How Autonomy-Supportive Parenting Can Help Children With ADHD

Parenting is one of the most demanding jobs there is, and not only because it’s a job where you don’t get weekends off! Throw a mental health condition like ADHD into the mix, and things only become more challenging.

At the same time, parenting a child with ADHD can be deeply rewarding. In the life of someone with ADHD, a parent is uniquely positioned to make a difference.

Talk to successful people with ADHD, and you’ll notice how many of them cite the support they received from their parents as key to their success. For children with ADHD, parents can help lay a foundation of self-confidence, resilience and problem solving skills that allows them to cope with the condition effectively as adults.

There’s no magic formula for how to do that, of course, which is what makes so much of parenting an art. But insofar as we have psychology studies on what parenting strategies seem to produce desirable outcomes, parenting can be a science, too.

One parenting strategy that has repeatedly been linked to mental health benefits is supporting children’s autonomy – their sense of being empowered to make decisions for themselves, determine how to do tasks, and establish their independence. As it turns out, autonomy-supportive parenting has a special relevance for parents of children with ADHD.

Autonomy-supportive parenting

Autonomy-supportive parenting, as the name suggests, refers to a set of parenting practices that nurture children’s autonomy. Parents support children’s autonomy when they encourage children to make decisions for themselves (in age-appropriate situations), to decide how they want to execute tasks, and to develop independent perspectives.

Instinctively, you might think that supporting children in developing a sense of autonomy and self-determination in their lives might sound like a good approach to parenting, and you’d be right. Research has repeatedly linked parents’ autonomy support to positive mental health outcomes.

For example, a 2014 review of previously published studies looked at how various parenting strategies related to anxiety and depression among teenagers between the ages of 12 and 18. It found that teenagers whose parents encouraged and granted less autonomy had higher rates of depression. Meanwhile, teenagers whose parents were overinvolved in their lives and interfered with their children establishing age-appropriate levels of independence had higher rates of both anxiety and depression.

One possible reason unnecessarily controlling parenting may be a risk factor for anxiety is that when parents take over decision-making to “protect” their children, it signals to children that their environment is threatening. A 2012 study highlighted this point by having children interpret ambiguous stories. Children between the ages of 7 and 12 were asked how much they agreed with statements indicative of overcontrolling parenting such as:

  • “Your parents watch you very carefully.”

It turned out that children whose parents displayed higher levels of overcontrolling parenting had higher levels of anxiety. Interestingly, this relationship could be partly explained by the fact that these children interpreted the stories as more threatening, which fits with the idea that a controlling parenting style may teach children to interpret ambiguous situations as more negative and dangerous.

If parental control teaches children to be afraid of the uncertain reality around them, parental autonomy support seems to do the opposite. Teenagers whose families offer more autonomy support are more inclined to cope with challenging situations by engaging in active problem solving rather than by withdrawing.

A remarkable aspect of psychology research that has been done on supporting children’s autonomy is that the benefits that have been found for this parenting approach apparently cut across all age ranges, from toddlerhood through adolescence. At one end of the age spectrum, toddlers with highly autonomy-supportive parents at age two improved their performance more on a clean-up task by age three-and-a-half while toddlers with highly controlling parents saw their performance go in the opposite direction. At the other end, college students with helicopter parents showed poorer mental health.

Put all the studies like these that have been done together, and the picture you get is one where supporting children’s ability to act autonomously emerges as one of the most solidly evidence-based parenting strategies there is. Which raises the question: besides the general benefits that autonomy-supportive parenting seems to convey, is it possible that encouraging autonomy has special benefits for children and teenagers with ADHD?

The intuition behind supporting autonomy in children with ADHD

Before getting into studies that have been done on the topic, it’s worth pausing to reflect on the general intuition behind why supporting and encouraging autonomy might help children with ADHD.

Children with ADHD often have to find their own way of doing things. The “typical” way of carrying out tasks won’t necessarily work for them because their brains function differently than the brains of neurotypical children.

On top of that, children with ADHD tend to have huge gaps between the areas they excel in and the areas they struggle in. They may be capable of engaging intently with activities they find rewarding while struggling to execute even simple tasks that don’t meet that criterion.

The consequence is that children with ADHD need to be supported in finding their own ways of carrying out tasks and in exploring their unique strengths and interests. An essential part of coping with ADHD is finding the activities and ways of operating that fit with your unique brain, and supporting children’s autonomy can help them begin developing that ability to cope and to adapt.

It also sends them the message that they’re capable of solving problems on their own. As you’ll recall, children with overcontrolling parents have been shown to interpret ambiguous situations more negatively. On the other hand, if encouraging children’s sense of autonomy makes them better at engaging with uncertain and even challenging situations that potentially puts them in a better position to cope with ADHD.

The science behind supporting autonomy in children with ADHD

So much for the intuition behind why autonomy support can help children with ADHD. What does the science say?

One of the most notable studies on the topic comes from a pair of researchers at University of Georgia who investigated the relationship between parental autonomy support and perseverance on difficult tasks.

In the study, children between the ages of 7 and 12 were asked to solve a difficult puzzle. Independent observers rated parents’ levels of autonomy support during the task, which the researchers defined as the extent to which a parent “supports, encourages, and/or accepts the opinions/problem solving strategies of the child.”

As it turned out, children with higher levels of ADHD symptoms showed less perseverance on the task, giving up earlier in their efforts to solve the puzzle. But there was an important caveat: this pattern only held among children receiving low levels of autonomy support from their parents. When parents provided high levels of autonomy support, children with more symptoms of ADHD persisted on the puzzle solving task just as long as children with fewer symptoms.

That finding fits with the idea that supporting children with ADHD in finding their own approach to solving problems increases their ability to deal with frustrating situations and persevere on challenging tasks.

The apparent benefits of autonomy support for children with ADHD are all the more important to keep in mind insofar as parents might be inclined to react to their children’s ADHD symptoms with more controlling parenting strategies. A review published in the journal Clinical Pediatrics in 2008 highlights how the challenges of parenting children with ADHD actually seem to bring out some counterproductive parenting strategies over time, including highly controlling strategies.

Of course, when we talk about autonomy support for children with ADHD, we’re not talking about a total lack of structure. Rather, we’re talking about structure that reinforces children’s ability to make decisions for themselves and to pursue activities and strategies for carrying out tasks that interest them. After all, a key part of autonomy support is, well, the support – which happens when parents offer guidance or prompting that encourages children’s sense of autonomy.

What research on different parenting styles suggests is that, by providing that support, parents are in fact supporting much more than just autonomy. They also seem to be supporting perseverance, an ability to engage in active problem solving, and an ability to cope more effectively with both general life stress and with ADHD.

Image: Flickr/susanjanegolding

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