Your Kids Are Not Being Assholes On Purpose

Stop thinking the worst of kids and give them the benefit of the doubt

Story time

When I was a kid, I had severe insomnia. It took me hours and hours to fall asleep, despite being an active kid who was probably quite tired at bed time.

I used to get out of bed over and over again, only to be chased back up to my room, and told to “stay there!”

My little sister was the opposite. She was a great sleeper.

She was also young and gullible.

For anyone who’s suffered with insomnia, you know how lonely it can be when you feel like the only one who can’t sleep.

When going downstairs didn’t work, I started going to my little sister’s room to wake her up. I’d tell her lies like, “if you go downstairs, mom/dad will give you some candy”. (Asshole move, I know).

Keep in mind, I was also quite young.

When my parents asked “experts” for advice, they were told to just keep chasing me back to bed, and not to reward me with attention. They believed my behaviour was attention-seeking, so that’s what they did.

Over and over and over.

You’d think at some point they would have clued in that the approach wasn’t working as it didn’t change my behaviour, but I guess they didn’t know what else to try.

Manipulating my sister to go downstairs with the false promise of candy may seem like a cruel thing for a big sister to do. It may have been, but it was not done with malicious intent. I wasn’t actually a cruel person, I was a lonely kid who could not sleep.

Having my sister wake up and go downstairs, only to also be chased back to bed just as I had been, helped me feel less alone.

It may seem silly, but hey, cut me some slack. I was probably about seven years old and the adults were no help. I had to find solutions of my own, and that was what my little-kid logic came up with.

(Sorry, l’il sis).

Times have… changed?

Now this was a long time ago and some parents are very different, but many still approach behaviours the same old way.

As happens frequently in online parenting groups, someone asks for advice about how to give meaningful consequences to their ADHD child. The parent emphasizes they make a point to praise and reward any good behaviour, to try and focus on the positives, and not only on the mistakes.

Okay, well, good.

I’m going to launch into a couple examples, but they’re composites of various experiences I’ve had (or online conversations I have read), in order to respect people’s privacy — and because this is an extremely common occurrence.

In one instance, a parent says they reward their child with video games and money, so much so their child has accrued extensive savings from all the monetary incentives they’ve received. Yet this parent has not been able to come up with a consequence meaningful enough when the child acts out to convince the kid not to do it again.

The misbehaviours cited were rudeness, failure to cooperate, and — on rare occasions — physical violence. The parent feels they cannot afford to keep up with the extravagant rewards, and the punishments aren’t working to change the behaviour.

No kidding.

I try respectfully and gently to suggest that rewards and consequences only address the surface issues and don’t necessarily dig down to the underlying causes of the behaviours. The parent shuts that down, saying they do talk about feelings, but there need to be consequences, especially for aggressive or violent behaviours.

I try once more to explain that punishing impulsive behaviours caused by dysregulation and distress won’t help because we don’t plan these behaviours in advance. Emotionally-driven behaviours happen in the heat of the moment, when we are pushed beyond our capacity to handle a situation.

Punishing the behaviour after the fact on the assumption that fear of consequences will deter similar behaviours in the future presumes malicious aforethought (planned, intentional actions).

Hi, have you heard of the revolving door that is our prison system?

Yeah, that shit don’t work.

Again I am shut down, and parents go on to describe their child as smart and manipulative.


Imagine thinking that you need to out-wit your child’s corrupt genius in order to gain their cooperation.

Ever wonder how kids become so “manipulative” in the first place? Perhaps the fact that adults attempt to manipulate them to behave in certain prescribed ways with the use of carrots and sticks has a little something to do with that.

Playing the victim

This is probably an unpopular opinion, but here we go. Adults: you are not the victims of children’s behaviours.

For example, sometimes schools use suspensions as a behaviour management tool instead of a last resort for safety reasons. This means they suspend kids for minor infractions when they are “repeat offenders”, rather than engaging in restorative and collaborative practices.

When I call that out as inappropriate, I am told it’s not okay to expect school staff to “put up with” disrespectful or abusive behaviour at their workplace. I’m often reminded that we wouldn’t accept that type of treatment in any other line of work.

Um, hi, have you met social workers and youth workers?

I worked in residential treatment (group homes) for about 6 years when I was a new graduate. I was regularly cussed out, threatened, called names, and worse. That actually was part of the job because it was our job to know that these kids were highly dysregulated and had very little control over their words or actions.

It was our job to keep ourselves and the youth safe, while doing our best not to take their behaviours personally.

Sticks and stones, and all that, as we always tell kids when they “tattle” to us about name-calling — isn’t that right?

I can’t believe I have to remind professionals who work with children that we adults have fully matured brains and kids don’t. Kids with ADHD have differently wired brains and often struggle with impulsive behaviour.

School staff are supposed to be trained to work with students in a compassionate and competent way. Sure, no one deserves to go to work and be mistreated. There’s a significant difference between being disrespected by a dysregulated child — in a role where we’re supporting children, no less — and being disrespected by an adult.

Absolutely, parents need to work collaboratively with their children’s schools, but suspending a child repeatedly for being “disrespectful” is ridiculous and it’s an abuse of power.

Frivolous suspensions are more for the convenience of the school staff than to help the student, and they do nothing to get to the underlying causes of the concerning behaviours.

This tact is even more inappropriate because it’s ineffective. If a behaviour is happening repeatedly, and the current approach isn’t working, then the adults involved need to change their approach. It’s our responsibility, not theirs. They’re the kids.

We’re the mature, educated, responsible adults. We need to start acting like it.

© Jillian Enright, Neurodiversity MB

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“Misbehaviour” is Really Stress Behaviour

Impulsivity: It’s A Neurodivergent Thing.

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Suspensions Do More Harm Than Good

Punishing Unwanted Behaviour Just Makes it Worse

Behaviour Management Programs are Harmful & Ableist

Gaining a Better Understanding of Children’s Behaviour

Published by Neurodiversity MB

Jillian has Child and Youth Work diploma as well as a BA in Psychology. Jillian worked on the front lines of Social Services agencies from 2003 - 2012. Jillian has taken numerous continuing education courses and has attended various workshops focused on supporting neurodiverse children, in particular children with ADHD.

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