Parenting and ADHD

I suppose this is a sort of “trigger warning”. I intend my blog this week to be provocative. If you don’t want to be challenged best you continue no further!

And what is the confronting issue I am going to attempt to deal with this week? It is parenting.

Now I am not going to pretend that I am a parental role model. When I look back at my own parental experience, there are obviously things I could have done much better. And I wish I had known as much about the human condition as I do now when my children were in their more formative years. But by and large they have grown up to be responsible adults, making a positive contribution to society, rearing children of their own and generally indulging me and their mother as we grow older.(Note the distinction here. As you will see later I disapprove of parents over-indulging their children, but I have no problem with children indulging their parents!)

But I have some concerns about some of the trends I see in parenting. I will elaborate on this shortly.

Some years ago, I wrote an essay on parenting which I commenced by relating this quote from Kahlil Gibran’s fabulous little book The Prophet (copies of which I have bought for my children).

And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said, “Speak to us of Children.”
And he said:

Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts.
For they have their own thoughts.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.
For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The Archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite, and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.
Let your bending in the Archer’s hand be for gladness;
For even as He loves the arrow that flies, so He loves also the bow that is stable.

(If you hark back to my essay of last week you can see how myth, metaphor and parable are still a large part of my world!)

In the past I have shared with you some of my thoughts on parenting. I suspect that competent parenting has more positive impacts on society than almost any other endeavour.

More recently I have tried to support the case ably made by Bess and Jacinta Price, Anthony Dillon and cartoonist, Bill Leak, among others, that a major factor in indigenous disadvantage has been the dereliction of parental responsibilities in some indigenous families and in particular in remote indigenous communities. But as I will try to argue the abrogation of proper parental support goes far broader than this, and the criticism we make of poor parenting extends well beyond the indigenous population.

But again before too many of you take umbrage, I must acknowledge that there are still many exemplary parents who provide wonderful role models for their children and reflect the unconditional love that is necessary for proper human development.

Now as I have remarked previously, the quality of our parenting seems to be dwindling because of a number of societal influences.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that there are growing numbers of parents who seem to have neither the skills nor the desire to ensure their children make a positive contribution to our society.

The proliferation of dysfunctional families means that many parents have no good role models for parenting themselves and often children are brought up in households where one parent (most often the father) is missing. I am probably old-fashioned and politically incorrect, but I can’t help but believe that the lack of positive male role models for boys is particularly deleterious to their upbringing. Combined with this, the fact women dominate the ranks of primary school teachers, means that many boys are not exposed to competent, well-functioning males for most of their formative years. But in any case, the fact that many more men are abandoning the children they have fathered must have deleterious effects on the upbringing of their children.

There are, in my estimation, societal changes as indicated above, impinging adversely on parenting.

But another factor impacting on parenting is the growing indulgence that parents extend to their children.

In an amusing article recently published in the Weekend Australian Magazine which was titled Bring Back Primitive Parenting demographer Bernard Salt reminisced on his childhood and highlighted some of the parenting practices that he experienced that would be severely denigrated in today’s world. Here were some of the practices he mentioned:

  • Parents occasionally slapped their children to maintain discipline. This was done as a behavioural modification strategy, without shame and sometimes in public.
  • Mothers cooked one evening meal that was consumed by all family members at the same time at the same table. There was no pandering to the particular preferences of family members, and surprisingly most were grateful for what they received. Importantly, the family all sat down together and discussed the events of the day. Experiences were shared, sometimes advice given and family values reinforced. (My children continue to regale me with their recollections of their childhood at mealtime. Whenever my wife served something that one of them didn’t like and there was the usual response, “But I don’t like ……” my consistent response was, “You don’t have to like it, you only have to eat it!”)
  • Teenagers were expected to “do the dishes” after the evening meal. There was an acceptance that all family members should contribute in whatever way they could to the family’s welfare. There were meaningful chores for the younger children.

To a casual observer these might not appear to be important issues. But, reinforcing my reputation as an old troglodyte, I believe that Salt is right.

It cannot be disputed that parents strongly influence the behaviour of their children be it through good parenting that sets clear, consistent standards for behaviour or whether through adopting a laissez faire approach to parenting that allows children to behave in any way they wish.

