Guest Blogs

“I Hate Punishing My Son for Stuff He Can’t Help”

One mom explains how difficult it is to distinguish between what is simple misbehaving, and what’s a symptom of ADHD in children.

“Stop jumping on the couch.”

I say this to Falcon, who is five years old. Most kids his age would be lining up for kindergarten by now. Falcon’s staying home for many reasons. This is one of them.

He stops jumping on the couch. I take out my smartphone and start surfing the Web. Five minutes later, out of the corner of my eye, I see movement again.

“Stop jumping on the couch. You will hurt the couch. Couches are for sitting.”

In a Herculean effort, Falcon stills himself. We put on an episode of How to Train Your Dragon. I take out my Kindle and start reading. Three minutes into it, I see him going up and down in the corner of my eye.

“Stop jumping on the couch. If you can’t stop jumping on the couch, you will not be allowed to be on the couch.”

He agrees: “OK, mama, I won’t jump on the couch.”

Except that he jumps on the couch. It’s approaching an existential crisis. Words have no effect; I don’t think he even knows he’s doing it. It’s just something his body does, like breathing or fidgeting. Only a child with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) could jump on the couch without realizing it. If I stared at him constantly, I could probably stop it. But I have ADHD myself. No way can I keep my eyes, unmoving, 24/7, on a dervish of a five-year-old. How do you punish someone for something they can’t stop?

[Self-Test: Symptoms of Hyperactive Impulsive ADHD in Children]

Falcon sits on the floor for the remainder of the show.

Or another scenario. I am getting ready in the morning. Falcon runs in and gleefully throws himself onto my bed. He begins jumping.

“Falcon, stop jumping on my bed.”

“OK, mama,” he says. He gets down and wanders off. Three minutes later, he’s back, with a brother and a sword. I’m trying to apply liquid eyeliner without stabbing myself, so I don’t notice the battle commence. A movement in the mirror catches my eye. I see Falcon and his little brother engaged in a full-on epic light-saber fight in the middle of my bed.

“I said stop jumping on my bed!”

They ignore me.

“I will take your light sabers if you keep jumping on the bed.” They scurry away. My pillows have been disarranged. Bedclothes trail along the floor. I will have to clean this up once I’m finished with my makeup.

And before I have, Falcon is back, this time doing somersaults. “Mama,” he says, “look at me!”

“I told you not to jump on my bed.”

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

He looks at me as if I’ve told him I’m a martian. “But it’s fun,” he says.

“Beds are for sleeping. You are not allowed on my bed right now.”

“OK, mama,” he agrees.

Until he’s back, and this time he’s full-on jumping. He just wants to be in the room where I am. He wants to be close. And the bed is too much of a temptation for someone with impulse control problems. He can’t help it. There is a bed. The bed, by its very nature, demands to be jumped on.

“What did we talk about?” I am stern.

Falcon stops, dejected. It’s so different from his earlier demeanor, from the way he looked when he jumped. He was so happy.

“I can’t let you jump on my bed. It throws the covers around, and it might hurt the box spring. Beds are for sleeping. They are not made for jumping. If you need to jump, go jump in your ball pit. But you cannot jump on my bed.” (I am losing patience here and talking too long, but I can’t stop). “When you jump on my bed, I have to clean up the mess you make. I might have to buy a new bed. You might fall and hit your head.”

“OK, mama,” he says sadly. He doesn’t want to disappoint me. He doesn’t understand why he can’t stop doing something he desperately wants to do. He isn’t trying to make me mad, or trying to ignore the rules. Rather, to Falcon, the rules don’t exist. He forgets I told him to stop jumping two minutes ago. The urge to jump is too strong, too subconscious. His mind says jump. Jump he must.

This is one of the hardest parts of having a child with ADHD: the jumping-on-the-bed principle. They don’t want to misbehave. But they act impulsively, and how do you respond to a child who isn’t willfully disobeying, but who mostly can’t help it? We try gentle redirection. It sort of works. If anyone has any other advice, let me know.

I’ll be the woman keeping the five-year-old off the couch.

[Never Punish a Child for Behavior Outside His Control]