ADHD Behavior Problems: Smart Discipline Strategies

Expert tips for solving ADHD behavior problems in children with attention deficit and/or learning disabilities.

1-2-3 Magic, Part 2

Always be on the lookout for opportunities to offer praise: "Good job on the spelling test, Amy!" or "You cleaned your room up beautifully! And I didn't even have to remind you. Wow!" or "You got ready for school so fast today!" Ideally, says Dr. Phelan, you'll praise your child about four times more frequently than you criticize her. Show, by your words and actions, that you believe your child can manage himself - and he probably will. Discipline should become less of a problem.

Praise is especially beneficial for children with ADD, who may face relentless criticism from teachers and friends, as well as from their parents. And being more generous with praise helps you enjoy your relationship with your child.

"1-2-3 Magic reminds us not to neglect the positive aspects of parenting," says Becky, a Detroit mom who moderates a support group for parents of ADD kids. "I used to talk only when I was annoyed. Now I try to speak up with praise or make positive connections when things are going well."

As you praise more, fight the urge to "over-parent." That's the term Dr. Phelan uses to describe the pattern of needless correction, supervision, or disciplinary commentary that parents often fall into - things like "Tie your shoes!" or "Put on your coat!" or "Chew more slowly."

Despite your good intentions, comments like these irritate and demean your child - and undermine her ability to take care of herself. Your central "message" to your child becomes, as Dr. Phelan puts it: "I have to worry about you so much because you're incompetent; there's not much you can do on your own without my supervision and direction."

Often, it's better for children to learn "start" behaviors on their own - and if they make mistakes, so be it. "There are times when staying out of problems is the best thing," says Dr. Phelan. "Let the big, bad world teach the child what works and what doesn't." If your daughter keeps forgetting her coat in the winter, for example, maybe you should let her be cold. If she neglects to put her dirty clothes in the laundry hamper, she can go to the party in a soiled dress. If your son forgets his homework, let the teacher keep him late after school to make it up.

In each case, you're letting the consequences of your child's mistakes teach him or her the important lesson without having to say a word.

Why the system is so effective

Dr. Phelan's system works, in part, because it helps parents avoid two common mistakes: Talking too much and showing too much emotion. After all, says Dr. Phelan, children are not "little adults" who can be persuaded to change their behavior. Yelling at or otherwise showing anger to a child does little but escalate the confrontation, leading to what Dr. Phelan calls the "talk-persuade-argue-yell-hit syndrome."

Parents often assume that the more information they give their kids, the more compliant their children will become. The opposite is usually true. Dr. Phelan explains: "When Mom wants Tommy to stop teasing his sister, for example, the simple warning, 'That's one,' is clearer and more attention-getting than a recitation of five reasons why teasing is bad. Parental lectures and nagging not only confuse children, they also irritate them - thus reducing the chances of cooperation."

There's another reason 1-2-3 Magic is so effective with kids who easily become confused or overly excited. "Moms and dads often share these same characteristics with their children," explains Dr. Phelan. "Mom and dad, in other words, get mixed up by too much talking, and they get upset too quickly. When a challenging child is involved, these parent-child similarities make the task of reasonable discipline almost impossible."

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This article comes from the April/May 2006 issue of ADDitude.

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