Hyperactive, Oppositional, Impulsive: Understanding the Emotional Life of the Sensitive/ADHD Child
You might be really familiar with these words “Oppositional, has a hard time with authority, can’t even get organized enough to get dressed without a million reminders.” Or maybe you’re here: You’ve tried all the reward charts, the bribes, the punishments and threats. And nothing seems to stick. Maybe you’re at a place where you’re wondering why nothing seems to help your child (and the whole family) thrive. Maybe the word ADHD has been mentioned, or maybe you have a diagnosis and have already assembled a team to work with your child. There is a LOT of literature out there on ADHD. Even when you narrow your searches to look how ADHD shows up in children, or even if you’re just looking at symptoms of “hyperactivity” or “attention deficit” because your child has some traits but doesn’t quite qualify for a diagnosis. Or maybe a teacher or other caring adult has mentioned ADHD, you might be starting to search for what this really is.
I’m writing this post with the intention of summarizing one perspective on ADHD. The intention is not to offer advice, but to offer an explanation and perhaps path to relational healing for the scenarios I outlined above. Dr. Gabor Mate takes a compassionate, biology- and relationship-based perspective when it comes to ADHD, and I came away from reading his book Scattered Minds feeling that parents could really benefit from his perspective. In his book Scattered, Mate frames children who experience ADHD symptoms are highly sensitive people. Their nervous systems are just more perceptive than others, and early childhood development--what’s going on in the family in infancy combined with the infant’s biology can create a perfect storm that leads to later experience of ADHD symptoms.
Myth: They are Just Looking for Attention
All behavior is communication of a want or need. Give the child the attention they need, not the attention they are asking for. When there are lots of negative attention-seeking behaviors, give attention when the child has not demanded it. As the child develops greater security and confidence in self, the motive behind the attention-seeking behaviors will decrease.
Myth: They are trying to annoy me on purpose
Underneath behaviors are internalized views of the self. There may be unconscious shame, anxiety, poor impulse control, and poor self-regulation
Myth: The child purposefully manipulates the parent
No child does this naturally. If a child has developed manipulative tactics, it is out of a sense of weakness, not of strength. Mate advises that we remain curious. Ask: “why would this child need to manipulate?” One thing I often tell parents is that manipulation occurs when a child has learned that openly expressing needs will not necessarily bring understanding and nurturing response. When the environment becomes understanding, nurturing, and supportive, the child now feel safe to ask for things directly.
Myth: “the child’s behavior causes the adult’s tension or anger”
Parents can to acknowledge the wide range of their emotions and, perhaps with the help of an expert, begin to see what is dysfunctional and what is functional. They may begin to see what purpose emotions in the household are serving, and they may begin to choose which they want to change. Mate writes that “An enormous emotional burden is lifted from children when parents can take responsibility for their responses and reactions.” Because we all know it’s hard to React to misbehavior with curiosity when we are flooded by anxiety. When we are anxious, we try to control. Reducing anxiety, releasing control, allows you to be curious rather than controlling.
Myth: “children with AD(H)D are lazy”
Underneath “laziness” is emotional pain. It’s emotional pain that comes, perhaps, from not getting needs met due to circumstances in the family or due to the fact that they happen to have a highly sensitive nervous system.
When you ask your child to unload the dishwasher, and they find a million excuses not to, or complain “I have to do EVERYTHING around here, Mate says their pain is saying “from early on, even as a baby I have had to work too hard on my relationship with you, I am tired of doing that. I don’t want to do any more of the work that you should have been doing all along”
There is another factor at play with the child experiencing ADD. Mate calls it automatic resistance and he says it serves a purpose. Some children seem to automatically resist a command from authority. We often call this oppositionality and Mate says though we don’t support the behavior, it is serving a purpose.
Opposition and Defiance are PROTECTIVE
So, let’s hear his perspective on Oppositionality: It is a response to something. It is a reflection of part of the child’s relationship with the adult world. The ADD Child often can be rigid, obsessive, clinging to a desire. They have a heightened response to force or pressure from authority and this is often seen as “oppositional behavior” It is important to understand this because the ADD child is extra sensitive to force or pressure, due to the child’s innate sensitivity.
They have a strong will, and will comes from intentions, obsessive clinging comes from the unconscious. Counterwill is the automatic resistance put up by a human being rising from the fear of being controlled. “I don’t have to” “you can’t make me” etc. The 4-year-old covers ears, 9 year old puts a “keep out” sign on their door or the teen adopts a sullen look and shrugged shoulders.
Counterwill helps the child learn about identity, keeps child from being overwhelmed by the parent’s force of will. Counterwill/oppositional behavior is the child asking for a boundary around themselves, so that they can grow their identity and sense of self! In adolescence it helps child loosen dependence on the adult.
When it comes to interacting with a child who seems to tune out, have a hard time staying still, listening to authority, or taking responsibility for actions, consider the child’s highly sensitive nature, and consider these helpful tips:
Tips for Digging Deeper into the Emotional Life of the Sensitive/ADHD Child
· Disapproval provokes acting out as it makes the child more insecure. Controlling responses deepen that counterwill, or automatic resistance.
· Scattered talks about how children experiencing symptoms of ADHD have an extraordinary emotional hypersensitivity combined with psychological underdevelopment in areas such as impulse control and planning ahead.
· So, by increasing emotional self-confidence and sense of responsibility, you will actually decrease the automatic oppositional response. The child will believe, “I will still be me, even if I listen to someone else” Play therapy and humanistic/person centered therapy approaches are great for this instillation of self-confidence, problem-solving, and sense of responsibility.
· “ADD child is unable to disengage impulse from action, their automatic responses are quick and ferocious”
· Take into account the psychological under development that may be present due to that “perfect storm” of biological sensitivity and environment. Even with ages 7-10 and older, you’ll see black and what thinking, splitting, or the preverbal child (think 12-18 months old)
· Rewards, in the long run, do not instill the self confidence needed as children sense the parent’s desire to control no less than in the punishment. The child’s sense of will is still being forced. Focus on situations that increase self-efficacy, and relationships that build collaboration, health boundaries, and mutual respect.
And finally, my own addition, is take into account what it might be like to be in your child’s body--if indeed they are highly sensitive, what stimuli coming in from the environment (noise, scratchy clothing, too many lights, food that causes a gag reflex) might be contributing to sense of self, ability to stay regulated, and ability to carry out tasks like teeth-brushing, staying on-task, or getting out the door on time.
This was a lot—thanks for going deep with me on this early childhood, sensitive, and deeply psychological and emotional journey into the needs under the behaviors of ADHD experience! I welcome comments and feedback—again, this is a summary of ONE perspective on ADHD so feedback and research-based comments are welcome!