A walk through any supermarket can be edifying in this regard.

John Narciso and David Burkett in their great little book Declare Yourself relate the following story.


I was in a supermarket recently and witnessed a mother ‘teaching’ (unknowingly, I’m sure) her young daughter how to get her way. The child was in a stroller. Suddenly, she spied some candy on a shelf and pointed to it. She wanted some. But her mother told her that she couldn’t have any because it was nearly lunchtime.

The child began to cry. She cried louder as her mother began pushing the stroller farther from the candy shelf, and finally the child threw a rattle to the floor and began stomping her feet on the bottom of the stroller.

Within a few seconds, the mother abruptly stopped the stroller, turned it around, returned to the candy shelf and gave her daughter some of the candy that she wanted. The daughter stopped crying almost immediately.

Many of my colleagues—looking for a motive—might say that perhaps the child had a familial deprivation of love. I would have to say that the child simply wanted candy. Some of my colleagues also might say that the mother, in submitting, demonstrated a weak ego structure. I believe she simply wanted her daughter to be quiet.

The two worked up a deal, and they both achieved what they wanted.

The child received her candy. The mother received quiet.

At thirty or even sixty, the grown-up ‘child’ still may be making similar deals with her husband, and getting paid off just as effectively.

Most get-my-way techniques can be lumped under three broad headings: helplessness, suffering, and anger. These are learned responses to interpersonal situations that aren’t going the way we want them to go.

This is quite instructive for those seeking to understand human behaviour.

In this vein the good Dr Phil has taught me that in understanding human behaviour it is often more instructive to look at what happens after, than what happens before. Indeed he states that one of the myths about human behaviour is the belief:

“How we feel and how we react is caused by what has happened to us.”

We approach human behaviour in the same way as we would physical phenomena. We see a stimulus and expect to see a response as a result. But often that is not how behaviour is best understood. If someone (in this context, let us say a child) responds to a situation using what Narciso and Burkett have termed “get-my-way” behaviours and they are successful, that behaviour is reinforced. In this way a repertoire of antisocial behaviours is built up because they have in fact delivered successful outcomes to the child.

It does not take long in such an environment for a child to develop wonderful skills in whining, performing tantrums, and other obnoxious behaviours because their parents and significant others around them (like the mother in the story above) have capitulated to restore a temporary peace.

Well, I suspect many of you might reluctantly agree with my assessment about how the behaviours of the young are formed. But my next point will probably challenge many of you.

In the USA and Australia in recent decades, there has been an exponential rise in the diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD). Many children are now branded with this so-called psychological disorder and as a result are given prescription drugs to render them more pliable in the home and school environment. (It is interesting that the incidence of ADHD reported in Europe is far less.)

No doubt the pharmaceutical industry has a case to answer for here as well, but I suspect modern parenting practices are also a contributor. One of the most dominant symptoms of children diagnosed with ADHD is that they are unable to sit still and listen in the class room. It is unlikely that a child who has not had to contend with parental authority will be compliant to the authority of a teacher. If a child is used to resorting to manipulative behaviour to get their way in the home environment, then they will surely resort to such strategies at school. If a child is used to being indulged in at home so that they are allowed to entertain themselves by “acting out” in an unconstrained fashion it is not surprising they will continue to do so in the school environment.

Accordingly I have a theory that some significant set of those children diagnosed as suffering from ADHD exhibit such symptoms because of inadequacies in their parenting.

I often believe that parents are confused about their role in bringing up children. Too many parents believe that in order to have their children love them they must be indulgent. Now I don’t think that is the case at all.

A parent’s first responsibility is to ensure their children can grow up to be competent human beings and as a result well-adjusted people who can contribute to society and have meaningful relationships. In fashioning a child’s behaviour it is inevitable that parents must sometimes act in a way that the child will find disagreeable. That in itself is a good lesson because in their adulthood they will often have to cope with disagreeable circumstances. Parents who indulge their children don’t allow such lessons to be learnt.

And such parents are mistaken in their belief that their indulgence of their children will cement a bond of love between them. Those parents are putting their own needs ahead of the needs of their children and the dysfunctional behaviour it promotes is hurtful to their children in the long term.

