ADHD Behavior Problems: Smart Discipline Strategies

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

Discipline and ADHD/LD Kids ADDitude Magazine

Let the big, bad world teach the child what works and what doesn't.


ADHD Behavior Help


All parents want their children to be happy and well-adjusted. But parents also want them to be respectful and obedient. Of course, kids — particularly children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD) — have their own ideas. And that's where ADHD behavior problems enter.

Rather than do what's asked of them, children with ADHD ignore their homework, torment their siblings, and forget to feed the dog. They leave wet towels on the bathroom floor and dump Legos in the living room. They talk back, whine, sulk, or otherwise misbehave. Each day brings fresh chaos — and occasions for a parent's discipline.

Parenting experts have devised all manner of discipline techniques. But when it comes to reining in volatile, easily frustrated kids, it's hard to beat the system devised by Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, and the father of a son who has ADD.

No More Power Struggles

Dr. Phelan's 1995 book, 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12, is considered a classic of parenting literature. It's embraced not only by moms and dads, but also by ADHD support groups, counselors, and psychiatrists — and no wonder. It offers specific, simple instructions rather than vague psychological concepts, and it has proven to be highly effective.

"1-2-3 Magic circumvents the whole power struggle," says Jean Mills, a social worker from Issaquah, Washington, and the mother of a 14-year-old with ADHD. "There is no discussion and no chance to get into a debate with your child. So many of these kids have other issues — and have trouble handling frustration and anger. 1-2-3 Magic keeps words and emotions to a minimum."

To successfully implement Dr. Phelan's system, parents must differentiate the two kinds of behaviors their children "give" them:

  • "Stop" behaviors. Talking back, yelling, teasing, throwing tantrums, and whining are all behaviors that parents want their children to stop.

To Build Self-Esteem, Emphasize Strengths — Not Weaknesses

  • "Start" behaviors. These are things parents want their children to start doing regularly and without reminders - things like doing homework, feeding a pet, going to bed on time, getting up and off to school on schedule, or practicing a musical instrument.

The Counting Technique

Dr. Phelan recommends a range of familiar parenting tools and techniques, including the use of charts (work on no more than three behaviors at once) and timers; more positive feedback and less criticism; and minimizing the number of on-the-spot requests parents make of children.

(Even simple requests, such as 'walk the dog' or 'run this over to the neighbor's,' can make ADHD kids feel put-upon. Better to let them know ahead of time what is expected of them.)

But the most celebrated component of Dr. Phelan's system is his "counting" technique, which is used to put an end to "stop" behaviors (see "Stopping an Argument in Its Tracks").

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"Counting" works like this: Each time your child does something he shouldn't, simply hold up one finger and quietly say, "That's one." If the behavior continues, raise two fingers and say, "That's two." If the child still ignores your request, raise three fingers and say, "That's three. Take five." The child then goes (or is escorted) to a five-minute time-out in his room. (If you feel your child is too old for the term "time-out," use another one, like "cool down," "break," "breather," "halt," or "pause.")

If your child won't budge, remove yourself from the room: Take a brisk walk around the house, read a few pages of a book, lock yourself in the bathroom - but NO talking to your child, even if he tries to follow you! That's it. You don't shout or cajole or explain. It's clear to your child that he has a choice: He can shape up at once or suffer a consequence.

Once the time-out is over, do not rehash the episode or lecture your child about it. It's over.

Praise More, Criticize Less

What about getting your child to adopt "start" behaviors? The fundamental principle, says Dr. Phelan, is to spend less time criticizing your child, and more time offering praise.

Parents are quick to speak up when a child does something wrong, but not so quick when the child does something right. According to Dr. Phelan, negative feedback undermines a child's self-confidence, which makes it even harder for him to handle tasks and chores independently. Praise, specific and genuine, feeds a child's self-esteem and willingness to cooperate.

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TAGS: Behavior Therapy for ADHD, ADHD and Discipline, Alternative Treatments for ADHD

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