8 Ways to Set Realistic Expectations for your Child with Executive Dysfunction

It can be hard to know what to expect of your child diagnosed with ADHD, Asperger’s or executive dysfunction.  Often they develop differently than their “typical” peers and it is  hard to use traditional child development books or theories to assess what behaviors and skills your child should have at a specific age.

Here are 8 tips to help you assess your child’s development and set realistic expectations for her.

1. If you read or reference traditional child development books or articles it is time to pass those on to others, donate or recycle them.  They will not provide you with the information and support you need and can often serve to make parents anxious and pathologize their  child for not being “normal.”

2.  Take some time to reflect on your child’s developmental path to date.  Probably some areas developed on time, some developed late and some early.  Skills do not develop on a specific time table and if your child was delayed in some ways this delay will likely remain, more or less, throughout development.  This does not mean skills will not develop, they will just develop later than expected.

3.  Behavioral expectations, such as managing anger, being kind to others, using safe hands, etc. should usually be as age appropriate as possible.  Children who are in mainstream classrooms will need to develop these skills so as to maximize their social experience, as well as develop healthy self-esteem.  While the behavioral expectation may be there, keep in mind your child may need to be explicitly taught emotional management skills and consequences for emotional disregulation should be tempered in light of your child’s developmental level. For example, a child with Asperger’s syndrome who is mainstreamed in a 5th grade class with an aide got overwhelmed at recess and hit a peer.  Typically the school would give an “in school” suspension for one day for this behavior.  However, due to his disability, the child with Asperger’s will receive a two hour visit to the office to talk to his guidance counselor or school psychologist to make a plan on how to handle these situations in the future, and he will be required to write an apology letter to the peer he hit and present it to him in person with a counselor present for a short “apology” conversation.   In this example, the student with AS still is expected to behave as other 5th graders, but his consequence fits his diagnosis.

4. Expect progress, but do not get overly frustrated and discouraged when change does not come quickly. The truth is, your child has a developmental weakness.  Developing in certain areas is  hard, not impossible, but hard work!  As parents it is natural to want your child to grow and develop and keep up with his age-mates, but this is not always realistic.  Managing parental expectations and frustration is an important part of supporting your child’s development.

5.  Expect regression.  We all regress when we learn certain skills. “Two steps forward, one step back.”  it happens to all children, not just yours.  When this occurs, try to shrug it off and not draw too much attention to it so your child does not become anxious and worried that he is doing something incorrect.

6. Observe if your child can use the skill in another setting.  Does your child manage his emotions at school, but lose control at home?  This means he has the skill to manage emotions and is using it in one place, but not in another.

7. Ask your child his opinion. You would be surprised at what you hear when you ask a kid, “Can you do this skill?”  Sometimes they say, “Yeah, but I just don’t want to,” or they are honest and say, “No, I tried and tried and I just can’t do it!”  Always make your child part of the process of their own learning and development.  Be clear and honest about your expectations of him.  Express your hopes for behavioral goals, but invite your child to express his ideas about goals as well.  Then set up a plan with your child to meet these expectations.

For example, if anger management is an expectation you can set up an “Anger Management Plan” with your child outlining the steps and stages you will work through to help him learn this new skill.

8. Finally, never underestimate your child’s abilities. It is better to expect more then less. However, I caution that if you expect more of your child than he may be able to do right now, that you temper your response to his difficulties.  Children and teens like when adults have high expectations of them and support them to reach a goal. However, we cannot set high expectations and then react with anger, frustration and disappointment when the expectations are not met.

It is OK to say, “I thought you were able to do that, but maybe you aren’t ready yet. Let’s see if we can put a plan together to help you reach that goal,” and watch your child reach for the stars!