Behavior & Discipline

“All Behavior is Communication:” The Discipline Approaches That Work for Real ADHD Families

The best discipline approach for a child with ADHD? It doesn’t exist — at least not in any universal, one-size-fits-all form. Caregivers’ most effective strategies are personal and changing and often honed from trial and error. Here, ADDitude readers share their families winning approaches to dealing with meltdowns and challenging behaviors.

Mother hugging her son at home. MoMo Productions.
Mother hugging her son at home. MoMo Productions/Getty Images

Meltdowns in the check-out line. Trouble with transitions. Big, big feelings.

Parents of children with ADHD live and breathe these daily behavioral challenges — and many more. ADHD traits like emotional dysregulation, impulsivity, and poor working memory often contribute to these challenges, but the manifestations are unique to each child and their circumstances. No single discipline approach that will work for every family.

That said, some of our best ideas come from other parents who have walked similar paths. So here are ADDitude readers’ answers to the question, “What is your most effective discipline approach when your child with ADHD acts up or acts out?”

Discipline Approaches: 15 Tips from Parents of Children with ADHD

“My son has the hardest time with transitions, which used to lead to gargantuan meltdowns all the time… We have found that giving him space to have his big reactions — even if it means screaming and stomping — in a way where he doesn’t feel judged has been most effective. We can’t outperform the intensity of his fits, so we make sure he is safe, and then wait a bit before sitting quietly near him to offer support within his control.” – Samantha, Washington

I created a chart that shows three behavioral and emotional levels. The top level is when he’s feeling out of control and oppositional (‘being a jerk,’ as my child worded it). The middle level is ‘doing OK,’ and the lower level is neutral, calm behavior. We go to the chart often, especially when he’s at the higher levels, and he uses his words to describe his feelings. He knows that he should live in the low and middle levels, but that everyone reaches the top levels sometimes.” – Anonymous

“I tell him to pause and ask him what he needs. Then I suggest that he run up and down the stairs at least five times. It never ceases to work for him. He returns calmer and with a more organized brain.” – Sunny

[Your Free Expert Guide: 50 Tips for How to Discipline a Child with ADHD]

I remind myself that all behavior is communication, and I try to identify my child’s unmet needs at that moment. I tell them which behaviors won’t work for me and offer a couple of alternative behaviors that will, while leaving room for their ideas. As an example: When my child would have a meltdown while shopping, the choices were to either control the meltdown behavior in the store or go out to the car and have a meltdown. I was fine with both options, just not screaming in the store.” – Cathy, Oregon

“Try to help them understand the rationale behind the tasks we ask them to do.” – Mark, PA

When my child acts up, I try to run through a series of questions to decide how to handle the situation. 1. Is the behavior caused by an ADHD symptom? If yes, I tell myself: ‘This is how his brain works, give him some grace.’ 2. Was there a trigger that I missed (e.g. over-stimulating environment)? If yes, can it be mitigated now? If not, give more grace and redirect to something that minimizes the impact of the negative behavior (e.g. send him outside if he’s being overly loud). Then, I give him one simple and direct command, and remind him that he gets technology time taken away if he doesn’t follow directions. I also try like hell to give him all the positive praise I can when I see him doing things he’s supposed to without asking!” – Stephanie, Texas

“I remind myself that my child’s brain is developing two to three years behind the brains of kids without ADHD, and I step back and picture how I would handle a younger child. That means I lower my expectations, do more hands-on guidance/teamwork, and anticipate having to remind my child about things.“ – Megan, Michigan

“I use the ClassDojo Beyond app as well as a chores motivation chart to provide her with incentivizing rewards. If she isn’t following our rules, she doesn’t get points for a specific skill. – Anonymous

[Read: Use Responsive Parenting to Reveal the Roots of Behavioral Challenges]

“Redirection. Take a moment to breathe, to notice the environment. Then discuss the issue.” – Laura, Canada

Our best strategy is to always review what is about to happen. We remind them of the rules right before an activity or outing, and what we are expecting in terms of behavior. We get a lot of ‘We know,’ but our reminders are helpful.” – Ellen, Georgia

We ensure that basic needs are met first (hungry, thirsty, tired, hot or cold) and then communicate about the dysregulation that has occurred. We discuss feelings around it, and come up with a plan to address it (e.g. break up tough homework into smaller chunks, do clean up together, etc.).” – Catherine, Canada

Kids with ADHD need immediate intervention. Delayed discipline methods don’t work for them. We give my son a look that says, ‘Stop.’ Then we explicitly tell him to stop. Then we have him go sit on a mat as a ‘time-out’ for several minutes. (We use a timer to keep track.) If he’s upset, we let him express his feelings and empathize with him. We don’t start the timer until he’s done expressing himself.” – Terri, Missouri

I try not to use ‘No!’ as my first response. Instead, I ask my child a question: ‘Is that your best choice?’ Or, ‘Have you thought of a different action?'” – Anna, Australia

The 1-2-3 approach works for us. We clearly state what we want (stop fighting, pick up a mess, quiet down) and state the consequence (you will lose your iPad time, etc), and we start the count slowly. It almost always works, usually by 1, because they cherish their iPad time.” – Sarah, Australia

Discipline equals teaching, and I know from my classroom experience that the heat of the moment is NOT a good time to teach. When my child is acting out, my focus is on redirection and preventing escalation. Once my child is calm and able to think, we can figure out what triggered the behavior, and how to deal in the future. Eventually, this teaches my child how to independently deal with strong emotions or impulsive behaviors in a constructive way” – Ari, New Jersey

Discipline Approaches: Next Steps

Thank you for reading ADDitude. To support our mission of providing ADHD education and support, please consider subscribing. Your readership and support help make our content and outreach possible. Thank you.