Shift Your Expectations to Manage Complex Kids

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“The greatest gift you can give yourself, and your child with ADHD, Anxiety, or other challenges, is to acknowledge that their challenges are a bump on your parenting journey that requires course-correction. It’s not a barrier; instead, it calls for careful navigation.”  ETK 

Ditch The “Shoulds”

When we get stuck with old ideas about how something “should” be, or how a child “should” behave, it can make managing ADHD, anxiety, and other challenges harder than it needs to be. Of course, we parents are human, and we feel strangely comfortable with our “shoulds” – so much of our own lives are all too often dictated by expectations set for us from the outside world.

Our challenge is to shift our expectations from what we thought it “should” be like to raise our children, to accept things for how they are. We must establish expectations that are appropriate to our current circumstances.

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A Change Of Perspective

Shifting Expectations is NOT to be confused with settling for “less,” or “lowering” your expectations for your kids. You have every reason to set high expectations for your kids. After all, these kids are amazing, and they have extraordinary potential! What’s different, here, is that I am encouraging you to set your expectations in the context of truly accepting your child for who they are, not who you wanted them to be.

As a parent, you must be willing to change how you’re looking at things in order to help your complex child reach an adulthood of independence and fulfillment. In one of our Parent Success System coaching groups, one mom said it perfectly: “I commit to looking at my own behavior to make sure that I’m setting legitimate boundaries for my child.”

In the world of anxiety and ADHD and other complex challenges, we often refer to this as taking a “disability” perspective. Again – I can’t say this enough – this is not about lowering expectations, but shifting them to appropriately match your child where they are in development. We often say that our kids are “12 going on 8 or 9” – they are about 3-5 years behind their same-age peers in some aspects of their development. This means that we need to set expectations that will realistically allow our children to be successful, instead of setting the expectations we think they “should” be able to fulfill, only to set them up for failure.

Acknowledge the Challenge in Shifting Your Expectations

Here’s an analogy. If your child were in a wheelchair, you wouldn’t put them at the bottom of a flight of stairs and tell them to run on up to the top. If you wanted them to reach the top, you’d certainly expect that they would have to find another method to get there – perhaps using their arms to pull themselves up, or maybe even setting up an elaborate pulley system. You’d probably expect it to take longer, and their achievement at the top would be all the greater, of course, for their challenge and struggle on the journey. You’d probably celebrate it more heartily than you would a child who could just run on up the stairs.

Sometimes we forget to take the “Disability” perspective with our kids with anxiety, ADHD, and other challenges. But it’s important, and it shows up in every aspect of their life. Take the emotional realm, for example. These kids are not generally as mature as their same-aged peers, and they’re not as skilled at managing their emotions. When we presume that they “should” be able to behave in a certain way – that they “should” be old enough to know better – we must make sure that we are not telling them to hop out of the wheelchair and run on up the stairs. The same is true for organization, procrastination, following instructions – you name it, there’s an opportunity to shift our expectations to help our children learn to be successful, one skill at a time.

So, as a parent, it is your job to create appropriate expectations based on your child’s complex issues, and hold your child accountable to them. How do you do that? Well, you need to do it systematically, and working with a coach can definitely help. That’s the method that has worked for us and so many of our clients!

And to get you started, here are some tips to start shifting your expectations:

  • Let go of how people see you as a parent – focusing on your child, instead of worrying about how things might look to others.
  • Expect your child to behave about 3-5 years younger than their same-aged peers in some aspects of development (though probably not all), and
  • Choose your battles, being deliberate about when you want to pursue an issue, and when it’s okay to let something slide
  • Hold the school accountable to setting reasonable, developmentally appropriate expectations, and
  • Make sure you’re communicating clearly with your child, making sure they understand directions and what you do expect



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