Ungrateful ADHD child?
Ungrateful ADHD child?

Lived Experience: Is my child really ungrateful?

You make sure your kids have endless activities and entertainment - but is your parenting making your ADHD child ungrateful?

Unappreciative, unthankful and constantly complaining

“I don’t want to go!”
“This is boring!”
“We never do anything fun!”
“Can we go home now?”

Sound familiar? 

I hear these phrases from my kid pretty much on a daily basis, sometimes every few minutes, and I’m not going to deny that they can be a trigger. We used to question whether we spoiled our kids by organising too many activities and giving in to their constant demands for entertainment. Were we creating ungrateful kids?

The experts tell us that “Kids should be bored.” and that “They have to make their own fun.” because it’s important for their development. I know what they mean, but I feel it’s not a rule that applies to all kids all the time. Not to my ADHD kid anyway. He has an interest based neurology and boredom is a common state for him. What most neurotypical people don’t understand is that boredom for a kid with ADHD feels painful – the kind of pain that can get in the way of thinking up ideas for making your own fun. 

ADHD changes your child’s experience

There are times when we have to attend family events or get together at a friend’s place, and we automatically expect that our children will be fine with it. We grew up being able to do it, and lots of kids have no issues with going where their parents go. They should be fine right? Except that we forget that ADHD impacts more than just our ability to focus. It can also affect:

  • Emotion regulation – managing the frustration from waiting, working through disappointment and not getting overexcited
  • Sensory processing – seeking sensory input through rough play or being overwhelmed by different and competing sounds
  • Flexible thinking – taking someone else’s perspective or thinking through multiple outcomes to effectively solve a problem
  • Working memory – keeping multiple steps and requests in mind in order to meet expectation and goals

It’s easy to project our adult expectations, which are defined by our unique experiences and needs, onto our child. We try to convince them that they will have fun, but if we are completely honest and ask questions, we’ll understand that the contrarian attitude has valid reasons.

  • Are there things that interest them? 
  • Will they have to make small talk with people they only see a few times a year?
  • Will they need to be quiet or still? 
  • Will they be served food they don’t like?
  • Will they be away from their room and personal things?
  • Will they have to rely on others to share?
  • Will they be able to withdraw to a quiet spot away from people or noise?
  • Will they be able to fully relax? 
  • Do they have to follow a different set of rules and expectations?

Adapting your parenting to your child

I’m not saying that you have to change all your plans when your child says no to something. I’m saying that understanding their concerns can put you in a better position to problem solve with them. Talking your child through their worries and agreeing on options to address them can change an oppositional attitude to a more flexible one.

What about the complaining that happens when you are doing fun stuff? Your kid should love it, shouldn’t they? You’ve planned something “fun”, you are doing things as a family, or perhaps you are trying to share an activity you enjoyed as a child – but your kid whines about it anyway. 

You have gone through so much trouble to organise things that everyone will enjoy and yet it feels like your child is never happy. We see the complaining as a deliberate attack on our joint enjoyment and a disregard for the effort we have put into arranging these activities. 

Kids don’t really appreciate effort in the traditional way adults do, and our expectations are our own, and often unreasonable for our neurodivergent kids. 

You say: “Let’s go on a bushwalk – you love nature and animals, it will be great!” 

You hear: “I don’t want to go.” 

What they probably mean is something more complex: “I hate the annoying flies” “It’s too hot” “I have to wear uncomfortable shoes” “We never get to have breaks when I want to”. 

You say: “Let’s go to an amusement park! You love going on rides.”

You hear: “This is boring, I want to go home”

What they probably mean is something more complex: “I have to wait too long to go on a ride and I’m frustrated” “I’m scared to go on the rides and there is nothing else to do” “I’m overwhelmed by all the people, sounds and smells” 

Even when you have taken into account your child’s interests and preferences planning the outing around them, things may not go to plan. They aren’t being “ungrateful”, your child’s reaction can be fueled by something as simple as you picking a day when they thought they were doing something else, or because they slept poorly or their brain needs downtime.

I know it sucks for you and for the whole family. It’s hard. You feel discouraged from ever trying to organise outings, and it’s so, so easy to blame it on your child. Sometimes you wish they could pretend to enjoy it and let the rest of the family have fun. The thing is, your child is not only having a bad experience, they are also being blamed for ruining it for everyone else.

So what can you do? 

Involve your child in the choosing of activities and the planning. Talk them through what to expect and when and what options they have when things aren’t going their way.

Lower your expectations. Your child doesn’t have to be jubilant with every activity. Accept that sometimes, your child’s willingness to put up with it for a short time is an acceptable outcome. Understand their worries and agree on a solution.

What you think is fun, might feel like pulling teeth for your child, and you have to accept that. Offer the opportunity to weave in fun things for them to break up the day and make the outing more enjoyable.  

Don’t dismiss the possibility that social anxiety might be at play. If this is the case, offering an ice cream, gaming time or a present in exchange for compliance, won’t work. 

Whatever the case, meet your child where they are at and be curious about their reasons for saying the things they do.

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