Positive Parenting

What’s Really Behind Your Child’s “Bad” Behavior?

Relentless criticism and a constant stream of consequences can make kids with ADHD melt down or shut down. To really understand – and help others “get” — your child, learn to look beyond his outbursts or low grades for the low self-esteem, restless energy, or out-of-control feelings that you can help to improve.

An upset school girl learns about the link between ADHD and behavior
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Recognize Your Child’s Challenges

Your child’s behavior chart shows more red than green. During a typical day, he loses count of the times he’s told to “Sit still!” or “Follow along!” or “Wait your turn.” He understands his parents’ and teachers’ expectations, and feels he’ll never meet them — no matter how hard he tries. Which is really, really hard.

Over time, these daily setbacks and disappointments add up. Not only is your child’s spirit crushed, but his behavior continues to spiral downward as well. More often than not, his meltdowns and acts of defiance are not acts of retaliation or rebellion. They are cries for help: “I don’t want to be in trouble all the time. I need the tools to succeed.” Here, learn to understand what your child’s behavior is really saying.

A boy throws a paper airplane in class without realizing it's part of the connection between ADHD and behavior.
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The Two-Step Strategy for Success

1. Get to the root of challenges. Parenting or teaching a child with ADHD requires looking beyond her outward behavior to understand what prompts her actions:

  • Is she being overbearing because she feels inferior?
  • Is she avoiding getting ready for school because she feels anxious?
  • Is she acting out in class because she needs to get up and move?

2. Give your child the tools he needs to succeed, instead of waiting for him to fail.

When kids start to act out, the first questions are often: “Well, what are we going to take away?” “How many times do I have to tell you?” “What were you thinking?”

Next time, ask yourself this: “What could help this child succeed?”

A boy is being bossy because of the ADHD and behavior link
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Challenge: Your Child Feels Out of Control

In an ADHD brain, thoughts and impulses collide like socks in a dryer set to 100mph. Adding to the bombardment are often sensory issues that allow loud noises or strong odors to hijack focus. And all that energy has no avenue for escape: Schedules and rules at school rarely leave enough time for independent exploration and experimentation.

All of that makes kids with ADHD feel out of control – of their brains, bodies, and lives. When that emotion builds up, the natural impulse is to take charge of other people and situations. This can look like bossiness, when it’s really a child trying to regain a sense of ownership and control.

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have ADHD?]

A mother embraces her son in a park and explains the ADHD and behavior connection.
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Solution: Put Your Child In Charge

Next time your child exhibits aggressive or headstrong behavior, resist the temptation to label it as bossiness and to exert your authority.

Suspend judgement on the outward behavior, and instead help your child examine the root cause of his anger or frustration or defiance.  Say, “Jake, I think I know what’s going on. In school all day, everyone was telling you what to do. It all feels out of your control. I know what that feels like because when I’m tired, I boss people around, too.”

Then, give your child a constructive way to control his world — like by fixing things.

Say, “You don’t have to be the boss here at home. I’ll make sure everything is OK. But you could help me with something: My broom is broken. Could you find some duct tape and fix it for me?”

A girl is worried about school because of ADHD and behavior problems
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Challenge: Your Child Is Worried About School

Each school day brings a litany of challenges for a child with ADHD. She might be quietly battling worries that impact her frame of mind and her behavior, like:

  • “What if I get in trouble today?”
  • “Are we having a test? Will I fail?”
  • “What if no one will play with me at recess?”

You feel the stress as well and you wonder, “What if she refuses to get up again, and I’m late to work?” That pressure in your head or heart can rub off on and overwhelm your child.

These anxieties weigh heavily, so your child’s natural response may be, “I’m just not going to school today.” She may fake a stomachache or stall until she’s hopelessly late for school.

A girl with ADHD has breakfast with her father before school
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Solution: Create Positive Incentives

To get a child moving in the morning, give him something tangible to look forward to in his day.

At School

Find a teacher, custodian, or counselor who will give your child a special morning job. This person could say, “Eva, you’re so good with computers. I could really use your help creating this spreadsheet.”

That way, when your child wakes up, her thoughts aren’t on the scary unknowns, but rather on helping Mrs. Henderson.

At Home

Draw a worried child out of her internal world, and lead her to a calm place. Don’t linger on the negatives; instead, draw attention on your child’s strengths and interests.

Instead of yelling at your child to get ready, create a reason to hurry. Say, “I found this really cool blues song. If you shower, get dressed, and are downstairs in the next 15 minutes, you and I can listen to it over breakfast.”

A student raises her hand in class, something that is hard for kids with ADHD and behavioral impulsivity.
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Challenge: Your Child Acts Up or Blurts Out In Class

“Keep your hands to yourself.” “Sit still.” “Raise your hand before speaking, or I’ll take away recess.”

Chances are, your child wants to follow instructions and behave well in class, but the urge to stand, touch others, or yell out her thoughts is overwhelming. Often, she doesn’t even realize she’s doing something wrong until it is too late and she’s in trouble again.

In cases like these, it’s not enough for parents and teachers to remind a child to stop an offending behavior. The child must be given an appropriate replacement behavior she can do instead.

[Free Download: 40 Best Accommodations for Children with ADHD or LD]

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Solution: Find a Healthy Outlet for Excess Energy

Fidgeting

Kids with ADHD have a lot of energy – both physical and mental. Fidgeting can help release this energy in subtle, undisruptive ways if parents and teachers get creative.

