Behavior & Discipline

Stop Ignoring, Start Interrupting for Better Discipline

Guess what? The nagging and yelling isn’t working. Learn how to keep words to a minimum, nix harsh punishments, and develop a more positive approach to navigating ADHD with your child.

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Boy with ADHD screaming outside with his hands to his ears in defiance of his parents

Like all kids, children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) sometimes make bad choices regarding their own behavior. No surprise there. But to make matters worse, parents could often use a few parenting tips themselves, and err in the way they discipline misbehavior. Instead of using firm, compassionate discipline, they move into what I call the ignore-nag-yell-punish cycle.

First, the parent pretends not to notice the child’s misbehavior, hoping that it will go away on its own. Of course, this seldom works, so the parent next tries to urge the child not to do such and such. Next, the parent starts yelling and scolding. When this doesn’t produce the desired result, the parent becomes extremely angry and imposes harsh punishments. I think of this fourth stage as the parent’s temper tantrum.

This four-part strategy (if you could call it that) isn’t just ineffective. It makes life needlessly unpleasant for every member of the family.

How can you avoid it? As with any other pitfall, simply being aware of it will help you steer clear of it. At the first sign of starting on the wrong path, you can stop what you’re doing and make a conscious decision to try something else. Take an honest look at how you respond when your children misbehave. What specific situations are likely to cause you to go down this path? How far down the path do you typically proceed? How often?

Let’s examine the ignore-nag-yell-punish strategy more closely to see why it doesn’t work — and come up with some strategies that do.

Why Ignoring Doesn’t Work

By ignoring your child’s misbehavior, you send the message that you neither condone nor support his misbehavior. At least that’s the message you hope to send.

In fact, your child may read your silence as “I won’t give you my attention or concern” or even “I reject you.” That can wound a child. On the other hand, your child may assume that your silence means that you approve of his behavior or will at least tolerate it. “Mom hasn’t said I can’t do this,” he thinks, “so it must be OK.”

Even if your child correctly interprets the message that you’re trying to send by ignoring him, he has no idea what you want him to do instead. In other words, ignoring your child doesn’t define better behavior or provide guidance about how your child should behave next time.

Instead of ignoring him when he does something you disapprove of, I recommend another “i-word”: interrupting. That is, quickly move people or objects so that your child is unable to misbehave.

For example, if your children start quarreling over a toy, you might say, “Alex, sit over there. Maria, stand here. I’ll take this and put it up here.” Similarly, if your teen comes for supper with dirty hands, immediately take his plate off the table and silently point to his hands. If you feel the need to tell your child what you expect of him, tell him once, very clearly. Then stop talking.

Don’t Be a Nag

Why is it important to keep words to a minimum when disciplining your child? Because, as I often remind parents, words are like tires. Each time they rotate against the pavement, they lose tread and become less efficient at starting, stopping, and steering. If you spin words out endlessly, they’ll become less efficient at starting, stopping, and steering your child. Eventually, your words will have no “traction” at all — as tires will eventually become bald.

If the chatterbox parent is ineffective, so is the parent who barks orders like a drill sergeant. To break the yelling habit, tell yourself that you won’t open your mouth until you’re calm enough to speak at a normal volume and in a cordial tone. Often, all it takes to calm down is to spend a few minutes alone – something as simple as excusing yourself to get a glass of water may do the trick.

Taking time to cool off will also help you avoid the last and most counterproductive element of ignore-nag-yell-punish.

Punishment vs. Undoing and Redoing

Parents often assume that by punishing a misbehaving child, they’re helping to build the child’s conscience. Not so. In most cases, harsh punishments, like spanking, simply encourage a child to become sneaky so as to not get caught next time. (They may even cause your child to doubt your love for her.)

A better approach is to impose consequences that are appropriate to the offense and respectful of your child. Ideally, the consequence you impose for a particular misbehavior will involve undoing or redoing the situation. The consequence for carelessly spilling milk, for example, might be that your child cleans up the mess (undoing), and then pours another glass and sets it in a safer place (redoing). No need to blame or yell. No need to impose harsh punishment (for example, withholding food).

If you’re careful to recognize your first steps down the ignore-nag-yell-punish path — and to substitute the strategies I’ve described — you’ll find yourself on a different path, one that leads to a more harmonious relationship with your child. It’s a trip I highly recommend.

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