Recently, I encountered a situation with a client, whom we’ll refer to as Matt, that prompted a deep dive into a common but perplexing behavior. Matt had postponed our sessions multiple times, and though the reason seemed obvious — preferring the joy of biking over homework duties — his verbal response to my queries was a simple, yet profound, “I don’t know.” This reaction, once a source of slight irritation for me, became a window into understanding the nuanced challenges children with ADHD face daily.

The frustration we feel as parents or caregivers when simple tasks become Herculean challenges for our children is palpable. From completing homework to basic household chores, their apparent reluctance can lead to a cycle of disappointment and confrontation, often culminating in the all-too-familiar refrain of “I don’t know” when questioned about their actions. This repetitive scenario begs the question: Why do they resort to this?

Children with ADHD often experience heightened sensitivity, making the prospect of an angry or disappointed parent particularly daunting. Their response of “I don’t know” isn’t rooted in defiance but is a defense mechanism against overwhelming emotional and sensory input. It’s their way of pausing the onslaught of expectations and demands, a plea for understanding wrapped in three simple words.

Here’s the deeper meaning behind “I don’t know”:

  • An admission of feeling helpless and unable to meet expectations.
  • A silent request for patience and understanding, rather than anger and frustration.
  • A desire to avoid further discussion that feels repetitive and unproductive.
  • A cover for feelings of inadequacy and failure, coupled with a fear of saying the wrong thing.
  • At times, a literal expression of a blank mind, unable to access thoughts or articulate feelings promptly.

This response is less about defiance and more about struggles with self-esteem, executive function, and the ability to process and express thoughts coherently and timely.

Understanding Matt’s perspective transformed my view of our missed sessions. He wasn’t wasting my time or rejecting my help; he was caught in a cycle of indecision and distress, unable to navigate his responsibilities in that moment. This insight shifted my approach from one of frustration to empathy, recognizing the importance of changing how we respond to these children.

Changing your response involves:

  • Stepping into your child’s shoes, imagine the confusion and disappointment they feel when unable to meet expectations.
  • Recognizing the challenge as an issue of executive function, not a moral failing or lack of integrity.
  • Offering patience, understanding, and the opportunity for your child to think over and respond in their own time, without pressure.

My childhood memories echo this sentiment, recalling the bafflement and despair at my inability to “be good” despite my best intentions. This isn’t a question of morality but a developmental hurdle, where the pre-frontal cortex is still maturing and struggling with the demands placed upon it.

The takeaway from this experience is clear:

  • Don’t take their responses personally.
  • Avoid assuming defiance where there is confusion and overwhelm.
  • Practice patience and encouragement, allowing your child the dignity to express uncertainty.
  • When they are ready and able, they will share their thoughts and feelings.

Understanding the “I don’t know” response in children with ADHD opens the door to more compassionate and effective communication, fostering an environment where they feel seen, heard, and supported in navigating their challenges.