Behavior & Discipline

The Secret to Better Behavior? No Punishment at All

If you’re exhausted and running out of ideas to correct your child’s difficult behaviors, you’re not alone. As I’ve learned, disciplining children with ADHD often means trying a few key strategies with one great twist – there’s actually no punishment involved at all!

As a psychotherapist who specializes in ADHD and related conditions, I work with parents who feel frazzled and confused about how to best help their neurodivergent children with behavioral challenges. It is a thing I easily relate to, as the just-as-frazzled mother to three grown children who came into this world with a not-quite-neurotypical cocktail of fun.

How to best parent and discipline my children was rarely obvious or straightforward. At times, they were defiant. They ignored me. They threw major tantrums. They lied. They were often verbally and sometimes physically aggressive. No punishment seemed to work. Sound familiar?

Then years later, as I was completing a master’s in counseling psychology, I came to understand something that completely changed the way I approached parenting: ADHD is actually not a behavior disorder! It is a neurological difference. My kids’ difficult behaviors were not happening by choice. This realization allowed me to find and exhibit true compassion for my children — a game changer.

If you’re exhausted and running out of ideas to correct your child’s difficult behaviors, you’re not alone. Improving behaviors in children with ADHD often means trying a few key strategies and one great twist – there’s actually no punishment involved at all!

5 Steps to Dealing with Difficult ADHD Behaviors

Step 1: Accept That ADHD is Physiological

You can’t begin to correct your child’s difficult behaviors until you acknowledge this truth.

Children with ADHD largely struggle with executive functioning – the brain skills we all need to function in our daily lives. They include the ability to sustain attention, to organize and plan, to recall information, and to control emotions, among other skills. The prefrontal cortex – where attention, emotions, and behaviors intersect – is also implicated in ADHD.

[Read: Positive Parenting Strategies That Inspire Good Behavior]

Children with ADHD are also about three years behind their neurotypical peers in terms of brain development, meaning that they are often asked to function at higher levels than their brains can manage.

It’s these circumstances that bring about difficult behaviors that are often out of a child’s control. What’s more, these behaviors will still appear no matter how well-versed a child is in the consequences. Harsher punishments will not make a dent.

Punishing a child with ADHD for difficult behaviors is ineffective and counterproductive because they don’t have the luxuries of regulating their emotions and behaviors like a neurotypical child would. Punishment only results in them feeling guilty and ashamed for what they couldn’t control. The guilt and shame can turn into frustration, defiance, and emotional outbursts — and they often do.

The true meaning of the word “discipline” is to teach, not to punish. Teaching helps to shape behavior positively so that difficult, impairing behaviors are less of an issue.

So how do we change problem behaviors and teach better ones without punishment?

[Related Reading: Never Punish a Child for Behavior Outside Their Control]

Step 2: Be a Detective, Not a Judge

All behaviors serve a purpose. Problem behaviors are representative of an unmet need and, in ADHD’s case, can be due to impulsivity.

Rather than act like a judge and issue punishment to your child after a problem behavior occurs, it is better to put on your detective cap and try to decode the root or cause of the behavior. Determining the unmet need behind your child’s difficult behaviors will give you the chance to meet the need and decrease the chances that the problem behavior occurs again.

Problem behaviors can broadly be divided into two categories:

  • Chronic behaviors, which tend to happen at the same time and in the same situations. (e.g. refusing to go to bed or to wake up; temper tantrums after getting off video games.)
  • Impulsive behaviors (e.g. your child hitting their sibling or having a meltdown out of the blue.)

The next time a problem behavior occurs, take note of all its surrounding factors and context. You’ll come to find that your child’s most difficult behaviors can be traced back to these common causes:

  • They don’t know how to start the task and may not know how to ask for help.
  • They don’t understand the task and the finish point. If you tell your child to clean their room, they may not know what ‘clean’ looks like.
  • The task is too difficult. If your child is unwilling to do homework, for example, it might be that the work is too challenging, or that there’s too much to work through organizationally.
  • They need a transition time. ADHD is associated with time blindness. Telling your child they have five minutes left before stopping their video game is futile. You’ll have to “show” them what five minutes looks like so they can really understand.
  • They are overwhelmed with too many instructions and can easily forget multi-step tasks. They will need large projects ‘chunked’ up.
  • They could not control their impulsivity.
  • They are ashamed of their behavior (especially if they lied).

Avoid assuming that the problem behavior is because your child is lazy, defiant, or because they simply want to “cause trouble.” No one, not even your child, wakes up with the intention of having a bad day.

