{a mom’s view} of the color gray

Kids with ADHD are often black and white thinkers. My 10 year old daughter Natalie sure is. Combine that with having difficulty identifying her feelings and putting them into words and it makes for a lot of drama.

Me: Uh uh uh! Don’t drop your coat there. Go hang it up in your cubby.
Nat: What, you don’t love me?
Me: You’ve had enough chocolate for today. If you’re hungry I’ll get you something healthy to eat.
Nat: You guys won’t let me eat! You never feed me!

Me, listening to Nat read: Oops! Try again!
Nat: I’m so stupid! Why don’t you just cut off my head? I want to choke myself and die!

Learning to identify her feelings and put them into words has been the focus of most of Nat’s therapy, and she’s come a long way in that area. But is it possible to teach a black and white thinker to see shades of gray? I sure would like to be able to speak to Natalie in a firm voice without her jumping to the worst-case scenario; to think: mom’s frustrated with me, but she’ll get over it, rather than: mom doesn’t love me. For her to be able to make a mistake and think: reading sure is a struggle, and that feels pretty rotten, instead of overreacting and thinking: I’m so stupid!

I’m working really hard to not overreact myself when Nat says such troubling stuff. I don’t always succeed at it, but I’m trying. My goal is to help Natalie learn to see life’s grays, and then learn to use words to describe them. My strategy is to reframe Natalie’s black moments. I’m still proud of myself for how I handled one such incident last summer, so I’ll use it as an example.

Natalie and a girl I’ll call Sometimes Friend were on the outs at the time, and SF happened to be at the aquatic center at the same time as we were. Just seeing her there brought up all kinds of hurt feelings in Natalie. It was all Nat could do not to yell things at her, and she was sort of stalking her; keeping track of where she was in the pool and who she was playing with, and staring. I decided we needed to leave early, a decision Nat both appreciated and hated! An older woman walked near us as we headed toward the parking lot, and I was embarrassed to death by the scene she witnessed.

Natalie stomped, shook her fists, and screamed: “Just kill me! I just want to die!”

Geez, I thought, that lady will probably call the police! But cool as a cucumber, I reframed for her: “Are you really trying to say that it was very upsetting for you to see SF at the pool today?”

“YES!!!” she screamed. I acknowledged her feelings, and then we talked about how we could let it go and refocus on the rest of our day. (Damn, I was good!)

A really cool benefit for Natalie as she learns to use words to describe her grays is that the responses she’ll get from the people in her environment will be more positive. They’ll be able to address the real problem, rather than getting caught up in Nat’s scary, desperate words. I’d sure rather deal productively with hurt feelings than to panic at threats of suicide, especially given that the S word was never the real issue to begin with. Talk about creating drama!

A few weeks ago, at Natalie’s fall conference, her special ed teacher shared that in those situations at school when Natalie would typically yell, “I’m stupid!” she’s started to say instead, “This is hard for me!” That may seem like a small thing to most people, for Natalie, that’s huge. What wonderful progress!

Isn’t gray beautiful? I hope there are lots and lots of gray days in Natalie’s future.

Kay Marner is the co-editor of the book “Easy to Love but Hard to Raise: Real Parents, Challenging Kids, True Stories.” Marner is a frequent contributor to ADDitude magazine, and writes an ADHD parenting blog, “My Picture-Perfect Family,” for ADDitudeMag.com.

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About the author

Kay Marner is the co-editor of the book "Easy to Love but Hard to Raise: Real Parents, Challenging Kids, True Stories." Marner is a frequent contributor to ADDitude magazine, and writes an ADHD parenting blog, "My Picture-Perfect Family," for ADDitudeMag.com.


  1. I too have a black & white thinker in Luke. I didn't realize it until I read about it in a book recently. Then the light bulb went on. Not only is everything so cut and dry like in your examples (I hear a lot of “I'm stupid”), but Luke lacks the ability to be descriptive. You may be able to get him to describe something by it's color and shape if you really pry it out of him, but that's it. I think it's part of being black & white too — analogies to describe things are definitely gray.

    Way to handle that situation at the pool, by the way! You really kept a level head and that's so hard to do in the middle of such a public scene. I am working on this too. It's so very hard for me to ignore the self-deprecating and “wish I were dead” remarks from my child!

  2. Jenn says:

    I too have had to deal with those types of out bursts with my son. He too has ADHD, but was also experiencing a lot of anxiety at school. Great job keeping cool in that situation, it is so unnerving to hear your child talk like that!!!

  3. Sunny says:

    Thanks for the post. I've always thought of my daughter as a drama queen, but the black and white thinking is another good way to look at her extreme thinking and reactions. One moment last summer that I will never forget: My daughter fell off her bike–but barely. It was more like one of those half fall off, half jump off crashes. Definitely no blood. But she was so mad! She stomped and kicked her bike. She told her bike she hated it and was going to throw it in a ditch forever. She told me she never wanted to ride a bike again. Just sharing…:)
    Good job at the pool!! What do you think helped you to do so well on that occasion? Sometimes I do well and other times I lose it.

  4. dmd says:

    This is Dylan. The self-flagellation for minor infractions, blowing up minor issues with you don't love me or you're always so mean to me. I give you credit for your calm. Sometimes I'm that mom. Sometimes I'm not. Even if I'm calm, he blows up, which I find most frustrating.



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The "ADHD Mommas" are not medical or mental health professionals, nor an ADHD coach. Any opinions shared here are just that, opinions. I, and the other "ADHD Mommas," are sharing our experiences with our own ADHD children. Please do not re-post or publish any content or photos without a link back to {a mom's view of ADHD}. Have the courtesy to give credit where credit is due. Copyright protected. All rights reserved.

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