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Living With and Learning From Inconsistent Behavior in ADHD

Variability can feel confusing and frustrating but is an expected part of ADHD.

Key points

  • Inconsistency in ADHD can feel befuddling and lead to conflict.
  • Inconsistent performance is a marker for any of us of a skill that isn't fully formed yet.
  • When a child with ADHD seems unusually inconsistent, that frequently reveals a skill that needs building.
  • If inconsistency is persistently disruptive, consider an objective review of possible ADHD interventions.
Source: Pixabay/Pexels
Source: Pixabay/Pexels

What surprises me is there is so much variability, I don’t know what to expect day to day, cooperation or resistance.

I don’t get it. We don’t have any problems at all at home. How come he struggles so much to behave in school?

With ADHD, inconsistency can feel like a puzzle to solve, as the quotes throughout this article reflect. It can seem confusing—and can be misleading.

Variability in behavior gets misinterpreted, for example, as meaning a child doesn’t actually need support. If you are capable sometimes why wouldn’t you be capable always? It feels like a befuddling contradiction when life looks so up and down.

Another common example is focus. If you can pay attention in your favorite class, why not your hardest? That pattern suggests either, you don’t need help, or, you need to care more. Yet that kind of uneven focus is routine ADHD—it’s frustrating but expected.

What Accounts for the Variability in ADHD Behavior?

The underlying cause of that unevenness in academics or behavior or mood is often straight-forward with ADHD. ADHD impacts executive function, which includes skills such as focus, impulse control, time management, and emotional regulation. As with any new skill in life, a child will remain inconsistent until their underlying abilities improve. Their inconsistency represents an accurate reflection—difficult as it is to live with—of various ADHD symptoms to address.

When someone has been diagnosed with ADHD, it’s not only that they are imperfect (like us all!) but that some aspect of ADHD significantly impacts their well-being. Their symptoms must reach that level to consider a diagnosis.

It’s not a total absence of skill, however. By nature, in some moments, things come together—and then with ADHD, there are likely too many moments where they do not.

Inconsistency as a Measure of Skill

It’s so simple—why can’t you remember to hand in your homework every day?

I don’t understand—you treat your friends nicely, why not your sister?

I’m a decidedly average tennis player. On any random day, if my serve happens to go in a bunch, I’ll beat a better player. If I play that same person several times, my maddeningly unreliable serve undermines me. More consistency makes my opponent better at tennis. My game will remain unchanged unless I put the time and effort into forging a reliable serve.

When a child seems to have life figured out one day but not the next, parents can tie themselves in knots trying to understand "why." And yet, those behaviors are akin to my tennis. Executive function relates to basically anything requiring management, coordination, and planning in life. When skills aren’t yet solid enough, that creates exhaustingly inconsistent performance.

The practical solution for inconsistency is not overthinking the roller coaster itself but seeking its cause. Let go of judgment, consider ADHD and executive function, and identify where skills might be lacking. A child’s performance will remain up and down until that underlying ability fully forms.

Motivation and Inconsistency

I don’t even know if we need to change anything; she gets her work done when she cares enough.

How come you behaved for dinner when I promised you ice cream, but not the rest of the weekend?

The relationship of inconsistency to motivation adds more confusion. Maybe a student gets a huge paper done on time, for the first time, because they don’t want to miss a ski trip.

Consider though, stories of people accomplishing super-human feats when panicked, like lifting a heavy object off a child. Pushing someone to an extreme creates a window of intensity that ramps up immediate performance.

When pushed hard enough, we all do amazing things briefly that we could never maintain day to day. Pressure and rewards lead to over-performance only for a short sprint. But that unsustainable pattern may falsely imply, If you can manage under crisis, you should be able to all the time.

Inconsistency can get misattributed to either bad choices or lack of effort. Children end up feeling judged or blamed even though it’s not something they can control until their ADHD symptoms become less impactful.

Kids with ADHD typically do care about school or other goals. It can seem like they don’t when they struggle with their impulsivity, persistence, or organization.

Even the ability to develop, sustain, and problem-solve plans is affected by ADHD. What we call "motivation" requires caring combined with any specific skills needed to accomplish a goal.

Replace any rumination or judgment with a basic ADHD-related question instead. Working hard matters, but what skills are also involved and what should we do to strengthen them? It’s a freeing perspective for both parents and kids.

How to Build Skills

It’s like there’s conflicting evidence; the data doesn’t line up.

I don’t understand—you’re clearly capable. Don’t you care how you do?

Overthinking inconsistency not only confuses people; it can delay treatment. When someone focuses (but not in their hard classes), or usually hands in homework (but larger projects fall apart), it’s easy to rationalize away help. But inconsistency is not a sign a child could do better if they wanted; it indicates a need to increase their ADHD support.

How do we build ADHD-related skills? It is estimated that ADHD represents up to a one-third delay in executive functioning, a framework that presents countless opportunities for intervention. We start by reframing difficulties as ADHD-related, instead of effort-related. With that renewed clarity, we can then choose new plans that build consistency.

Which kind of plan will work depends on the specific challenge. For focus and impulse control, medication tends to be most effective. Early academic habits grow through routines that parents and teachers create and sustain. Numerous other cognitive, academic, and emotional skills develop through work with therapists and coaches.

Instead of feeling confused by inconsistency, see it as a signpost pointing at the next step in ADHD care. A strong tennis player lands most of their serves even when not at their best. A student with ADHD taking a well-adjusted medication focuses better when pushed by harder classes. An exhausted child with a well-structured morning routine makes the bus even on an off day.

It’s not “personal” or willful that a child acts inconsistently. It typically means the right plan has not been implemented yet.

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