A Parent’s Best Question: Is It Naughty or Neurological?


Whatever challenge you’re facing with your complex kids, there is one powerful, guiding question to ask YOURSELF that will lead you to respond most effectively, most of the time:

Is It Naughty or Neurological?

If you’re reading this, more than likely your child has a neurological condition that makes it difficult to manage daily activities with ease.

  • Maybe your child is having a lot of tantrums
  • or struggling with doing her homework
  • or picking fights with his sister
  • or having a hard time hearing the word “no”

Whether your child has ADHD, or executive dysfunction, or anxiety, or learning disabilities that effect how s/he processes information, whatever the challenge, there is often a neurological explanation for our kids’ behavior.

Understanding that simple fact can be liberating.

For example, consider this scenario:

You’re walking in the door at 5:30 in the afternoon, after a long day at work. You sat in 30 minutes of unexpected traffic, and now you’ve gotta get dinner going, maybe get homework going, and make sure your little one gets a bath BEFORE dinner, or else you’ll never get everything ready for bedtime.

You ask your teenage son (who struggles with ADHD and Anxiety) to help you put a pot of water on to boil so that you can get dinner ready faster, while you run upstairs to get your 6 year old in a bath. What you need more than ANYthing is for your child to say, “sure mom, anything else I can do?” THAT’s the child you planned for when you had kids, right?

But instead, your son freaks out and starts screaming, “I can’t do that, I’ve got so much homework to do it’s not funny. You have NO idea how much Math I’ve got — our teacher hates us! –and now the paper that I thought was due on Friday turns out to be due TOMORROW. There’s NO WAY. How could you even ask me that – are you crazy?”

You can substitute your child’s age, or shift the details – but you know what I’m talking about, right?

At this point, you’re ready to boil, and you probably want to respond with some variation of: “You rotten kid – do you have any idea what kind of a day I’ve had? All I’m asking you to do is put a pot of water on to boil – it’s not like I’m asking you to make dinner for the family – which you SHOULD be doing by your age, anyway!?!”

Imagine that INSTEAD:

You take a deep breath and let it out. Then you ask yourself the magical question: Is It Naughty or Neurological? and let the answer guide your response!

Nine times out of ten there are some good explanations for why your son is freaking out. Bottom line: your child is struggling.

He might struggle with intense emotions (neurological), that are escalated when he realizes that HE did not plan ahead for a paper that needs to be done (neurological) – which is worse because writing is just about the HARDEST thing in the world for him, anyway (neurological). His working memory is stuck focusing on the overwhelm of the work he’s got to do (neurological) and he impulsively lashed out at you (neurological) because he’s been holding it in all day!!

In other words, a simple request to put on a pot of water to boil involves a WHOLE HOST of Executive Functions – which is tough for kids whose self-regulation skills are not developed well enough to manage them.

What’s Behind the Behavior?

It is often likely that kids with ADHD and Executive Function challenges don’t get their chores done, or their homework turned in (or whatever) because they are struggling, themselves. Maybe they’re having trouble getting started, or remembering to do something — and they get as frustrated as you do (ok, maybe not QUITE!) when they’re not able to get themselves to do what is expected of them – and what they expect of themselves.

It’s hard for us parents to understand that our kids generally aren’t messing up on purpose!

This is why piling on punishments doesn’t work to change behaviors. We often hear from parents, “I just don’t know what to do anymore. There’s nothing left for me to take away, and my son/daughter doesn’t seem to care at all!” When a kid is struggling to get his brain to respond the way he knows he SHOULD, constant disapproval just adds insult to injury.

He’s already a little embarrassed, you know?!

So, when your kids’ behavior is less than desirable, take a moment to get really clear about what’s behind the behavior. Start by asking yourself:

Is it Naughty? Is he really avoiding work just to be rude, difficult, ungrateful or disrespectful? If so, respond with consistent, appropriate consequences or punishments, depending on your style.


Is it Neurological? Is it possible that your child might not be handling stress very well, so it comes out sounding rude, difficult, ungrateful or disrespectful? If you’re suspecting (and that’s all you need at first – benefit of the doubt here) that it MIGHT be neurological – assume that it is, and treat it accordingly. 

3 Steps for Responding When it’s Neurological

With ADD kids, neurology is almost always at least partially responsible for the behaviors that drive you crazy. Here’s a 3 step process to respond when you’ve figured out that your child is not just being lazy, rude or disrespectful:

  1. Name and acknowledge what’s going on for your child so she can begin to recognize it, herself. (“Wow, you sound really upset. I guess you’re feeling stressed by all that work, huh?”) When you start to acknowledge that your child is struggling with something, it will do a lot to help your child feel empowered to try to handle those struggles.
  2. Show some compassion (“I hate it when I’m feeling like there’s not enough time. Really, that’s how I’m feeling right now, too, so I can totally relate.”)
  3. Work it out. Modify or reinstate the request, or negotiate it. Allow your child to have some sense of control. (“Tell you what, if you get that water on to boil, I’ll help you plan out your work so it doesn’t feel so overwhelming tonight – how does that sound?” 

or,  “I didn’t realize you have so much on your plate, too – why don’t you get the pot out for me and then I’ll take it from there. Thanks for helping – I can tell there’s a lot going on for you.”

Or “I still really need your help, please – I’m sure it will take less than a minute – THANKS, sweetie, I really appreciate your doing that for me – I’ll owe you one!”)

When your child has challenges, she needs you to understand that she’s struggling, so you can help her learn self-management. And there’s one magic question to help you cut through the confusion: Is it naughty or neurological?

P.S. How do you stay CALM in the face of this? Read this tip.

Manage Emotions and ImpulsesAll ADHD Articles