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The Perfect System … That Didn’t Work

Parents I speak to for the first time almost all have at least one thing in common. They are tired. They’ve been trying so hard to support their child every way possible. But it seems the harder they try, the worse their relationship with their child gets.  The lack of tangible success, the stress of a failing relationship, and the sheer exhaustion parents experience is frustrating. This often leads to parents trying to create the perfect system that will solve all of the problems they are having with their ADHD child. When that system inevitably doesn’t work, parents’ frustration usually boils over at the child. 

Most parents I work with explain an elaborate system they’ve created for their child’s success complete with reminders, rewards, and consequences. Unfortunately, they very rarely include their child for any feedback or input on this system. In every first meeting with kids and their parents, we tell parents your son or daughter is the expert on themselves. We mean it! 

The perfect system requires your child to be intimately involved in the process.

The system won’t work without that buy-in; it needs to be based on facts everyone agrees on. If, for example, one of the principal components of your system is to help your son or daughter be on time, then everyone has to agree that being on time is an issue. If your child doesn’t care whether they’re late for everything, or even believe they are late in the first place, no system you implement will be effective because your child hasn’t bought into it. Instead, you will find yourself arguing about something you see as important, but they do not.

What if you can’t agree on the facts? Well, then you need to collect the data together. For example, parents and their ADHD children are often arguing about bedtime. Say one of the components of your system is designed to help your child get enough sleep because when they don’t, the house turns into World War 3. If your ADHD child doesn’t see their position as a problem, you get the supporting data! Most kids will not agree that they have bad days when they don’t get enough sleep, and this starts the argument. But, most of those same kids, when they have to track good and bad days, find out what parents already know: when they sleep more, they have better days. Like you, they want to have good days. When presented with the data, your child is more likely to be amenable to working out a sleep schedule that works for everyone.

Finally, the only way to have an optimal system is to acknowledge it’s not going to be perfect – it will have unintended outcomes, and your child will find loopholes, and it will need to be adjusted periodically. Start creating a system early, by all means. But remember that your child has ADHD, so the system will need to be adjusted or made new again every now and again to keep it stimulating enough to follow. Building in ways to make things new again (changing from marbles to coins as reward points) without having to overhaul the whole system will save you a lot of time, energy, and frustration.

Experiment with your kids, let them learn about themselves when creating a system that works for them. Don’t wait until you can no longer keep reminding them to do their homework. By starting early, and creating a system that can remain agile as their needs change, you are not only setting your whole household up for success, you’re teaching your child to self-advocate – one of the most important and most lacking skills in ADHD children and teens.

No system is perfect, and kids are going to push boundaries and challenge limits; that’s just what kids do. Any system you create will have some unintended outcomes. The system will need to be constantly adjusted and tweaked to minimize the bad unintended outcomes and maximize the good outcomes. Additionally, any system will have loopholes, and your child will find and exploit them. Try to see this as a good thing. ADHD children are often curious, adventurous, impulsive, creative people, and they are using all of those strengths when they find loopholes in the system.

Instead of letting your ego get in the way, talk to your child about the strengths they used, ask them to work with you to find ways to use those strengths in better, more productive outlets, and then close the loophole by having a two-way conversation about consequences if they try to use it again. I like to have the kids come up with the consequences on their own once they hit a certain level of maturity (usually, it’s worse than anything I would have come up with, and serves as a stronger deterrent because it was their idea).

Any system you create with your child must have their involvement, it must be agile and flexible, and it must be allowed to fail, because it will.  You, your child, and your system are going to fail at times. Accept it, allow it to be ok, and use it to strengthen your child, and the relationship you have with them as you work through those failures together.

Griffin Rouse | ADHD Coach | Center For Living Well with ADHD, LLC

Griffin Rouse

ADHD Coach and Life Coach, Executive Skills Coach