Sometimes, there is no better way to discipline an impulsive ADHD child than to allow natural consequences to run their course.
My child set a military base on fire. Yes, really. He and a friend were playing wilderness survivor in a wooded area behind our house. (We live in on-base military housing.)
They had built a fort and decided that they needed a fire to complete their setup. He went into the yard while our sitter was feeding her baby, took the lighter and lighter fluid from the grill, and set a pile of brush and twigs ablaze in a hole they had dug.
Where’s the Fire?
I arrived home from work and was met by my neighbor’s son as I opened my car door. “Did you know your son set the woods on fire?” he asked. Uhh, what?! Ha-ha. Very funny.
So, I walked into the house to find out what he was talking about. I could see smoke rising from the wooded area through my back window. My daughter was in the kitchen crying, saying that she tried to tell him it was a bad idea. The neighbor kid definitely wasn’t joking. My sitter had an utterly confused and shocked look on her face. While we were trying to make sense of it all, a friendly member of our base’s Security Forces rolled up. I could hear sirens. The firetruck arrived on the road behind us. A firetruck, y’all.
When the officer knocked on the door and asked what happened, I was still somewhat in shock. He got the story from all three of the children. My daughter lost it as soon as the officer asked her what happened. She was sobbing between every word. The other boy’s dad arrived. Ten minutes later there were five police cars on the street in front of my house, a mess-ton of military police officers hanging out in my yard, and three terrified children sitting on the porch steps.
I frantically tried to convince my husband that I wasn’t joking and that he needed to get home right away. Thank God he wasn’t deployed. I can’t even imagine handling the situation on my own.
The officers explained to the children that they had to evacuate the entire street behind us and close the community pool due to the fire being a health hazard. They let the kids know that their poor choices could have caused their active duty parents to face very serious job-related consequences. They discussed how it’s never ok to start a fire without an adult present, and that having something like this on their record could prevent them from obtaining the job they dream of having in the future.
After all the emotional turmoil, lecturing, and waiting on the base legal department’s call, they decided not to charge us with anything. They chose to let the parents handle the discipline of the children. It was definitely a wake-up call for us as well as the kids. Things we didn’t realize we needed to be hypervigilant about, we are now hypervigilant about. (I already had all the medicines—even chewable vitamins—in a lock box. I thought I was doing great.)
Back to the fire issue. My boy was a Cub Scout for several years and has learned all about fire safety. He absolutely knew better than to play with fire. So, why did he do it? I know exactly why: the need for social acceptance and impulsivity. He’s had it rough socially throughout the last year or so. When given an opportunity to socialize, he would do pretty much whatever it takes to make/keep a friend. He is, after all, in middle school: the turbulent period of preadolescence, when finding a niche is the number one priority. I know he didn’t have malicious intent when starting the fire. He overestimated his ability to control it and underestimated the possibility of things going wrong. Does that excuse his behavior? ABSOLUTELY not. But it can help navigate prevention of similar behavior in the future.
Later, when my husband and I discussed how we would handle our son’s punishment, he wowed me with a very behavior analytic answer: “Don’t you think this was punishing enough?” An experience that was this borderline traumatic would have been difficult to beat as far as punishment is concerned. On top of everything, my boy later realized that he tossed some poison oak into the brush pile he torched, causing a rash all over his body—a reminder of his poor choices that lingered for over a week.
So, What’s the Big Deal?
I know my child has ADHD. I know that he has substantial deficits in executive functioning skills, to specifically include metacognition and response inhibition. Did I resort to the diagnosis for anything? Internally, yes, but I did not bring it up to the police at all. The only way for my child to overcome these deficits is by facing the natural consequences of being lax about them. I absolutely will not protect my child from the natural consequences of his actions. Doing so would give me the ever-dreaded label, “enabler.” I refuse to allow my child to grow up enabled even to the mild extent I was.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I was officially diagnosed with ADHD. Looking back on my life with adult ADHD, I can very clearly see the points in my life in which I was enabled, when I hit natural consequences, and when I finally figured it out. Some of it had to do with brain development, but a LOT had to do with being protected from natural consequences. More about my personal experience with ADHD in another post.
What’s the Point?
My hope is to help with understanding (from my personal experience) the importance of allowing natural consequences for our children. We must let them happen while they’re still young so they don’t occur when the kiddos are older and the consequences more severe. Is your child grown? Start now! Time we spend protecting our children from natural consequences is directly proportionate to how severe the inevitable consequences will be.
Allowing natural consequences can look like your child failing a class because you didn’t do his homework for him. It can be making sure she serves the detention she got because she repeatedly forgot to turn in her work or allowing your child to sit out at recess because he didn’t wear closed toed shoes like you told him to. Small sacrifices now make for better decision making in the future. Knowing the function of the behavior helps to prevent protection from natural consequences as well.
The Beauty of Natural Consequences
My favorite part of natural consequences is that I can be completely supportive of my child while he is facing them. I don’t have to be the bad guy. His decision was the bad guy. All I have to do is control my initial reaction and talk him through it. I can tell him about when I faced a similar situation and how it turned out. I can agree with him on how bad it sucks and help brainstorm how things could have been done differently. I can’t, however, change the outcome. I’m not the one who inflicted the outcome. His poor choice inflicted the outcome.
The number one, most important part of any consequence is assuring your child that you love him no matter what. Love should never be contingent on behavior. We can’t always offer affection in the midst of anger or strong emotions, but we can ALWAYS let our kids know that nothing they can do will make us love them any less. “I’m upset right now at the choice you made, but I still love you. No matter what I love you.” These words can set the path of our children’s lives.
Tell me about a time you had to let your child face the natural consequences! I love hearing your stories!