So I guess what I am promoting here is that parents must take some responsibility for the behaviour of their children. Providing proper discipline in an atmosphere of unconditional positive regard is our responsibility as parents. And as I stated above surely our ambition is to nurture our children to be competent human beings. Sometimes this requires us to put aside our own short term selfish desires. And, not surprisingly, I am sure that parents who use appropriate behavioural modification strategies on their children are actually more loved than those who adopt a laissez faire approach. Our children respond well to having behavioural boundaries defined.

Of course there will be children who really do have psychiatric problems that need special attention and medication. Let us care for them as well as we may. But it seems to me to be a flaw in the way we parent and in the way we diagnose childhood psychological afflictions that there are now so many children supposedly in the thrall of ADHD.

If I were to be perfectly blunt, I suspect that a diagnosis of some children (mostly boys) as having ADHD is a welcome outcome for parents who have abrogated their parental responsibilities.

Well that should stimulate some strong responses!

7 Replies to “Parenting and ADHD”

  1. Thank you Ted for exploring this issue, but I am concerned you have blurred two issues that deserve independent consideration.

    The first is quality of parenting, and much of what you have said is important, as parenting becomes commodified, evaluable, fearful, expert driven rather than intuitive.

    The second is the impact of innate biological variation on the experience of childhood, learning to self regulate, learning to think before acting. In these developmental tasks, children are built differently.

    ADHD is a poor tool to try and differentiate these two influences on a child’s development and behaviour. However, much trauma in childhood arises because of assumptions about what a child is able to do (e.g. thinking before acting, following rule based expectations), when they just can’t do this reliably.

    However, ADHD is the best tool we have at the moment, and to subsume it into the tide of questionable parenting does not advance the cause either of parenting or of biological differentiation and advocacy.

    The quest, I would suggest, is to try to address each of these arms together, in parallel, and do each better.

  2. You make some good points, but the rise in ADHD still follows a vaccine time-line and is more prevalent in boys and is more prevalent in the most vaccinated and most experimentally vaccinated population on the planet, the US military. One suspects that military parents would be more likely to impose boundaries, although that is not a given.

    But generally, the lack of boundaries, which includes common courtesies, creates anxious children who lack security.

  3. The irony is that parents will subject their children to vaccination, a painful and unpleasant experience which makes them suffer, at least temporarily, or at least, we hope only temporarily, because they believe it is for their own good, and yet refuse to allow them to ‘suffer’ from not getting what they want when it is in the cause of an even greater good – stability, self-management, and maturity.

  4. Thanks Ted for your thoughts on parenting and such things as ADHD.
    In my humble opinion, ADHD can be attributed to many things – poor parenting, poor diet, sensitivies to certain foods, too much television watching, and even the environment in the womb – what a mother consumes such as drugs, or not consumes, such as peanuts, that impacts upon the child.
    Mothers who consume alcohol while pregnant, can have children who suffer from Foetal Alcohol Syndrome. This can present as disorders such as ADHD plus other learning challenges and impulsive behaviours without thought to consequences or responsibility for own behaviours, to name a few.
    ADHD can be a precursor to more serious mood disorders later in life – even personality disorders.
    Perhaps we could consider that it is hereditary to a certain extent as well as environmental. The nature verses nurture issue again can be considered as can the which comes first, chicken or the egg argument.
    Nevertheless, it does seem to be increasing in the children of today. As well as other disorders that keep popping up such as Oppositional Defiance Disorder, not heard of twenty years ago,
    Or could it be the type of people breeding today? A few generations ago people only had children if they could afford them, whereas these days it has become a baby-making industry.

  5. Hi Ted. Well worth the effort, this article. Here’s a few examples of why I think you are on the money, at least in some circumstances:

    1. 16 year old at soccer – broken home. Sent off for abusing the ref, for probably the 4th or 5th time in the season. Sits next to his mum and directly behind me. Voluble… “that ref is a deaf “C…”. Then yelling at his teammates, “do this do that”. Me – “you’d still be out there if you weren’t behaving like a dickhead”. Woman in crowd – “You apologise to that boy”. Me “no”. After the game I confronted this woman saying the boy is in dire need of male guidance, and that she was exacerbating the problem. She complains to the club. I receive a warning. Kid who had also previously punched out a teammate, goes on as normal. In my response to the club I said that this kid needed older males round who would keep him in line. Next season he changes teams (ironically to the same team my son moves to on account of this boy). But in the new club the men’s team is tough and there is no nonsense. The kid falls into line and becomes a star player!

    2. Last week the Qld Govt legislated the age of consent for anal sex at 16 to adjust for an “archaic law”. How can this kid be a “child” on the soccer field, and expected to make adult choices as regards sexual activities?

    3. Also last week. I had hired a fellow at work, in his late 30s. He was recommended to me by a range of staff members who had worked with him before. The departing person was bitter, and picking up on this bitterness the new fellow decided that it was a difficult task. IN teh job 10 days, he sent a “spray” to me me and his immediate supervisor. He said he hadn’t slept, and wanted to quit (this is an organising and data processing role – same as he was dong before he was retrenched at his last place). He claimed the job was sending him mad (after 10 days!) and that he didn’t want to let his wife and daughter down. It was a childish whine. I sat him down and said several people had backed him, that he would be letting his wife and daughter down if he was not earning an income, that we all faced challenges and “crashing through” was as much a choice as it was capability, and basically to get the chip off his shoulder. By the afternoon, he is happily asking questions of staff, finding his way through the procedure manual, and generally getting in with it. Goes home with a big smile.

    The reason I share these stories is:

    1. Mothers often see things differently and respond differently to fathers, both are important. The soccer kid was crying out for male attention and acknowledgement, but the women actively resisted it.
    2. We have all sorts of Government policies which purport to give rights to children, but the juxtaposition of my soccer experience and Queensland’s new laws suggests there is no consensus as to what actually constitutes childhood.
    3.`My assessment of the incident at work was this guy had developed a method of whining, crying and feigning helplessness, that it was preventing his brain coping with a new work environment. A stiff “talking to” shattered that veneer and I have every expectation he will become an excellent employee.

    A bit long winded, sorry, but real world examples that support your hypothesis nevertheless.

  6. Ted I like this blog and tend to agree with what you are saying. Of course this is not for all circumstances as you state, however in many circumstances I believe you are correct. I think we need to manage rather than medicate. Raising three boys on my own there were times I thought that two of them could easily have fitted the mould of ADHD, however I never consider medication or diagnoses. I thought it was my responsibility to work out how to manage this as boys (mine anyway) always seem to have more energy and less attentions. I chose strict parenting and kept them heavily involved with sport that had male influence and while this was very tiring and busy it worked for my family.

  7. Well, I have certainly had a rich response to my most recent blog essay and I thank you all for making the effort.
    Many of my readers may not appreciate that the first responder, Michael McDowell, is one of Queensland’s preeminent paediatricians that I had the privilege to work with some years back. Michael has done inspirational work with children and has championed an approach which sought to allow parents to have greater authority to direct the treatment of their children rather than capitulate to the whims of the professionals who often want to dominate. He is an inspiration to me and not someone I would choose to disagree with regarding how we should nurture our children.
    Perhaps I have not made myself clear, but I had no intention to suggest that poor parenting was the prime cause of ADHD. If you have read my essays, I have often referred to the biological determinants of behaviour (ie genetic influences) which from memory is a point that Lynda also wanted to make.
    I am, however, convinced that for some children, indulgent parenting prevents them from attaining self-regulating behaviour. Without guidance from parents, (some of whom are so insecure themselves that instead of providing guidance about behaviour merely want to be “liked” by their children) such children demonstrate aberrant behaviour which some medical practitioners diagnose as ADHD.
    Roslyn in her comments makes a link between vaccinations and ADHD. I am not convinced by this argument but I would confess my medical knowledge is insufficient to make such a judgment. I would be interested to hear from Michael on that issue.
    Lynda reminded me that ADHD has many causes, of which poor parenting is probably just one. As I explained above, I had no intention of suggesting otherwise.
    David, in his usual confronting way, provides some real life examples of poor child behaviour related to the absence of a male parental role model. I am acutely aware of this problem having a son who is a primary school teacher.
    And then we had a comment from one of my other real life heroes (heroines?). Debbie who lost her husband when her children were young and has done a magnificent job in raising three boys is someone definitely worth listening to. Well done Deb – in my eyes you are a superwoman! Thanks for adding your bit.

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