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Navigating ADHD
with Natalia van Rikxoort, MSW, ACC

Telling Your Child to “Try harder” and “Calm down” Doesn’t Work. Here’s What Does.

As parents, we often tell our children to “calm down”, “try harder”, and “make an effort” and then throw our hands up in frustration when our requests (seemingly) go in one ear and out the other. Here’s what your kid wants you to know: They want to do well. They really do. They just don’t know how to make it happen.

Children with ADHD not only struggle with attention-related issues but they may also have executive function challenges as well. Executive functions refer to a set of skills including paying attention; planning and organizing; task initiation; self-monitoring; and self-regulation. Deficits in these areas can make carrying out even seemingly simple tasks difficult. Further, children with ADHD often have trouble following lengthy verbal instructions and picking up on more subtle social cues.

Clinical child psychologist and author, Dr. Ross Greene, has been quoted as saying, “Kids do well if they can”. Meaning it’s not that your child won’t behave but rather that they can’t because they lack the skills needed to produce the desired outcome. And your child is probably making what they feel is a herculean effort without much success which often leads to a great deal of anger and frustration.

Here are some tips to help get your message across and keep the peace…

Make your expectations clear: Don’t assume your child knows what you mean by “calm down” or “make an effort”. Instead, clearly spell out your expectations so you and your child can be on the same page.

For example, instead of saying “be respectful” and leaving it at that, explain what being respectful looks like in action- facing the person who is speaking to you; waiting until the person is finished talking to respond, etc.

Use positive opposites: Instead of telling your child what NOT to do, tell them what you what you WANT them to do.

Rather than saying “Don’t touch that”, say “Quiet hands” or “Hands to yourself”. Instead of “Stop interrupting”, say “Please wait your turn”. Positive opposites place the focus on the behaviors you do want rather than the ones you don’t.

Make a point to be proactive: Preparing your child beforehand as to what your expectations are in a given situation can go a long way toward avoiding meltdowns. If you’re heading out to the grocery store, fill your kid in on the details, whatever those might be: “We’re only getting what’s on the list”; “I need you to walk next to me but you can push the cart”; “You can pick out the cereal you want”, and so on.

Prep them before you leave the house and again when you get to your destination. Ask them to repeat your instructions back to you to make sure they’re clear.

Get your child’s feedback and create a plan: If you notice your child struggling, not following through, or having a hard time getting started, ask them what makes whatever it is they’re trying to do difficult. Do they not know how to start? Are they bored or getting distracted? Maybe they’re confused or forgot the instructions.

When you have a better idea of what is standing in their way, work with them to create a plan or strategy for moving forward. Maybe they need a snack break before starting their homework or aren’t sure how to go about cleaning their room and need you to help break the task down into smaller steps.

Taking a more collaborative approach will help you to better understand how and why your child is struggling and what you can do to provide the appropriate support.

Be persistent and have patience: Always keep in mind that learning a new task or skill of any kind takes time, patience, and practice. It will likely take time for you to approach these challenges in a different way too, so remember to give yourself some grace along the way.

Children with ADHD tend to be 3 to 5 years behind their peers in terms of their executive function skills and therefore may not be able to act as independently at first. Meet your child where they are, adjust expectations accordingly, and continue to practice these skills even if they don’t seem to take to them right away. Every bit of practice paves the way for later success!

Image: Pixabay/Free-Photos 

Telling Your Child to “Try harder” and “Calm down” Doesn’t Work. Here’s What Does.

Natalia van Rikxoort, MSW, ACC

Natalia van Rikxoort, MSW, ACC is a social worker, ADHD consultant, and certified life coach. Her practice, Lotus Life Coaching Services, provides coaching services for adults, youth, and families impacted by ADD/ADHD and executive function challenges.

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APA Reference
van Rikxoort, N. (2019). Telling Your Child to “Try harder” and “Calm down” Doesn’t Work. Here’s What Does.. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 22 Sep 2019
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