Beyond the "if": Communicate intentions without ultimatums

Adapt your language and expectations to align with the processing needs of Autistic and ADHD kids. Enhance understanding and adjust your communication style without resorting to compliance-based tactics.

For parents of Autistic and ADHD kids, everyday tasks that require following instructions can sometimes become challenging episodes. Neurodivergent children often perceive and process information differently, which can lead to misunderstandings. Communication that’s misaligned with your child’s linguistic, social-emotional, and cognitive skills then causes disarray. Rather than working on compliance or making children “listen,” we are going to address their comprehension needs, gathering clues about their perspective. Remember, we are not manipulating behavior. We are connecting certain events/situations and successes to deepen our understanding of the child’s experience.

Understanding the challenge with conditional language.

Conditional language, especially the use of "if," can be problematic for neurodivergent kids. To them, it sounds like an ultimatum or a threat, triggering anxiety or putting them into a frozen state of compliance. What may appear as listening on the outside as the child (finally) stands still is an absolute fear response on the inside. It depletes resources and your child is processing very little or really no information at all because the brain’s survival mode has kicked in.

For example, saying "If you don't finish your homework, you can't play outside," or “First you have to finish your homework, and then you can play outside,” might be intended as a motivational strategy. In reality, no matter how you dress it up, it’s still an ultimatum, and a sense of overwhelm floods the nervous system. The message you’re sending is that “homework,” or whatever the task is at the moment, is this painful occurrence and what comes after is what you “earn” following completion. Seemingly harmless, it leads your child to always expecting a reward. A 6-year-old recently said to me after a particularly challenging session, “I worked so hard and it was all for nothing!”

Internal motivation and a growth mindset comes from viewing a “hard thing” as interesting. Looking at a problem, failing, and retracing your steps to determine what worked, what didn’t, and what adjustments can be made to attempt once more. We don’t want to teach our kids that success is only equivalent with rewards, gold stars, or bribes. We do want to embrace the fact that overcoming something difficult builds grit and gritty kids take on obstacles because they choose to.

Strategies for clear communication.

Using words that acknowledge: Replace conditional phrases by staying in the moment. For instance, instead of “If you clean your room, we can go to the park,” use “I know you’re thinking about the park, right now we are putting your toys/books/ideas back in their spots.” This phrasing acknowledges your child’s thought and desire to go to the park while bringing them back to what you’re asking - without promises or threats.

Clarifying comments and/or questions: Instead of correcting behavior, embody a state of wonder. Depending on your child’s language skills, you can start with a comment that tunes them into what you’re observing, “I notice a mountain of toys. Looks like it’s hard to get started.” Clean-up is a big executive functioning task and telling a child to simply “clean up” doesn’t take into consideration all of the steps required to do so, such as:

✓ know where to start
✓ understand how to organize in piles or based on categories
✓ forgo other distractions (internal and external)
✓ stay with this boring task until completion
✓ remember where all of the items belong

Additionally, asking a child whether they understand the reason a change is needed can empower them to consider their actions and remind them of certain rules and boundaries. Questions like, “Do you know how come I’m standing in front of you?" can help the child reflect on the current situation in the context of the guidance you’re providing.

Staying in the moment: What about redirecting as a managing behavior technique? Let that one go too! The reason is that a “redirect” to something else completely misses your child’s intention. It also focuses solely on the adult’s desired outcome. It doesn’t mean that you follow every single idea the second it comes up. It does mean that you notice what your child has in mind and figure out the reason they are leading you in a particular direction. Is what you’re asking of them too much? Are they at capacity? Is telling them they “have to” finish really worth it right now?

Cultivating a supportive environment.

Creating a supportive environment that respects your neurodivergent child's unique way of processing information can make following directives less stressful for everyone. This involves consistency and understanding that the process itself is more powerful than simply wanting an outcome. By adjusting our approach and how we communicate, we empower ourselves and our kids to succeed.

Final thoughts.

By moving away from conditional language and ultimatums, parents create a space that adheres to safety needs and still holds a supportive boundary. Instead of focusing on compliance or a reward/consequence system, step into a process that confirms your unwavering presence and strengthens your parent-child relationship.

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