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Understanding Frustrating ADHD Behaviours

Updated: Feb 6, 2023

Help for weary parents

Having a child with diagnosed or suspected ADHD can be a frustrating and exhausting experience. Here are some tips to help you understand what might be causing your child's behaviour.

Please note: Many of the behaviours I've cited aren't unique to ADHD, nor are they diagnostic, I've just gathered them here because these are the most frequently reported behaviours I hear about in my practice.

Skills Deficit

When a child struggles to manage their feelings or do what's asked of them, the first question we need to ask is: Are they actually capable of doing this?

This involves thinking about whether you have ever seen your child perform this behaviour successfully. If so, under what circumstances? This will give you an insight into their skill level in this area.

For example, you ask your child to clean their room for the fifth time and they do not comply. You realise you have only seen them complete this task once, when you were sitting on their bed directing them. When you ask your kid, they say they don't know what items go on their shelf and which should go in their cupboard. Even though inwardly you might groan and secretly think that you wouldn't care where things went as long as they were put away, this is a helpful insight into how your child thinks the task SHOULD be done. Then, with this information, you may choose to either label the shelves and cupboard spaces so they know where to put their toys, or explain that you don't mind where things go as long as the floor is clear. This may remedy the child's skills deficit and enable them to complete the task next time.


It's helpful to reflect on what we expect of our child, because usually our expectations are unconscious and unchallenged. Think of a pie chart. What proportion of the time do you expect your child to do what you say? Behave appropriately? Do you think this ratio is appropriate for your child's age and level of development?

Having this in mind can be helpful when we interact with our kids, because it enables us to step back and say, 'Yes, she didn't unpack the dishwasher until the third time I asked her, but she was very patient when her brother pulled her hair earlier in the day' etc.

Lack of Understanding

If your child is capable of what you're asking them to do, and you know your expectations aren't too high, the next factor to consider is: Do they understand what you are asking them to do?

Recently, when we were leaving the house to go for a walk, my youngest daughter asked if we could ride instead of walk. Knowing that my eldest wanted to collect Cicada shells and that this would not be possible on a bike, I said: 'Yes we can ride our bikes, but we are going to walk around the block once first so Ami can look for Cicada shells.' I braced myself for impact, but she skipped off happily. I felt relieved until I realised she had gone to get her bike. She had only understood the first part of my response!

Lack of Rewards

If our child is capable, our expectations are appropriate, and they understand what they are being asked to do, the next two questions to ask are: What happens if they complete this task? and: What happens if they don't complete this task?

Typically, the rewards have to be more enticing than suffering the consequences for our kids to comply. For example, if your child completes a task after 20 minutes of you asking them to do it and you say: 'Finally!' and go on to your next job, there is not much incentive for the kid to repeat that experience.

Mis-match of Attention

Following on from this, attention is critical in helping your child with ADHD to behave appropriately. Our children's brains are wired to seek attention from us at any cost. This means, it actually doesn't matter for the child whether the attention they receive is 'positive' or 'negative', they will take it any way it comes! This doesn't mean that kids are strategising the push our buttons at all times, but their little brains will work out an algorithm to determine the quickest pathway to attention.

If that attention is attachment-rich, it means it is highly emotional, involves you being in close proximity to your child, and often involves eye contact or physical touch. Now think about this: you yelling at your child is just as attachment rich as praising them and hugging them. I know, it's a bit of a mind bender.

Now, what about this situation: Your child has a moment of greatness and puts their plate in the dishwasher after dinner without being asked. You thank your child calmly. Then, the same child kicks their sister under the table when she sits back down and you snap at her in frustration.

Which situation is more reinforcing for your child? That's right- the second one.

So, next time, it's more likely that your child will kick her sister under the table again, rather than put her plate in the dishwashing because the attention is more attachment-rich, which is what she's craving.

Mis-match of Executive Functioning Skills

Executive Functioning skills is an umbrella term for skills that children with ADHD are typically weak in. However, every child's profile is different. Some might be weak in impulse control, but strong in organisation, and some might be the reverse. As we know, ADHD can be genetic, but even if you as a parent don't have ADHD, you will still have Executive Skills that are relative strengths and weaknesses.

Sometimes, our child's (or spouses!) behaviour can be more frustrating if we have a different set of strengths and weaknesses to them. For example, if your child has working memory difficulties, you might tell her to put her clean clothes away that you have left at her bedroom door. She may walk off toward her bedroom to comply, but then 20 minutes later, you find she has been waylaid at the bookshelf because her favourite book on sharks caught her eye. If you can't relate to this, and find it easy to remember and complete a task, it can be very difficult to understand how your child could be so forgetful! This mis-match can make it more difficult to empathise with or understand your child's difficulties, and increase the frustration for you as a parent.

Match of Executive Functioning Skills

On the other hand, sometimes our child's behaviour can become more frustrating if we have similar Executive Functioning weaknesses! For example, if both you and your child are weak in organisation, he may forget to pack his sports bag, and you might forget that sport is on. Then, when he gets a detention because he forgot his sports bag and you have to re-arrange work to pick him up, you are frustrated! However, if you had strong organisation skills, you may have remembered to remind him and the problem may not have occurred in the first place!

Parent-Child Personality factors

Have you ever taken time to understand yourself and your child more? There are great tools out there including personality tests like Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram. I personally find the Enneagram fascinating and also find the Love Languages test helpful in understanding more about myself and my children. Sometimes understanding how both ourselves and our children work can be enough to defuse our frustrations with them.

Do we have very high standards for ourselves and our child is laid back and easy going? (If you don't think you have high standards for yourself, ask your spouse as I've found that many people with incredibly high internal standards don't actually think their standards are high enough!)

Does your child's perfect weekend involve rock-climbing, three birthday parties, going to the beach and a sleepover and yours involves reading a book?

Are you a person who values practical help and your child just loves a chat?

All these examples can start us thinking about how our unique personality traits and preferences play off our child's to produce lots of strong emotions!

Physical factors

Finally, simple factors such as dehydration, hunger, tiredness, low iron, or lack of time outdoors can influence children's behaviour.

I hope this has given some brief insights as to some possible causes of children's behaviour and why it might be frustrating for those that love them. Next time, I will detail how to address each of these factors.


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