4 Strategies To Reduce Arguments With Neurodivergent Teens

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Children and teens with ADHD often struggle with emotional reactivity and verbal impulse control. Negative feelings and unpleasant words can intensify in the blink of an eye so that the interaction derails quickly into hostility, screaming, and tears. Conversations can escalate into arguments quickly, upsetting everyone in the family.

These situations can be easily turned around by bringing everyone’s attention to the tone of voice (T.O.V.). When conversations get heated, modifying the tone of voice (and bringing the volume down) goes a long way toward cooling off and restoring calm in the household. This can be helpful for neurotypical kids, as well. 

Quite often, kids with ADHD don’t really hear how they say things to other people and don’t fully understand the effects of what they are saying on others. They need help learning how to slow down and reflect on what they just expressed.

But, since they are usually sensitive to criticism, direct feedback can frequently backfire. Introducing the concept of tone of voice allows your son or daughter to reflect for themselves on how they can say something different and lets them come up with their own changes in how they are speaking.

They learn several executive functioning skills simultaneously: emotional regulation, personal insight, and self-control.

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Here are four ways to reduce the intensity of heated conversations with ADHD teens

1. Use calm words and tones

In a calm moment, you explain to your ADHD son or daughter (and perhaps your other children too — it works with everyone!) that sometimes people need help learning how their words and their tone of voice affect others. To that end, you will be saying to them “T. O. V.” when you think they should alter how they are speaking to you and, at times, to each other.

Then, you will give them a minute or two to change their tone of voice and try again. Sometimes, all of us just need to recalibrate and do something over.

2. Take a break to calm down

If your child or teen can’t manage to change how they are talking to you, then taking an immediate, timed break for personal space can help. This break allows everyone to calm down and regroup; it is not a punishment. Usually, breaks of up to 5-10 minutes are sufficient but some people need more time. Agree on the time of the breaks when you have the initial conversation.

3. Alter your words and be neutral

If your son or daughter changes how they are speaking to you by lowering their volume, altering their words from provocative to more neutral, or shifting their attitude, your job is to respond to their new statements and move forward. Of course, you can appreciate their efforts when the conversation is over which provides positive reinforcement for them.

4. Monitor your own tone of voice

Be prepared that they may call “T.O.V” on you sometimes too, especially if you are yelling. How you respond to this is critical. Try acknowledging your feelings or laughing at yourself or admitting that you could do better. However, the goal is not to create a constant calling out of “T.O.V.” in your household.

Apply it only when it will help your child re-group in selective moments, such as once or twice a day. If you overuse it, it will lose its impact.

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Sharon Saline, Psy.D., is an international lecturer and workshop facilitator. She has focused her work on ADHD, anxiety, learning differences, and mental health challenges and their impact on the school and family dynamics for more than 30 years.