Is my child’s behavior because of their ADHD or is this just “normal kid stuff”?

If I had a dollar for every time a parent asked me this question …. I’d for SURE be able to buy that new minivan I’ve been eyeing!

Do you torment yourself with this question? Do you try to figure out what is the ADHD vs. the anxiety? The ADHD vs. the puberty hormones? The ADHD vs. your kid being a straight-up jerkface? (I’m kidding… your kid isn’t a jerkface).

If so, you’re like millions of other parents trying to sort through these complex questions.  

Here’s the simple answer… Most often we don’t know, and most often it doesn’t matter.

So stop asking! 

But if you need the more complex answer, read on. 

It’s Complicated And Intertwined. 

The emotional and behavioral health of humans is incredibly complex and intertwined. While we can say that ADHD delays our children’s ability to manage impulses, regulate emotions, prioritize, use their working memory, etc., it’s virtually impossible to isolate our kids’ ADHD from their temperaments, their learning disabilities, their anxiety, and/or their puberty hormones for example. 

And to make matters even more complicated, all of those things are also impacted by your child’s environment. 

All of these complicated factors fuel and feed off of one another to create the unique human being your child is with the unique behavioral struggles your child experiences. 

Comparing our mental health to our physical health is often helpful for parents. So let’s illustrate this complexity to what seems like a pretty simple and straightforward physical exercise – running a lap. 

Everybody will run the lap at different paces. Things that impact someone’s running speed include their genetic profile, muscle strength, bone structure, past injuries, heart health, lung health, diet, sleep, shoes, and on and on and on! Usually pace is determined by a multitude of factors that interact with each other. Not just one. 

Likewise, ADHD impacts the way your child’s brain is developing. It shifts and changes the way your child develops important functions called executive functions. Other factors also will impact your child’s development and use of their executive functions as well. These can include things like: 

  • Other mood conditions
  • Learning disabilities
  • Natural temperaments
  • Past habits and experiences
  • Trauma
  • Sleep
  • Diet
  • Underlying beliefs

Our Parenting Responses Need to Focus on the Whole Child – Not Their ADHD.

When I ask parents why they want to distinguish between ADHD-fueled behavior and “normal” behavior, I usually get the following response: “If it’s ADHD, I can be more patient. If it’s not ADHD, then I should punish.”

And that’s where it all falls apart. 

The truth is that kids with ADHD deserve our patience — and so do kids without ADHD. 

 As Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child says, children do well when they can. And ALL kids deserve this assumption from us.

Children don’t misbehave for no reason at all. They don’t act like jerks because they want to be a jerk.  

Rather, children’s behavior is a form of communication. And their communication skills often stink… because they’re kids and they’re beginners at communication. They’re learning, and navigating, and discovering. And they often don’t have any idea what they are even trying to say.

Perhaps their anxiety is making them have a strong need to control their environment… so they show up bossy, defiant, and rigid. 

Perhaps they are being picked on in school or on social media … so they show up bossy, defiant, and rigid. 

Perhaps they aren’t getting much sleep at night… so they show up bossy, defiant, and rigid. 

You get my point – there are LOTS of reasons your children may be behaving in a particular way.

The behavior your child exhibits – whether they have ADHD or not – is expressing some sort of need. It’s your job as a parent to figure out what that need is and how to guide your child from there.

  • Sometimes this means we teach them a new way; 
  • Sometimes it means we hold them accountable for harm they’ve caused; 
  • Sometimes it means we ignore behavior;
  • Sometimes it means we lean in with love. 

Our responses come in varied forms based on the underlying reasons (usually plural) that our children behave the way they do.

So instead of asking which behavior can be attributed to ADHD, I want you to get started asking this question:

“What is my child trying to show me / tell me / accomplish here?”  

This usually requires some really great detective work by both you and your child. All of which is discussed in other posts!