And what you should be asking instead
I’m a problem solver. So it’s natural that I would look for answers and reasons behind every problem, every difficulty in life. If you know why a problem has occurred, you are more able (potentially) to find solutions and preventions. Right?
But what do you do when there are no reasons? When there’s no sense to something. No logic. And no one, including you, has the answers – to the problem or the solution.
To me, raising a son with ADHD has been one continuous cycle of looking for reasons behind problems, and solutions to those problems.
Where I’ve constantly come unstuck (even unravelled. Maybe even unhinged at times) is in asking the killer question, “Why?”
Why did you do that? Why did you say that? Why are you making loud animal noises? Why did you leave that there? Why did you leave that behind? Why didn’t you do what I told you? Why didn’t you sit still? Why did you call out? Why did you get up and walk around when you were told to sit down and concentrate? Why didn’t you do your homework? Why did you hurt your sister? Why did you deliberately hurt yourself? Why did you disobey me? Why did you disobey your teacher?
Why? Why? WHY? WHY? WHY?
The enormous challenge of being a parent of an ADHD child is that you tie yourself in mental, emotional and physical knots every day, asking this question constantly.
For me, it screamed in my head, every day, for 10 years. Every time my child did something we both knew he’d been taught not to do, or knew was wrong, I asked him. Every time he didn’t do the right thing, or something he’d been asked (aka told) to do, I asked him. In fact, I probably asked him why more than I asked him what – What do you need? What do you want? What would you like? What do you think? – or how – How do you feel? How can I help you? How can we fix this? How can I make you feel better?
Others constantly asked it too. Teachers and family members would ask my son the Why question all the time. When they couldn’t get a satisfactory answer from him, they’d ask me. “Why did your son…? Why doesn’t your son…? Why won’t your son…?
I read every book. I took him to every expert. I attended every course. I searched and researched. Yet I never found the answers. It was painful and frustrating. How can you solve a problem if you can’t find the answers?
Over time, I blamed myself. I felt inadequate as a mother. I couldn’t understand him. I couldn’t help him. I couldn’t change him. And I couldn’t solve his problems. Yet I considered myself an intelligent, wise, capable person, and a loving and dedicated parent. I should have all the answers. Shouldn’t I?
This is a trap for parents to fall into. A huge, dangerous, bottomless trap.
I would ask myself, “Why?” just as often as I would ask my son, “Why?” Yet neither of us had the answers. Invariably, when I asked my son the question, he would just respond with, “I don’t know.” ARGH! This is an answer no parent being constantly questioned and judged for their child’s ‘bad’ behaviour or ‘poor’ performance can do anything with. “What do you mean you don’t know?!” (Queue steam from ears and a rising vocal volume.)
But the reality is, ADHD kids often don’t know why they do (or don’t do) some of the things they’re responsible for. And these poor little people constantly have adults seeking these answers where there just aren’t any.
Beyond not having an answer as to why they do something, these kids often seem even unaware that they have actually done something.
Sometimes the answer to “Why did you do that?” is followed with a response of “Did I?” or “Was I?” This is one of the reasons that punishments and negative consequences have little impact on ADHD kids and have zero efficacy in actually modifying or managing behaviour. If you don’t know why you did something unacceptable or even an awareness that you did it, the likelihood is you’ll do it again, and any negative consequence or outcome will have no meaning to you at all – not because you’re naughty or malicious or unintelligent – but because you simply can’t make the connection.
The whole law of conditioning assumes you can understand the link between cause and effect; action and result. These kids simply don’t. And in fact, they can’t.
I recall one time, around the age of 9, when my son did or said something unacceptable at school. Whatever it was (that I can’t recall now in the blur of so many such instances), it was serious enough to result in an after-school detention. These detentions always occurred on a Friday and normally involved picking up litter or cleaning a classroom – some form of community service. His misdemeanour was ‘committed’ on a Friday, so the detention was held over until the following week to be served. By the time we got to the date of the detention, I reminded my son that I’d be picking him up late, at 4:20, after his detention. He looked at me with innocent surprise and curiosity and said, “Oh yeah. That’s right. What’s that for again. Did I do something wrong?” He had no idea, no recollection, and no association of whatever his actions were that had resulted in this penalty. What a total waste of time.
This is where traditional praise and punishment practices totally fail with and for ADD/ADHD children. Ultimately, all that resonates and remains with many of these children is that they’re ‘bad’ and need to be punished, even when they’re not even sure why. It can set them up in an ongoing and ever-worsening cycle of poor self-esteem, negative reputation and social isolation.
Ultimately for me, when we finally received the diagnosis that our son had ADHD, I fell to my knees and asked a soul-level rhetorical “Why?”
Since then, it’s been a learned response for me to NOT ask “Why” – questioning a child who has no answers and agitate myself by searching for them. Sometimes, there is no reason. There just is. That’s what we, as parents of ADD/ADHD children must learn.
I now coach my son’s teachers (and myself) in looking beyond the unacceptable and unfathomable level of why he does something, and instead try to understand and interpret his intent.
Did he mean to hurt someone or was he actually trying to get their attention / to get them to like him? Was he trying to frustrate his teacher or was he frustrated and overwhelmed within himself? Did he choose to not sit still or was he unable to sit still. Did he choose not to concentrate or was he unable to?
These are better, more informative and more helpful questions. These are the questions that lead us to defining helpful/workable solutions – solutions that build capability and self-esteem rather than limiting or destroying them.
And the key is also to share the problem with these children, rather than putting all of the responsibility onto them for things they can’t control, avoid or change. A responsibility that is too large and unfair for them to bear.
When we share and support, we accept and embrace. Only then can we create solutions and more possibilities for change and growth.
We simply must stop asking “Why?” It’s the unanswerable question.
Instead, let’s accept, understand, explain, encourage and guide.
We need to start asking better questions: What do you need? How do you feel? How can I help you?