What “I don’t know” really means for your child with ADHD, autism

September 7, 2017

The standard answer that makes parents crazy.

Ricochet just plopped into my car at the curb of the high school. As we roll slowly out of the parking lot in stop-and-go traffic, I follow my parental instincts and ask him about his day…

“How did school go today, Buddy?”

“I don’t know.” He doesn’t even look in my direction, trying to end any conversation before it starts.

“It was a good day then?” I probe.

“Yeah,” he answers, without any consideration or sincerity.

Then, I feel a little crushed and let out a big, long sigh. All I want is to be part of his life, to know what he experiences when I’m not with him, to be able to converse about his day. I’m learning that this expectation may be outside of our reality.

You see, Ricochet has ADHD and high-functioning autism.

I’ve known for a few years now that he doesn’t like to be questioned. So much so that he refused to eat family dinners anymore about a year ago, because he didn’t want to be questioned about his day, and school, or anything at all really. It broke my heart a little a lot. But, I take my parenting cues from my son’s personal truth, and this is a part of his truth.

What “I don’t know” really means.

I sort of understood this, but suspected I was still missing part of the story. Yesterday, as I was moderating the ADDitudeMag.com forums, this “I don’t know” crisis came into focus. An adult with ADHD wrote on the forum:

“I was never able to find the words to describe how I felt [as a child], so my go to answer was always ‘I don’t know.'”

{Mind. Blown.}

Of course! That makes perfect sense. When our kids with ADHD and/or autism say to us, “I don’t know,” it’s not that they don’t know, it’s that they don’t know how to communicate it.

Many kids with ADHD — but especially those with autism — struggle with identifying, labeling, and communicating their feelings and emotions. Instead of saying, “I don’t know how to describe it to you,” they just fall back on the standard, “I don’t know.”

I imagine this is about as frustrating to you as it is to me, especially when it’s used to avoid a conversation they don’t want to have, like, “What do you have for homework?” or, “What are you supposed to be doing right now?”

When you know the why, you can change behavior.

Now that I really understand why Ricochet says “I don’t know” to me all the time (or “Fine,” I hate that one too), we can work on improvement. Remember, when you know the WHY, you can change behavior. In this case, the WHY is that your child doesn’t know how to identify, label, and/or communicate his or her emotions.

We have used the Zones of Regulation program to improve emotional awareness and regulation with success. The program, which you can totally do at home, helps kids identify their feelings and emotions (i.e., what “zone” they’re in) and create personal strategies to self-regulate to move into more appropriate zones (and more appropriate behavior). We were introduced to the Zones of Regulation by Ricochet’s occupational therapist several years ago, and then began implementing it at home as well. I love the Zones of Regulation poster for implementing the program at home!

Now that I understand WHY Ricochet says “I don’t know” so often, I’m going to further the conversation by asking if he truly doesn’t know the answer, if he’s not sure how to explain or express it, or if he’s trying to avoid conversation or the potential outcome of the conversation. I encourage you to do the same.

Be sure to show empathy and validate your child’s feelings when they try to express them, as well. That is key if you want your child to keep talking to you and turning to you when they are emotional.

Here are a couple other books I like for teaching kids emotional awareness and regulation: