Behavior & Discipline

Never Punish a Child for Behavior Outside His Control

Make ADHD the enemy; not your child. Catch your child being good every day. Stop blaming others. And other rules for raising a child with ADHD that every parent should hear.

Boy with ADHD on one knee with bouquet of leaves in front of mom in forest
Boy with ADHD on one knee with bouquet of leaves in front of mom in forest

Most parents are good parents. But if your son or daughter has attention deficit disorder (ADHD), “good” may not be enough. To ensure that your child is happy and well-adjusted now and in the future — and to create a tranquil home environment — you’ve got to be a great parent.

Fortunately, it’s easier than you might imagine to go from good to great. All it takes is a few small adjustments in your  strategies for parenting a child with ADHD and the way you interact with your child. Here’s what works, and why:

1. Accept the fact that your child — like all children — is imperfect.

It’s not easy to accept that there’s something not quite “normal” about your child. But a child who senses his parents’ resentment — and their pessimism about his prospects — is unlikely to develop the self-esteem and can-do spirit he’ll need in order to become a happy, well-adjusted adult.

“For a child to feel accepted and supported, he needs to feel that his parents have confidence in his abilities,” says Ken Brown-Gratchev, Ph.D., a special education instructor at Kaiser Permanente in Portland, Oregon. “Once parents learn to look at the gifts of ADHD — things like exceptional energy, creativity, and interpersonal skills — they can see the shine inside their child.”


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Carol Barnier, of New Fairfield, Connecticut, certainly sees the “shine” in her child with ADHD. “My child is destined for something wonderful, something that would be impossible for those calmer, regular-energy level children,” she says. “I can think of several occupations where boundless energy would be an incredible asset. I’m even jealous of his tireless enthusiasm for life and wonder what more I could accomplish if I were so blessed.”

Do your best to love your child unconditionally. Treat him as if he were already the person you would like him to be. That will help him become that person.

2. Don’t believe all the “bad news” about your child.

It’s no fun to hear school employees describe your child as “slow” or unmotivated. But don’t let negative remarks deter you from doing everything in your power to advocate for his educational needs. After all, kids with ADHD can succeed if they get the help they need.

“While it’s true that your child’s mind works differently, he certainly has the ability to learn and succeed just like any other kid,” says George DuPaul, Ph.D., professor of school psychology at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “Look at it this way—if your child was diabetic or had asthma, would you, for one single minute, hesitate to advocate for his benefit?” Just as a diabetic needs insulin and an asthmatic child needs help breathing, a child with ADHD needs his learning environment regulated.

Sue Greco of Warwick, Rhode Island, is adamant about being her 11-year-old’s strongest advocate. “My son has a great brain,” she says. “He’s a leader, with great ideas, but he’s been labeled ‘unable to succeed’ at the local public school. Because I know he’s capable of more, I’ve enrolled him in a Catholic school, hoping the higher academic expectations and greater structure will challenge him in a positive way.”

3. Don’t overestimate the importance of medication.

There’s no doubt that, for many children with ADHD, the right medication makes a huge difference in behavior. But by no means is medication the only thing that makes a difference, and talking about it as if it were will leave the child feeling that good behavior has little to do with her own efforts. When you catch your child doing something you’ve repeatedly asked her not to do, fight the urge to ask, “Did you forget to take your medication this morning?” And don’t ever threaten to increase her dosage because she did something inappropriate.

“Statements like these give your child the impression that her behavior is controlled solely by external factors,” says Dr. Brown-Gratchev. “It’s a parent’s responsibility to send the clear message that, while medication will improve the skills she already possesses, it won’t magically fix all of her troubles.”


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As Sara Bykowski, a mother of two sons with ADHD living in Angola, Indiana, puts it, “I tell my kids that their medicine is like glasses. Glasses improve eyesight that the person already has. My kids know that their self-control, no matter how limited, is the main factor in their behavior management.”

4. Make sure you know the difference between discipline and punishment.

How often have you complained to friends or family members (or even a therapist), “I’ve yelled, lectured, threatened, given time-outs, taken away toys, canceled outings, bribed, begged, and even spanked — and nothing works!” Do you see the problem with this approach? Any child exposed to such a variety of “sticks” would be confused. And one of the most effective approaches to discipline — the “carrot” of positive feedback — isn’t even mentioned.

