsive thing that my brain decided to do with all the extra energy.
Once he finally really understood this about me, he was able to see that in the heat of the moment I was just as shocked by my behavior as he was. And that in that moment, I didn’t need the negativity to be escalated. I needed it to be calmed. I needed a hug more than anything else. We learned together that if he came over and hugged me, I would immediately feel calm and the spiral of shame wouldn’t have a chance to start.
- Seeing home as a place for mistakes to be made
I like this part of the post a lot. She says that home should be a safe place to make mistakes and to know that all will be forgiven. This is great parenting advice, but of course it’s also great grown-up advice. Our home should be our sanctuary. It should be our place of refuge where we can feel free to be ourselves. Home is a place where if we accidentally have an anger outburst and break a plate, we should feel safe to laugh at our mistake and move on without shame.
She says when her daughter’s bad behavior shows up, or “Kevin” as she calls it, she can say “Oops it looks like Kevin was in control there. If we ask Kevin to leave, what could you do differently?” Confronting the behavior with humor and love like this provides her daughter the opportunity to learn from her mistakes instead of feeling shame about them. Home is the perfect safe space for this type of learning to take place.
- Using humor
It can be incredibly exhausting keeping up with a child who has ADHD. And an adult with ADHD can be pretty exhausting too. Merriam says she likes to have a sense of humor about it all. She says it keeps her sane, and it helps her daughter not feel bad about herself.
My boyfriend taught me this one already. He’s the king of turning things into humor. He’s the one who taught me how to laugh at myself when I mess up. He taught me how to turn an argument into laughing hysterically at our twisted up angry faces. He helped me through the grieving process after my dad passed away by doing everything he could to make me laugh. And he’s helped me through my many bouts of depression by watching stand up comedy with me and showing me that laughter is truly the best medicine.
Having a sense of humor about our ADHD mishaps is so healthy and it really will keep us sane. Next time you break a plate, just laugh at yourself and move on. Life doesn’t have to be so serious.
- Praising you for the things you do right
As a kid, I remember always hearing the things I was doing wrong. From my teachers, from my parents. My grades were wrong, my attitude was wrong,… after a while I felt like I was wrong.
The adults in my life did the best they could, but I was definitely a handful. It’s easy to feel like we’re fundamentally wrong when we’re constantly being corrected and told what we’re doing wrong. And as ADHD brains, most of us have something called Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria (which I’ve written about before) and that means that we have an extreme emotional sensitivity and emotional pain which is triggered by the perception (not necessarily the reality) that we are being rejected, teased or criticized by an important person in our life.
This can carry on into adult life easily. As children, it’s our parents and teachers. As adults maybe it’s our boss, coworkers, partners, even our friends.
We may not be able to control how the outside world treats us, but at home we can help our loved ones to understand our struggle and help them learn to use positive reinforcement rather than negative reinforcement.
We can ask them to point out to us when we’re doing something praiseworthy. When we do something that makes them happy or proud, they can let us know. This will help us feel proud of ourselves. It’ll help with our self-esteem, which is something we need a lot of help with. And maybe the praise we get at home will drown out any negativity we get from the world.
I think positive reinforcement is important for anyone, whether they’re a child or an adult, whether they have ADHD or not. It’s important for us to feel good about ourselves. We don’t need any more reasons to go into a shame spiral. We do that to ourselves enough.
I hope this article can help you and your loved ones better navigate your life together and help you interact with each other with more love and humor.
Until Next Time,
Keep Calm & Grow On