Step 3: PREP Your Child

Once you’ve truly thought through the causes behind the problem behaviors, you’ll have to PREP your child to replace the bad behavior with a better one, or at least decrease its severity. PREP stands for:

  • Peaceful moment: It’s much easier to deconstruct problem behaviors when your child is calm and tensions aren’t running high.
  • Request good behavior: Ask your child open-ended questions to guide them to better behavior. If they are being disruptive during dinner time, for example, calmly ask them to remind you of the family rules. (Do we throw food? Do we interrupt one another?)
  • Explanation from your child: As your child answers your guiding questions, it will reinforce the information in their brain, allowing them to be more mindful of the situation.
  • Praise: Notice your child’s efforts toward better behavior and do your best to ignore problem behaviors (so long as they are not dangerous). Your approval and enthusiasm can be a great motivator to your child.

Step 4: PREP Yourself

It’s not easy to keep your cool as your child engages in difficult behaviors. At the same time, if we show them that we are annoyed, frustrated, and dysregulated, we are modeling these behaviors to them.

As parents, we tend to skip checking in with ourselves and making sure we are at our best to handle tough, stressful situations. To be a good behavior detective and undo unhelpful notions of parenting, we need to be level-headed and fully present. We must PREP ourselves, too:

  • Pause before you react, and practice mindfulness frequently.
  • Recharge often and engage in self-care.
  • Evaluate situations where your child’s problem behaviors occur before you…
  • Proceed with next steps

Step 5: RE-MAP Your Parenting

Once you’ve prepped your child and yourself, you’re ready to RE-MAP what parenting and disciplining your child is really about:

  • Regard your child with an unconditional, positive assumption that they want to do well.
  • Externalize misbehaviors. Remember that the behavior is not their fault – it is caused by a brain difference.
  • Mistake Acceptance. Learn to view misbehaviors as mistakes. Provide your home as a safe place to make those mistakes so that they can be used as learning opportunities to PREP your child about what to expect next time.
  • Praise your child often. Children with ADHD field lots of negativity and criticism every day. We may hardly ever stop to notice their efforts to fit into a neurotypical world – because it’s behavior we expect and typically do not reward. Praising your child often, even for the little things, will go a long way.

Re-mapping in Action

How can we use these parenting principles to address common situations at home?

Behavior Problem #1: My child doesn’t want to do their homework

  • Prep your child
    • Check that they have everything they need for the assignment and that they understand what is expected of them.
    • Break up the homework to smaller chunks and provide breaks.
    • Talk to teachers about reducing the homework amount.
  • Prep yourself
  • RE-MAP
    • Regard: Assume your child wants to do their homework.
    • Externalize: Know that ADHD and other factors make it so that the task is the problem, not your child.
    • Mistake Acceptance: If your child doesn’t finish homework even if you’ve prepped them fully, accept this turn of events and move on. Learn from it and collaborate with your child on what might work better next time. Know that this is not the end of the world. (Things rarely are.)
    • Praise: Even if your child didn’t finish the assignment, recognize how long they spent working on the task.

Behavior Problem #2: My child refuses to stop playing video games

  • Prep your child
    • Make sure they have clear guidelines around when they should stop playing.
    • Build in transition times.
    • Use a Time Timer or another visual aid to help your child see the passage of time.
  • Prep yourself
    • Understand how video games work. Consider having your child stop after a segment or level attempt is completed as opposed to a specific time.
  • RE-MAP
    • Regard: Your child doesn’t want to disobey you – they just really enjoy the video game.
    • Externalize: Your child may have trouble stopping due to the dopamine rush he’s getting with the game.
    • Mistake Acceptance: If they stopped playing well after you asked them to, ask them what happened and what can be done next time to make the transition off of gaming easier.
    • Praise: Even if they didn’t stop at the agreed-upon time, recognize if they were closer to the stop point than last time; if their tantrum didn’t last as long, etc.

Parenting a child with ADHD often involves a full reassessment and overhaul of everything you thought you knew about discipline. In following these steps, remember that it will take time to address problem behaviors, and that there will be mistakes along the way. Prep yourself as best as you can, but don’t be afraid to own up to your errors and apologize to your child and to yourself. At the same time, keep problem behaviors and situations in perspective – a messy room or missing homework is not the end of the world. In the end, it’s most important to create a happy, safe, and supportive environment for your child.

The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar Discipline with a Twist: How to Manage Challenging Behavior Problems in Children & Teens with ADHD [podcast episode #353]  with Merriam Sarcia Saunders, LMFT, which was broadcast live on May 6, 2021.

Child Discipline: Next Steps

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