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“Discipline is a Balance – and Other Behavioral Insights for ADHD Families”

“Discipline is understanding that, with ADHD, my child’s emotions and behavior won’t always compare to what I see in other children her age. It’s knowing that she oftentimes has to learn and relearn the same lesson – because she forgets. It is a discipline, therefore, on my part to constantly try to understand how she feels, and to let go of comparisons.”

If you are the parent of a child with ADHD, like me, you have probably reached for an impossible number of books, articles, videos, and promises to help you better raise and celebrate your unique child.

I have benefited from much of this advice on communication, listening, and positive parenting, but discipline remained the most difficult subject. Though I learned and practiced many helpful processes for anticipating and avoiding or quelling tough behavior, “discipline” in itself (as I knew it) never seemed to fit into the equation.

What should I do when she throws herself on the ground, screaming because it’s homework time? Or when she throws toys at me if we run out of dessert? How should I actually discipline or correct this behavior?

With time, I learned that discipline is a balance. It’s understanding that, with ADHD, my child’s emotions and behavior won’t always compare to what I see in other children her age. It’s knowing that she oftentimes has to learn and relearn the same lesson – because she forgets. It is a discipline, therefore, on my part to constantly try to understand how she feels, and to let go of comparisons.

From one ADHD parent to another, here are the child discipline strategies that have been the most helpful and effective with my daughter. Though outbursts still happen, they have decreased significantly, and are more manageable, with these tips.

How to Discipline a Child with ADHD

1. Build a strong foundation. The key to parenting (and properly disciplining) my child is maintaining self-care. It does not do my daughter any good if I am inconsistent with my parenting. Eating well-balanced meals, exercising, and getting enough rest prevents me from being reactive and keeps me steady.

[Click to Read: Don’t Mistake Your Child’s ADHD Symptoms for Bad Behavior]

2. Offer praise and rewards. Devise a praise and reward system to develop your child’s desirable behaviors. My daughter has a behavior chart, and she earns points for reaching target behaviors. This system works because it helps her consistently see, even if she isn’t always in control, that there are rewards for good behavior and consequences for not following the behavior plan.

3. Avoid behavioral triggers. I set my child up for success by avoiding situations that routinely trigger symptoms. I noticed, for example, that going shopping with my daughter before she ate consistently lead to behavior problems. Rather than avoid shopping with her, I changed the timing of our trips. I also informed her of my observations so that she understood why we were changing our shopping times, and so that she learn to recognize her behavior as well.

4. Practice planned ignoring. When my daughter does act out, I have learned to take a deep breath and either not respond or say, “I’m going to wait until you’re settled before we talk.” This approach has sometimes stopped my daughter’s anger in its tracks, and it has even stopped my emotions from escalating. If the behavior does continue, that’s when I move to a time out.

5. Allow natural consequences. By this, I do not mean allowing my daughter to put herself in harm’s way. I mean choosing not to intervene and redirect when the situation is appropriate, instead letting her experience the fallout. For example, my daughter used to cry and refuse to help me clean her room. While I cleaned it myself, I realized that was not helping her at all. Instead, I tried letting the room get untidy – until she felt uncomfortable with her toys on the floor and clothes on her bed. She has since created a checklist to note what to clean on what days to prevent clutter.

[Read: I Need a Reward System (Not Bribes) to Motivate My Child]

6. Use the time out. Time outs help my daughter pause and center herself so we then can calmly discuss what happened.

If my daughter is engaging in an undesirable behavior (like screaming because we ran out of ice cream), I first offer her one warning, and if the behavior persists, I then begin a countdown from three without raising my voice or using a threatening tone. I take a deep breath and say, “If you don’t stop screaming, you will not earn a point toward your weekly prize, and you will get a time out. I’m going to count to three. One…” I count actual seconds – I don’t speed count or delay with “two, two and one half-isms” because that only makes it worse.

Once I reach three, my daughter knows to go to her reading nook – a place we deemed safe, as it is “far” enough from the trigger. I start the timer for 10 minutes. While she’s in her nook, I go to another room to center myself.

Once the timer is done, we both sit down together and discuss what happened, what she learned, what I learned, and how we will prevent that from happening again. In these moments, I give her options for addressing these behaviors. That way, she can be part of the decision-making and continue to build coping skills. I never interrupt her time out for any reason – that is our time to think and prepare to move forward.

How to Discipline a Child: Next Steps


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Updated on June 23, 2021

4 Comments & Reviews

  1. This is an amazingly well written piece! I love how it is written in a checklist format so that I can literally print this out and practice with my child. Thank you Alysia!

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