Monday, May 13, 2013

Using Codewords

by Elaine Taylor-Klaus, CPCC

As long as I can recall, in our family we’ve used codewords to ease communication. When my kids were really little, they were visual cues, like reminders to use a fork or requests to lower the volume. As they grew older, they became verbal cues to help our kids learn to manage the intense emotionality that often comes with ADHD and anxiety.

Codewords are cues that we all agree upon in our family, words that we use to communicate with each other succinctly. Like a family whistle peeling through the air in a public space, codewords help us get to the heart of a matter quickly. Better yet, they help us avoid unnecessary meltdowns.

For example, “bubblegum” is a word we’ve used for about fourteen years. It means, “Brace yourself, because you might not like what I’m about to tell you.” Broccoli ice cream” has been around even longer. It means, “Someone is losing the ability to cope because s/he’s hungry. Stop everything, now, and get some food!”

Much like crying “uncle” when you’re ready to give up a wrestling match, codewords communicate big concepts in a flash. “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 codephrase), means, “leave your sister or brother alone because she’s really not in the mood right now to be messed with.”

What triggers in your family could be avoided with a few well-chosen codewords? 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?

Elaine Taylor-Klaus, CPCC, is the cofounder of Her website offers support for parents of children with ADHD, including tips, strategies, and coaching to make family life work. Whether new to the world of ADHD, or worn out from managing it, Elaine helps parents improve family life. Visit


  1. We attempted the codewords when my daughter was about to blow. Our codeword was Rainbow and she was to close her eyes and take 10 deep breathes if we were away from home or go to her room for a break which is covered in Rainbows. A break being on her own rather than Mom enforcing a timeout - mandatory. Worked for about 2 weeks then refusal which left us with a codeword that led to a timeout which led to hysterics. How do we convince an ADHD child that compliance is not optional?

    1. Did she agree to have a codeword in the first place, or was it mandatory? ;)
      Who chose the codeword? Could it be that 'rainbow' = ready-to-blow is kind of a contradiction to rainbow = bedroom = peace?
      Who chose what was to be done when the code-word was used? Is 10 deep breaths maybe too many - or too prescriptive? Could it be up to her how she calms herself when she's in her room?
      Could you find a codeword that means 'Alert, parent-imposed Timeout for noncompliance is imminent!'?
      - just ideas, not a claim to expertise... I'm new to this!

  2. I love the idea of having code words like this!

  3. My family uses the phrase "squirreling out". It comes from the movie UP. When the dogs are running in the movie they come to an abrupt halt when they see a squirrel. We use the phrase to tell each other when we're losing focus, as in " stop squirreling out and finish your homework!". It adds a little levity and makes the inattentiveness of ADHD less if a stigma.

  4. I LOVE it! We've had codewords but not for those types of situations. Will have to come up with some codewords as warnings. Thanks for the tip.

  5. This is interesting!
    Parents also report our intervention has given them a "common language" to talk about play/interactions which has helped communication between them and their child.


  6. Great ideas. I'm subbing to your blog!!

  7. Gwen -- for starters, let the codewords be a safety for your daughter -- no consequences if she doesn't use them, just an opportunity for help. Start with something she wants, like maybe a codeword for when she's ready to leave and you're still talking to someone :-) -- empower her with it first, then let it work for you later! See if that helps...Codewords help to minimize meltdowns, but they are just one strategy, of course! ;)

  8. Gwen -- I thought I'd answered you, but I guess I didn't get the technology right -- sorry for the delay! Start by letting the codewords be something SHE wants, like a codeword for "I'm ready to go mom, can we leave yet?" or something like that. Let her find the usefulness first, before you start using them to make your life easier! Not using them should NOT be a punishable offense -- they are a tool for support, not another expectation. Let me know if that helps, or you want more clarification!

  9. We use the 'poke the bear' code for not antagonizing people, SQUIRREL for when my husband and daughter lose their train of thought due to the ADD; we also use "bright and shiny" referring to a crow who always looks for the bright and shiny things that distracts them from their intended task.