“Many parents use the terms ‘discipline’ and ‘punishment’ interchangeably,” says Sal Severe, Ph.D., the author of How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will Too! “In fact, they’re vastly different.” Discipline, he says, is preferable because it teaches the child how to behave. It includes an explanation of the inappropriate behavior and redirection to acceptable behavior — along with positive reinforcement each time the child makes a good behavior choice. Punishment, on the other hand, uses fear and shame to force the child to behave.

Punishment certainly has its place. However, it should never involve physical or verbal abuse, and it should be used only as a last resort. For example, if your child continues to yank the cat’s tail despite being repeatedly told not to — he should be punished.

Often, the best way to discipline a child with ADHD is via a simple program of behavior modification: Define age-appropriate, attainable goals and then systematically reward each small achievement until the behavior becomes routine. By rewarding positive behavior (rather than punishing negative behavior), you help your child feel successful — and further increase his motivation to do the right thing.

5. Never punish a child for behavior that he is unable to control.

Imagine telling your 10-year-old to make his bed. Now imagine finding him, minutes later, lying on his unmade bed playing cards. What should you do? Give him a sharp word and put him in time-out?

According to Dr. Severe, that’s probably not the best approach. In many cases, he says, a child with ADHD fails to comply not because he is defiant, but simply because he becomes distracted from the task at hand (in this case, making the bed). Distractibility is a common symptom of ADHD — something that he may be unable to control. And when you repeatedly punish a child for behavior he can’t control, you set him up to fail. Eventually, his desire to please you evaporates. He thinks, “Why bother?” The parent-child relationship suffers as a result.

The best approach in situations like this might be simply to remind your child to do what you want him to do. Punishment makes sense if it’s abundantly clear that your child is being defiant — for example, if he refuses to make the bed. But give him the benefit of the doubt.

6. Stop blaming other people for your child’s difficulties.

Are you the kind of parent who finds fault with everyone except your child? Do you say things like “That driver has no control over the kids on the bus,” or “If only the teacher were better at behavior management, my daughter wouldn’t have so much trouble in school?”


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Other people can contribute to your child’s problems. But trying to pin the blame exclusively on others encourages your child to take the easy way out. Why should she take personal responsibility for her actions if she can blame someone else (or if she repeatedly hears you blame someone else)?

7. Be careful to separate the deed from the doer.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me?” Don’t believe it. Kids who repeatedly hear bad things about themselves eventually come to believe these things.

No matter how frustrating your child’s behavior, never call him “lazy,” “hyper,” “spacey,” or anything else that might be hurtful. And stop yourself if you start to say something like “You’re such a slob — why can’t you keep your room clean?” or “What’s wrong with you? If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a thousand times.. .”

Carol Brady, Ph.D., a child psychologist in Houston, explains it this way: “Parents must make ADHD the enemy — not the child. When you personalize a child’s ADHD-associated problems, her self-esteem plummets. But when you team up with your child to problem-solve various negative behaviors, you create a climate where your child feels loved and supported despite her shortcomings.”

Next time your child’s room is a disaster, tell her, “We have a problem, and I need your help to solve it.” Tell her it’s hard for you to tuck her in at night because you’re afraid you might trip over the toys on her bedroom floor — or that leaving food in her room attracts bugs. Ask for her input. The more involved your child is in the solution, the better the outcome.

8. Don’t be too quick to say “no.”

All children need to be told “no” at certain times — to keep them from doing something dangerous or inappropriate. But many parents say “no” reflexively, without considering whether it might be OK to say “yes.” And a child who hears “no” too many times is apt to rebel — especially if he is impulsive to begin with.

Why are parents so quick to say “no”? Often, it’s out of fear (“No, you cannot walk to school by yourself.”), worry (“No, you can’t sleep over at Jake’s house until I meet his parents.”), a desire to control (“No, you can’t have a snack before supper.”), or a competing need (“Not tonight, kiddo, I’m too tired.”). Smart parents know when to say “no,” and when it makes more sense to take a deep breath and answer in the affirmative.

In many cases, a small change in the way you use the words “yes” and “no” with your child can mean the difference between a pleasant interaction and a nasty confrontation.


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Let’s say your child wants to go outside to play but you want him to sit down and do his homework. “Instead of automatically saying no,” suggests Dr. DuPaul, “ask him to help you brainstorm a workable solution.” That way, he feels that he has at least some measure of control over the situation and that you are trying to accommodate his wishes. He will feel less frustrated and be more cooperative.

9. Pay more attention to your child’s positive behavior.

In their quest to quash behavior problems, many parents overlook all the positive ways in which their child behaves. The resulting negativity can cast a pall over the household that affects every aspect of life.

