Behavior & Discipline

My Child Doesn’t Listen! And More Frustrating ADHD Discipline Problems

Your child is funny, charming, and spontaneous — but sometimes, the traits that make you love them so much conspire to drive you (and everyone else) up the wall. Here, Dr. Peter Jaska shares solutions to five of the most common behavior problems for impulsive kids with ADHD, including overreacting, lying, and not listening.

At your wit’s end because your child doesn’t listen? To rein in rebellious, impulsive children without creating a power struggle or driving themselves crazy, parents must be patient, persistent, and creative in responding to resistance — ADHD discipline is not for the faint of heart.

Here are five common discipline problems faced by parents of children with ADHD — and solutions for each of them.

1. “My child absolutely refuses to do as he is told.”

Sometimes parents and kids get into a pattern in which daily tasks (doing homework or getting ready for bed) provoke battles. In most cases, the child eventually complies, but the conflict leaves everyone upset.

The best long-term solution? Setting up routines. For example, parents must establish and enforce — calmly but firmly — regular study times for each child.

It may take weeks, or even months, until the child with ADHD accepts these routines and follows them consistently. No matter how long it takes, don’t give up. And don’t let yourself be drawn into needless conflict with your child. When tempers flare, the parent must remain calm and maintain control of the situation.

[Free Parent Resource: ADHD Discipline Strategies]

2. “My kid doesn’t care about consequences.”

Whether it’s withholding TV privileges, or refusing to let your child attend a party, consequences are most effective when they’re imposed as soon as possible after an infraction. If you delay the imposition of consequences, you’re blunting their emotional impact.

Sometimes consequences that were once effective stop being effective after they’ve been used for a while. As with many other things involving ADHD, repetition leads to boredom. Devise a variety of consequences and vary them from time to time.

Consequences should have time limits: long enough to teach a lesson but short enough to give the child a chance to move on to more positive things. The punishment should fit the crime. Overly harsh consequences will encourage your child to resent your rules and your authority — and will generate more anger and rebelliousness.

3. “I can’t believe anything my child tells me.”

All children lie sometimes. The lying may be mild (“No, I didn’t take my sister’s CD”) or it could be a cover-up for chronic problems (“No, the teacher didn’t give us any homework today”). Lying is especially worrisome when it involves issues of health and safety (“Empty beer cans in the basement? What empty beer cans?”).

[Read: The Truth About Your Child’s Lying]

For children with ADHD, lying is often a coping mechanism, albeit a counterproductive one. A lie may be a way to cover up forgetfulness, to avoid criticism or punishment, or to avoid dealing with feelings of guilt and shame over repeated failures.

The first step in dealing with chronic dishonesty is to find the reasons that underlie it. If your child lies to avoid consequences for irresponsible behavior, for example, you must monitor those behaviors more closely and discipline any act of deception. If he lies in order to cover up failure and shame, encourage your child to be honest — and reassure him that mistakes are learning opportunities, not reflections of his character or abilities. Many children (and adults) with ADHD suffer from debilitating shame because they wrongfully feel they should be able to control and correct symptoms associated with ADHD through sheer determination; remind your child that ADHD is a neurological condition and that you’re working together to manage it.

4. “My child doesn’t take me seriously.”

Why doesn’t your child show respect for you or your rules? Are the rules clear to the child? Important rules should be put in writing.

Does the child not accept the rules because she considers them unfair? If your child did not participate in the creation and definition of the rules, that is a problem. Without securing their buy-in at the outset, you cannot expect full participation from your child. In this case, the rules need a new round of collaborative, open discussion.

If you want your child to respect the rules, enforce them consistently. That means not “forgetting about” the rules or occasionally suspending them because you feel guilty or because your child (or spouse) pressures you to do so. If you bluff or make empty threats, you’re sacrificing your credibility and weakening your authority as a parent.

5. “My child overreacts to nearly everything.”

Heightened emotionality is a characteristic of ADHD. For kids with attention deficit disorder, failure doesn’t merely discourage, it devastates. While most children protest a bit about being disciplined, kids with ADHD often react with intense indignation and anger. This may be a sign they are experiencing the common ADHD symptom of rejection sensitive dysphoria, which makes real (and perceived) criticism cut like a knife.

Keep in mind that it is rarely healthy or productive to discipline a child in the throes of an amygdala hijack. Wait for the storm of emotions to pass before calmly, kindly addressing a problem with your child. She will be able to hear you more clearly and will feel less defensive and personally attacked once she’s had a chance to settle down.

Also keep in mind that chronic overreaction to discipline — particularly when intense feelings of anger or frustration are involved — may not be due to ADHD alone. Is the child overreacting because she feels criticized? Unloved? Inadequate? Helpless? Overwhelmed? Are your expectations too high?

6. “My kid won’t listen to me!”

Is there a parent anywhere who has not tried to have a serious conversation with a child — only to be met with indifference (“Who are you and why are you bothering me with this stuff?”)? If such a conversation involves discipline, your message isn’t getting through.

If your child tunes you out on a regular basis, do a self-check. Have you become too negative or critical? Do you focus too much on problems and not enough on solutions? Have your conversations become lectures, instead of give-and-take? Does the child feel left out of the decision-making process?

No matter what your child’s age, you can involve him in the process of establishing rules and consequences for breaking them. A child who is included in setting the family rules is more likely to respect them.

[Free Resource: Your Free 13-Step Guide to Raising a Child with ADHD]

Peter Jaksa, Ph.D., is a member of the ADDitude ADHD Medical Review Panel.

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