Use Code Words To Help ADHD Kids Cope with … Everything?

We use code words in our family to facilitate communication, ease emotionally intense situations, and aid in organization.

When my kids were really little, we used visual cues – made-up sign-language-like reminders to use a fork, or to lower their volume. (Reminders we still use today, by the way – visual cues last a lifetime!)

As they grew older, we started to use verbal cues to help our kids learn to manage the intense emotionality that often comes with ADHD and Anxiety, as well as reminders for other aspects of organization.

A classic tool for the prevention of meltdowns, when used correctly code words can release the pressure valve before an explosion erupts. They also work wonders as reminders — in place of nagging — to stay on top of mundane tasks.

One quick caution: code words rely on buy-in and agreement on the behavior that a family wants to modify. So if things are still really tense around your house, you may not want to start here. On the other hand, when the family’s on board, they can really work like magic.


What’s a Code word?

Code words are cues that you agree upon, words that you use to communicate with a member or members of your family — succinctly. Like a family-whistle peeling through the air in a public space, code words help you get to the heart of a matter quickly. Sort of like an inside family joke — they enable you to communicate in short-hand.

The most commonly used code word most of us already know is: uncle. You call out uncle when you’ve had enough, when it’s time to put a stop to something. It’s a safe-word, and most people know it means that a limit is being set. For the most part, it doesn’t come with a lot of judgment or shame around it. It’s a code word we all tend to accept and respect.

We have our own code word that our kids use when they’re wrestling with each other. You know the scenario, right? It starts off fun…until someone gets hurt, and then you find yourself telling your kids they can’t wrestle because someone always gets hurt (but secretly you’re sad because you know it can be a great bonding experience for them). So we agreed that we needed a code word to set the stage for the wrestling to happen – with a limit in place. Our kids chose “Basta” (which means, “enough”). Now, they play to the limit just BEFORE someone gets hurt, and then someone calls, “Basta!” And for the most part (sometimes it takes a minute for everyone to process the information), it stops. See? Magic.

When to Use Code Words

Code words are a structure for setting realistic expectations and communicating them in a flash. You can use code words to help with the other two critical response areas, activating the brain and parenting positively. Here are some examples:

  1. Activating the Brain. Code words can be a great tool for helping kids get a handle on their brain J If your child tends to melt down when she gets hungry or tired, for example, you can raise her awareness to that by having a code word to use when you notice that she’s starting to lose control.

For example, in our home we had a code word for “someone is losing the ability to cope because s/he’s hungry. Stop everything, now, and get some food!” The word was “broccoli ice-cream,” (you can imagine that I was not the one who created THAT one!) and we still use it after more than 10 years. Once someone calls “broccoli ice-cream,” we try to stop in our tracks, even stopping conversations. The brain needs the food before anything else will make sense – so we focus there, first!

  1. Parenting Positively. Use a code word for communicating something that may be hard for a person to deal with. Whether it’s preparing for a transition, a disappointment, or both, you can use a code word to emotionally prepare for an upset. For example, you might come up with a code word for: “in 5 minutes you’re going to need to stop what you’re doing and turn off the TV.”

“Rope” in my family means, “okay, everyone, back off because I’m trying really hard not to lose my cool.” And “don’t poke the bear” (okay, it’s a code-phrase J), means, “leave your sister or brother alone because she’s really not in the mood right now to be messed with.” “Bubble gum” means “brace yourself, because you might not like what I’m about to tell you, but I’ve still got to tell you, okay?”

How To Make Code Words work 

  1. Figure out some behaviors that tend to cause problems repeatedly, and choose one area to start. Maybe not the most volatile situation – start simply. But make sure it’s a situation your child wants to see change, too.
  2. Have a conversation about the idea of code words, and come to some agreement that you want to give it a try. Let your child come up with the code word – and don’t worry if its ridiculous.
  3. Practice it a little bit – like a role play. Have some fun with it.
  4. Agree for the time frame you’re going to try it before you check back in with each other – 3 days? One week? Whatever you think.
  5. Tweak and change, if necessary. You might need to change the word, or change the tone that it’s used, or even change the timing (“Don’t ever use that when I’m in the bath, mom – that’s the one time it won’t work for me.”) Let your child have some ownership and help you “fail forward” by learning from what DOES work, and what doesn’t .

The bottom line is that there are triggers in your family that could be avoided with a few well-chosen code-words. If you’re not sure, ask your kids. Not only will they probably know, but they’ll likely do a better job of naming them than you. After all – would you ever have come up with broccoli ice-cream?

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