“Retrain yourself to look at the positives,” says Dr. Severe. “Catch your child being good or doing something well, and praise her. When you point out and praise desirable behaviors, you teach her what you want — not what you don’t want.”

Bear in mind that some of the problem behaviors you ascribe to ADHD may be common to all children of that age. It’s helpful to read up on the stages of childhood development — especially if your child with ADHD happens to be your first-born.

Make happiness and laughter the cornerstones of family life. Spend fun time with your children. Go with them on bike rides. Play with them at the park. Visit museums together. Take them to the movies. Sure, life with ADHD can be challenging. But the rewards are great for parents who really connect with their children.

10. Learn to anticipate potentially explosive situations.

Imagine that your daughter has been invited to a party. That’s good news, especially for a child who isn’t very popular with her peers. Now imagine that the party is hosted by a girl with whom your daughter recently quarreled. Do you simply cross your fingers and hope for the best?

“Absolutely not,” warns Dr. DuPaul. “Parents spend a lot of time in reactive mode instead of thinking ahead and planning ahead.” A simple plan, he says, is all it takes to keep a positive experience from turning negative for all concerned.

“In our house, we have ‘the plan,'” says Sara Bykowski. “Before we go into a store or to a friend’s home, we talk about the behavior that is expected and possible pitfalls. We also have a routine for any problems that arise. I might say, ‘Can I talk to you for a minute?’ and then take him away from the group. We discuss what’s happening and try to come up with a solution. Sometimes we still have to leave early, but that happens much less often now.”

Whatever you do, be consistent. “All kids benefit from consistency,” says Dr. DuPaul, “but ADHD kids, in particular, need consistency. It’s not a luxury for them.” A last-minute change in schedule or an interruption of a familiar routine can wreak havoc with a child who already feels like she spends most of her time off-balance and “catching up.” Better to have set routines and plans and do all you can to stick to them.

“Set your home up in a way that encourages organization and responsibility, then run it like an army barracks,” suggests ADHDer Shirley McCurdy, an organizational expert and the author of The Floor Is Not an Option. “Think easy and accessible — clear storage bins for clothes, zippered pouches for homework, and a large, color-coded family calendar.”

Make sure you and your spouse are in agreement on matters of organization and discipline. “Parents who aren’t on the same page in their general approach to motivation and discipline with their child with ADHD can cause problems,” says Stephen Grcevich, M.D., a child psychiatrist in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. “Behavioral interventions for kids with ADHD are unlikely to be successful unless applied consistently.”


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When parents present a united front, their children know exactly what to expect. Ultimately, the more predictable and consistent your child’s environment becomes, the happier the whole family will be.

11. Be a good role model.

Parents are a child’s most influential role model, so think carefully about your behavior. If you’re unable to control yourself, how can you expect your child to exercise self-control?

“Yelling sets a poor example of how your child should handle his emotions,” says Dr. Brady. “Parents tend to think that, the louder they get, the bigger the impact on the child — but it doesn’t work. The only thing the child hears is the anger. The situation quickly spirals out of control.”

It’s perfectly normal to feel angry at your child from time to time. It’s not OK to continually shout at her. You wouldn’t dream of screaming and swearing at friends or coworkers, so you know you can control your anger if you must.

Next time your child does something that causes your blood to boil, leave the room, take a few deep breaths, or do something else to calm yourself. When you demonstrate self-calming techniques in this way, you teach your child the importance of managing her emotions.

If you do lose your temper, do not hesitate to apologize to your child.

12. Seek help from others.

Some things in life simply cannot be done well alone, and raising a child with ADHD is one of them. “If you take the Clint Eastwood approach, you’ll wind up exhausted mentally, emotionally, and physically,” says Dr. Brown-Gratchev. “Build a NASA-worthy support system. That way, when your own ‘system’ overloads or fails, as it inevitably will from time to time, there’s someone to put you back together again.”

Ask your pediatrician for the name of a psychologist or other mental-health professional who specializes in ADHD. Or contact CHADD — chances are, there’s a chapter in your community.

Sue Kordish, of Tyngsboro, Massachusetts, knows the value of a reliable support system. “For years, my husband and I worried that no sitter would understand our son’s special needs,” she says. “We tried hiring a teenager, but it didn’t work out, and the experience left us even more wary. With no family members living nearby, the situation was hard. We just didn’t go out. Then we found a sitter who works with special-needs kids. We were finally able to relax and enjoy some seriously overdue couple time.”

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