Behavior & Discipline

Why “Because I Said So!” Just Isn’t Working

Forget the terrible twos. Learning how to discipline a toddler or preschooler who has ADHD can be tough. Luckily, certain tactics like verbal scaffolding and teaching your child about consequences can help establish peace at home.

Mother holding daughter with ADHD on cobblestone street
Mother holding daughter with ADHD on cobblestone street

How to Discipline a Toddler or Preschooler with ADHD

Parents, we know that you’re always looking for new ways to engage your children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and you’re in luck. We’ve got a powerful strategy that you can use with your child that will improve his executive skills now and when he is older.

It’s called verbal scaffolding. It sounds complicated, but it’s about helping your child see patterns, make connections, and draw on past knowledge when doing activities.

Verbal Scaffolding

Instead of barking out, “Just take your medicine” when your child refuses to, say, “If you don’t take your medicine, your strep throat will come back.” Instead of saying, “Don’t press down so hard with that pencil,” try, “If you bear down too hard, you’ll break the pencil lead.”

The more you help children think about what they do and why, the greater the capacity they’ll develop for problem-solving situations. Research shows that three-year-old children whose mothers provide explanations and ask questions tend to have better problem-solving skills and goal-directed behavior at age six.

Use Questions to Help Your Child Understand Their Behavior

The more questions you ask, the more mental connections your child will make.

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Questions like “Why do I ask you to wash your hands before dinner?” “What would happen if I let you stay up as long as you wanted at night?” and “How do you think you could remember to give your teacher the permission slip?” help your child understand consequences of behavior.

Explain How They Are Misbehaving Before Disciplining Them

Sometimes we rely on direct commands and explicit instructions that emphasize the power differential between ourselves and our children: “Just do what I say!” or “Because I said so!” This is understandable. We get tired and we feel we don’t have time to stop and think about how to phrase an explanation that is appropriate for our child’s abilities and age.

Remember, though, the more a child understands about a given situation cause and effect, why something is important, and so on the more he can use that information to make solid judgments in the future. It is better to say, “If you leave your bicycle outdoors, it will get rusty when it rains tonight,” than “Put your bike in the garage.”

Encourage Them to Think About the Consequences of Their Behavior

When you give solutions, pass judgment, or tell your child what to do differently the next time, you’re depriving him of thinking for himself. It’s better to ask him to figure it out. Questions like “What can you do to get out of this jam?” and “What might you do differently the next time, so that your friend doesn’t ask to go home early?” will do that.

Children who understand how certain events trigger certain feelings are more likely to gain control over their emotions or curtail their impulses. The more they understand a cause-and-effect sequence, the better they’ll be able to plan a course of action. And when you explain why something is important, a child is more likely to remember that critical information when he needs it.

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Adapted with permission from Smart but Scattered (Guilford Press), by Peg Dawson and Richard Guare, Ph.D., copyright 2009.