Parenting a Child With ADHD
Many of us wonder how to parent a child with ADHD. Raising a kid with this disorder you probably see a lot of them struggling to follow rules, listen to instructions, remember, and delay gratification. But is it effective to punish kids for neurological deficits and/or delays over which they have no control?
And what are we talking about when we use the term “punishment”? In my practice, I find that every parent seems to have their own definition! If you’re at the end of your rope trying to parent your ADHD child, keep reading. I’m talking about what punishment is, how it affects kids with ADHD, and giving parenting strategies you can use to create a relational atmosphere where your ADHDer can thrive!
What does an ADHD diagnosis mean for your child?
Kids who’ve been diagnosed with ADHD have brains that are differently wired than neurotypical brains. They have problems with executive functioning—or brain skills needed to function in daily life—like thinking before they act, organizing themselves, managing strong emotions, and sustaining attention.
Some ADHD kids have behaviors that cause disruption or invite negative attention because it’s hard for them to control their behavior, recall information, plan for things happening in the future, or learn from their mistakes. Even so, your ADHD kiddo is as capable of learning and thriving as any other child.
Does punishment impact my ADHD child?
Many parents think that the words “discipline” and “punishment” mean the same thing. Punishment is about inflicting or imposing a penalty in retribution for an offense. For parents of ADHDers, that often looks like grounding a child, using fear, shame, verbalized resentment and pessimism, loud and angry reprimands, or taking away something they enjoy to try to force them to behave like you want them to.
But it doesn’t make sense to punish children for behaviors that they can’t control reliably or at all. You can’t punish away distractibility—it’s a feature of their disorder that they’ll have to manage their whole lives. Punishment for uncontrollable behavior demoralizes your child, damages the parent-child relationship, and your child gives up trying to meet your expectations. The more criticisms your child hears, the more guilt and shame they experience about behavior they can’t control—which can lead to more emotional outbursts, defiance, and frustration, not less.
Discipline, on the other hand, is about teaching—your child needs information! What behavior didn’t work for you or the situation? What behavior would be more appropriate? What can they do to make amends or set things right? What solutions for ADHD problems can you team up with your child to figure out?
How can I help my ADHD child?
The most important thing you can do is remember that your child’s struggles to adapt to the neurotypical world are not in their control. Skillfully parenting a child with ADHD requires patience, unconditional love, empathy—and a thick skin. Most of the time your child has no intention to behave in unwanted ways, so don’t take it personally.
Use proactive strategies—anticipate, prepare, and expect that your child will show the same challenging behaviors and make the same mistakes repeatedly before internalizing a rule or expectation—if they do. Make a plan and a backup plan with your child before an explosive behavior or a mistake. Make sure they understand the expectations and possible pitfalls ahead of time. Whenever possible, avoid sudden changes in routines or schedules. Make their environment as organized and as easy to navigate as you can. Put a calendar up so they can know what to expect; have a “home” for all of their belongings that’s accessible and marked with labels and color coding.
Address challenging behavior from a place of calm rather than anger. Trouble controlling emotions is a hallmark of ADHD, and your own anger or losing your temper with ADHD kids can send their nervous system into a fight-flight-freeze state that is likely to escalate their challenging behavior. Ride out these episodes while doing your best to stay calm. When they’re ready, offer whatever physical, verbal, or nonverbal support is soothing for them.
Make sure your child is in an appropriate school placement for their particular learning needs. Advocate for accommodations in structure, organization, and prompting in learning environments that help your child achieve their goals. Keep in close touch with teachers and counselors who work with your child and check in often. When they manage to use the appropriate behavior at the right time, acknowledge that with positive feedback! Let them know that you see them making progress and learning new skills—it builds their confidence in their ability to improve their quality of life and motivates them to keep building on that.
Several hours or days following episodes of conflict and/or disconnection, use a “strike when the iron is cold” strategy of a “Plan B conversation.” In a moment of calm connection, say something like, “I noticed that you had difficulty leaving Hana’s birthday party on Saturday, what’s up?” Get curious about what was going on for your child that caused their challenging behavior, and once they feel understood, you can tell them about your concerns about the situation. Then put your heads together to come up with a mutually satisfactory plan for next time.
This problem-solving process developed by Dr. Ross Greene is called Collaborative and Proactive Solutions. The more you use this process, not only will you be solving a lot of problems (therefore reducing challenging behavior episodes), but you’ll also be teaching, modeling, and practicing the very skills that are underdeveloped in ADHD kids. Both you and your child will need to use skills like emotional regulation, self-reflection, listening, taking another person’s perspective, thinking about possible outcomes, and resolving problems without conflict during a Plan B conversation.
If you’re feeling incredibly overwhelmed, it will be difficult to impossible for you to put any parenting strategies into action, so find both informal and professional support for yourself and your family. Some parents also talk to pediatric psychiatrists about options for medications which can be very helpful when there are no adverse side effects. Group therapy with same-aged kids with ADHD can be a great fit for some kids, and Emotionally Focused Family or Couple therapy can help your family restore and repair your connections with one another that can become strained when parenting is overwhelming.
When you’re feeling confused and frazzled during conflicts with your ADHD kiddo, it can be tempting to reach for the low-hanging fruit of punishment—which might buy you short-term compliance. But the causes of their difficult behavior will remain unknown and will come up again and again because punishment usually makes their behavior worse. Better to use challenging interactions as an opportunity to teach your child new strategies and how to learn from their mistakes in judgment. Prepare and organize their environment, give them a ton of positive affirmations, and solve problems proactively as a team so they can practice important cognitive skills.
Get as educated as you can about ADHD. Find a nourishing support system, larger than you think you need. And constantly remind yourself that your child’s difficult behaviors aren’t happening by choice. Prioritize a happy, supportive, and safe home environment over their messy room and crumpled homework. And don’t forget to appreciate the gifts of ADHD—innovation, energy, creativity, charismatic leadership, and a zest for life!
Do you want to know more about neurodiversity and why it’s so important to support and affirm a person’s neurodiversity? Check out episode 702 of the podcast in the player below for how to support your child’s neurodiversity.
Van der Oord, S., & Tripp, G. (2020). How to improve behavioral parent and teacher training for children with ADHD: Integrating empirical research on learning and motivation into treatment. Clinical child and family psychology review, 23(4), 577-604.
Sarcia Saunders, M. R. (2013, January 13) The Secret to Better Behavior? No Punishment at All. Additude: Inside the ADHD mind. Click on this link
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.