ADHD News & Research

Children with ADHD Avoid Failure and Punishment More Than Others, Study Says

Adult authority figures reproach and correct children with ADHD more often than they do children without the condition. This frequent criticism may cause children with ADHD to more frequently avoid challenges or situations where they may face admonishment again, according to a recent study.

September 28, 2016

Positive feedback — particularly in childhood — helps an individual develop self-esteem, push past failures, and promote achievements. Praise and reinforcement are critical for developing minds; they are also hard to come by for children with ADHD.

Impulsive behaviors, academic struggles, and social challenges may cause parents and teachers to critique these children more often than they do others. Some experts, like William Dodson, M.D., estimate that children with ADHD receive a full 20,000 more negative messages by age 10, on average.

Now, research indicates that children with ADHD may not just receive a disproportionate amount of criticism — they might also be more sensitive to it, thereby avoiding situations where they may be criticized or punished.

The research, published September 9, 2016, in The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, was conducted by a team at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University. Researchers looked at 210 children from Japan or New Zealand, 145 of whom had been diagnosed with ADHD. To test how they reacted to punishment and rewards, the researchers designed two different computer games, both of which could result in “winning,” “losing,” or a neutral outcome. Both games offered an equal chance of winning and deducted the same number of points for a loss, but players of one game were four times more likely to experience a loss vs. a neutral outcome, and to hear a mocking laughter sound when they lost. The kids were allowed to move between the games freely until they reached a certain number of points or completed 300 turns.

Given the freedom to select their favorite game, both groups of children gravitated toward the less punishing version within the first 100 turns. But during the next 100, the children with ADHD began to significantly favor the less punishing game, and by the last 100, there were vast differences between the two groups. The children without ADHD preferred the less punishing game, too, but only slightly — indicating to the researchers that, while they weren’t happy with the punishment, they were less distracted by it and more focused on the prospect of winning. The children with ADHD, on the other hand, responded negatively to the punishment from the beginning, and continued to avoid it more and more drastically as the experiment went on.

If this research could be duplicated and verified, the researchers say, it may have far-reaching implications on the lives of children with ADHD.

“If a child with ADHD is reluctant in doing a task, or if the child gives up easily, it might be important for the parent or the teacher to check if the task has the appropriate balance of reward and punishment,” said Gail Tripp, one of the authors of the study. “We are not saying that the task has punishment built in, rather that the effort needed to do the task might be perceived as punishing by the child. The more effortful a task is, the more incentives a child is going to need to keep persisting, and simple but frequent rewards, such as smiles or words of encouragements, can help children with ADHD to stay on the task.”

The researchers note that they had tried to conduct similar studies before, but found that kids with ADHD tended to abandon the experiment altogether if they lost too many points. It was a challenge to create a game that was well designed, but that was rewarding enough to entice children to continue playing. In order to get the best results while maintaining ethical research standards, Tripp added, “We need to be extremely careful about using punishment — especially when working with children.”