Your child is not bad, just transactional and ADHD



I’m making a case that your little rotter is NOT a horrible child or a future serial killer.  They are in fact a perfectly lovely little boy or girl caught in the friction between the way their brain is making sense of the world and the way most adult brains function.  I see this all the time in my clinical practice.  The boy or girl who does NOT respect authority automatically, argues like a future celebrity lawyer one minute and then acts like you’re beating them the next.  The same kid who tells you they did the newest bad thing because, “It was fun.”

Most of these kids have a transactional way of interacting with information and choices.  They are looking for what’s in it for them, they don’t automatically assume that adults are right, they ask questions about; why should I?, how come I have to?,  why is it wrong?  These kids don’t take your word for it, ever.  They need a reason for everything including respecting you and being nice to their siblings.  For these kids, interactions and choices are transactions.  They need to know what they’re going to get in exchange for what they’re going to do.

Most transactional kids I see are also dealing with ADHD in some form. This can make the situation even more frustrating since these kids don’t sit still for your lecture, may not seem to care about homework or chores, and they’ll repeat behaviors that they have gotten in trouble for…..multiple times.  So let me answer the most frustrating question right now, WHY?  Why do they do that and then do it again? Aren’t these the kids that respond to consequences and well reasoned arguments?!

Yah. They would if their scales were balanced.  But..

Each of us has an internal scale where we weigh out the good vs bad that might come from a decision and how likely it is that either will happen.  Your kid has a scale that always shows the good winning with massive certainty.  

They’re wrong. DEAD wrong. 

Their scale always puts too much emphasis on good over bad and immediate over long term.  So the immediate good of how much fun it will be to climb to the roof of the school and throw rocks at a boy you don’t like, is BIGGER than that moment of “oh crap, the adults are very upset by this!”  And all the stuff that the adults will be talking about, “you could’ve fallen and died!”  That doesn’t even enter the decision making process. 

It’s not that these kids are stupid or unaware. They can tell you the bad things that MIGHT happen, but they can’t feel them like they already feel the good.  Bad possibilities feel like fairytales that will happen to someone else.  Good possibilities are already filling their little bodies with happy golden light!

So an example, I’m ADHD and every time the Powerball gets above 400 million, I play it.  I cognitively know that I will not win.  Emotionally, I’m already spending that money.  Seriously, I have a plan of how to spend the money and I’ve spent more time on it than in picking the mutual funds in my retirement account.  Experience allows me to realize I am wrong, but I will always over weigh the positive outcomes emotionally. I KNOW I won’t win.  I FEEL like I will!  Most young children have this thinking.  Those of us with ADHD just keep on feeling young.

Your child does not have years of experience and their scale is always convincing them to do stupid things.  They are motivated to steal all the cookies not only because of the immediate rewards, but because they don’t think they’ll get caught.  When they get caught, every time, they will then lie about it.  Because they are sure, “I’m a good liar!”  They’re not.  ADHD kids are lousy liars, like the absolute worst.  


No matter what the situation or how many times your child has been through it, he will believe that the best outcome is going to happen.  So your little angel will steal (because why shouldn’t I?) then they’ll lie (I am a good liar!) and then they’ll act like you’re beating them (because you’re probably mad and that’s ALL they can hear.)  Frustrating!

So here’s how to short circuit all that nonsense!

  1. Be a non-judgemental expert
  2. Set your child up for success
  3. Teach a better Return On Investment (ROI)
  4. Useful consequences only!

Be the expert who can look at all the cookies gone, the crumb trail to your daughter’s room and then act like Sherlock Holmes explaining all of this.

“Wow.  All of these crumbs lead to your room Janie and you’re the only one with a stomach ache this morning.  That means the cookies came to your room and wound up in your stomach!”  Notice that Janie’s mom is NOT; asking why it happened, asking Janie to tell her that it happened, yelling, being emotional, or making rhetorical statements and then demanding Janie nod her head or say yes.  None of that works.

You do not need the validation of a 7 year old child when you can clearly see what they did.  Don’t ask them them to tell you, they can’t judge that risk properly and they will lie.  Set them up for success by talking calmly and quietly, saying directly what you know happened and then handing out a consequence.  Your emotions are NOT appropriate consequences!  Consequences need to be logical.  You stole my cookies now I’m taking your Monster High Doll is much less confusing than, “How could you!? I can’t trust you anymore, you’re driving me crazy!” If you are saying these phrases, you are attempting to have your emotions be the consequences for your child’s behavior.  Which won’t work.

After you hand out a logical consequence (and point out the natural ones like stomach aches and being tired in the morning), then it’s time to train your future CEO to get a better Return On Investment (ROI).  Since their brain weighs the immediate positives much more heavily, they typically get lousy ROI.  Point this out to them. “You had 10 minutes of happy eating all those cookies and now you have a stomach ache that will last for hours!  You got to eat the cookies, but now you don’t get to play with that doll you like so much.  I don’t think you made a good bargain.”  When your child either asks you to explain or looks at you like you’re nuts, GOOD.  You just engaged their thinking brain.  Keep explaining what happened in terms of a transaction.  Kid paid _____ for ____.  Was this a good deal?  If not, what would be a better deal?

I’ve already mentioned consequences, but we need to go over them again.  It’s where most parents make their mistakes.  Some parents want to Punish.  It won’t work.  Punishment has too many emotional elements in it and it can be too arbitrary.  Your child will learn that making you mad is BAD, but that won’t help them make good decisions later.

When you walk outside in the rain, you will always get wet.  It is a consistent consequence.  You can carry an umbrella or scream at the sky, but only one of those will keep you dry. Because it’s logical and consistent, you learn that rain is wet and umbrellas are good.  Your consequences for your child should achieve the same thing, consistent learning. Does the consequence match the type of behavior?  Is it the same consequence whether or not you the adult are angry?  Is it fair?  If you can say yes to all three, then you have good consequences.  Start using them.


All photos from Creative Commons, Flickr

2 thoughts on “Your child is not bad, just transactional and ADHD

  1. I’m curious about the transactional typology. How many children think this way? Why is transactional thinking correlated with ADHD? Very interesting. Thanks.

    1. I’m not sure on numbers. I haven’t seen it used as a typology in any research. I am seeing more of it in the last 5-6 years. I see very few children that are transactional and NOT ADHD. It’s almost part and parcel with ADHD. They come into my office like little mobsters and I have to convince them that there are far better returns from acting like adults want you to.

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