If a child is tapping a pencil in class, for example, his teacher can install a sensory strip on the underside of his desk that he can noiselessly fiddle with. Or a parent can sew the head of a toothbrush into the pocket of a favorite hoodie for the child to run his fingers across noiselessly.

Special assignments work, too. Your child’s teacher could say, “Hunter, I could really use your help. When I rub my nose, can you get up, get my water bottle from my desk, refill it, and put it back on my desk? Then, go sit down without talking to anyone.”

Assignments like this take 30 seconds, so the child doesn’t miss anything in class, and they create a success. Instead of another consequence, the teacher is able to dole out thanks and compliments.

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Solution: Reframe Behavior in a Positive Light

Blurting

Rephrase your depiction of “bad” behavior. For example, a teacher could say, “Lily, I know why you blurted out. You have this awesome brain that’s always filled with ideas, and you’re so passionate that you want to say them right away before you forget, but that’s unacceptable during class.” (There is a real difference between, “that’s unacceptable” and “that’s rude.”)

To curb the impulse to yell out, teachers may then distribute a special ticket to talk. When a child shows her ticket, the teacher can either say, “Go ahead, redeem your talk ticket.” Or, “Please hold it until after class. Write down what you want to say.”

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Challenge: Your Child Refuses to Do Homework

Homework requires strong executive functions, memory, focus, and attention to detail. Writing down the assignment correctly, bringing home the right books, keeping track of due dates, and handing in finished work are all challenging tasks for students with ADHD. After a day of struggling to sit still and be quiet, the last thing your child wants to do after school is sit down, be quiet, and face even more challenges.

So homework becomes a nightly battle between frustrated parents and mentally exhausted children. Every evening it is a reminder of difficulties at school, and setbacks.

A boy with ADHD throws a ball with his Dad to help improve behavior while working on homework.
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Solution: Accept that ‘Weird’ is Perfectly ‘Normal’

Some kids need to stand at the kitchen counter while listening to music, tapping on a sponge, and eating a snack to get started doing homework. Some kids work better lying under the kitchen table or sitting in their closet.

Let your kids do whatever works for him; don’t judge and don’t ‘should.’

Try reviewing vocabulary words while your child jumps on the trampoline. Or practice multiplication tables while tossing a ball in the yard, then go back in and work on the specific problem. If you’re frustrated, your child will get frustrated, and a nasty cycle ensues.

Remember that pointing out homework errors trigger a meltdown. Instead say, “I’ve circled a couple problems. When you’re ready, look at those again and come get me if you need help.” Then walk away. Give him space to figure it out. Be available without hovering, sending the message that, “I believe you’re capable, and I trust you. I know you’ll come to me if you’re struggling.”

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Challenge: Your Child Doesn’t Respond to Consequences

Discipline problems may spiral downward when a child who is always in trouble sees a sibling or classmate excelling — again. For a child who struggles, the natural impulse may be to say something mean, or hit the child who is receiving praise for excellent behavior or grades. After the 20th timeout or lost recess, the threat of punishment simply loses its effectiveness. A better way to defuse that negativity is with positive intensity and by helping to create successes for everyone.

A mom reads outside with her daughter with ADHD to help improve her behavior
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Solution: Use Passions In Purposeful Ways

Many kids have gifts and talents that aren’t recognized or rewarded in school. Your child opportunities to shine beyond his report card can make a world of difference in building confidence.

Does your child love cooking or fixing things? Arrange for her to do odd jobs for a retired neighbor who has a similar interest. Or get her involved in service projects after school.

In elementary school, focus on creating a curious, enthusiastic learner; don’t stress about grades. Some nights that may mean reading “Harry Potter” instead of doing homework, and then writing a note to the teacher. As your child ages, research internships and mentors in his field of interest. Then, ask the supervising adult to hold your child accountable, saying, “You have to keep a B average in school, do your chores at home, and then I will teach you about blueprints and architecture.”

A girl with ADHD has trouble making friends at recess because of her behavior.
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Challenge: Your Child Has Trouble Making Friends

Children with ADHD may experience asynchronous development, which means they lag a year or two behind their peers emotionally and get along better with younger children.

Some kids struggle to connect with peers because they don’t understand that certain behaviors aren’t age-appropriate. Behaviors that might come naturally to other children – reading social cues, transitioning to new activities, noticing minor details – are much harder for children with ADHD, and that can hurt their interactions with colleagues.

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Solution: Connect Over Shared Interests

Give your child the opportunity to ease into a friendship by connecting her with someone who shares a common interest.

Approach a teacher at school, and ask if there is another boy or girl in class who also loves LEGOs or drawing or building structures. Then, set up a play date so they can work together on a project that showcases each child’s strengths – like building LEGO castles. Or ask the playground attendant give them a special project to create new posters to decorate the school gymnasium.

At home, role play getting-to-know-you conversations where you ask questions and find common interests with new friends. Reinforce that it’s totally OK not to have a lot of friends; quality counts more than quantity.

A dad high fives his daughter with ADHD for improving her behavior
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The Power of Positivity

The challenge for parents is this: Train your focus away from what your child is doing wrong, and instead provide her opportunities to do well. Giver her specific jobs that user her gifts and talents in purposeful ways, and then praise her for trying her hardest and making good choices.

Accentuate your child’s positive qualities, and learn to send the message, “You have gifts, talents, and passions that are advantageous, even if you don’t get the best grades. You have all of these awesome qualities unique to you.”

[Free Webinar: From Crushed to Confident: 10 Ways to Help Your Child Soar in School]

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