Parenting

How to Discipline a Child with ADHD

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You’re getting ready to go on a family outing, and everyone is ready to go — except your child with ADHD. You left her in her room several minutes ago with the instruction to get ready to leave. 

Already late, you run to your child’s bedroom, only to find her still in her pajamas, watching television. When you sternly remind her that she needs to change her clothes, she throws a tantrum. You become overwhelmed and raise your voice. This only makes her more upset. You’re at your wit’s end, and you don’t know what to do.

Does this sound familiar to you? You’re not alone. This is often what life looks like for the parents of 6 million children in the U.S. who live with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). 

Discipline can be a challenge when your child has ADHD, to say the least. But there are effective ways to provide discipline for your child that also help you build a positive relationship with them.

Discipline and ADHD

First, it’s important to clearly define what “discipline” means, especially as it relates to kids with ADHD. 

It’s easy to relate the idea of “discipline” with “punishment.” When we think of disciplining a child, we usually jump to thinking about how to discipline them when things go wrong — when they misbehave. But in reality, discipline isn’t about punishment at all. Discipline actually means to teach and involves more than punishment.

Discipline is more about preventing misbehaviors than it is about punishing them when they happen. It’s about creating an ideal environment that sets your child up for success. This is even more true for parents of kids with ADHD. 

ADHD causes kids to struggle with things like impulsivity, self-control and managing their emotions. It’s a neurodevelopmental condition — and that means that these behaviors, as frustrating as they are for parents, aren’t in your child’s control.

ADHD behaviors aren’t your child’s fault — or yours. Punishing them for these behaviors will likely only make both them and you feel worse.

Instead, think of discipline as a way to teach your child important skills they can use to manage their own behaviors. Discipline, when it’s used this way, can create less tension in your family and set up your child for success both inside and outside of your home. It’s a gift, not a punishment.

Strategies to use to provide discipline for a child with ADHD

The good news is that there are many strategies you can use to help your child make good behavior choices. Try these strategies and approaches when disciplining your child with ADHD.

Understand your child’s needs

First of all, it’s important to understand where your child’s behaviors are coming from. Children with ADHD don’t misbehave to upset you or be defiant. Their condition causes many of their behaviors.

Kids with ADHD may “act out” because of many different reasons, including emotional dysregulation, frustration, and a high intolerance for boredom. They also have a hard time with tasks like processing commands and following complex instructions.

Some discipline strategies for neurotypical kids are likely going to be ineffective if your child has ADHD. If you can understand the underlying reasons behind why your child is behaving in a certain way, then you’ll be more likely to be able to meet their needs and help them change their behavior.

For example, if you recognize that your child is filled with pent-up hyperactive energy, then you can engage them in activities that provide them with a healthy energy release. If they’re frustrated with their homework, you can allow them to take a short break.

Have clear expectations

Kids with ADHD have trouble with complex instructions and vague expectations. Multi-step chain commands can be especially difficult for them to process. If you tell your child with ADHD to “Turn off the TV, and go brush your teeth and get ready for bed,” it’s likely that your child won’t be able to sort out and follow all the steps of the instruction that you’re giving them.

Vague instructions can be equally confusing. A request like, “Make sure your room is clean,” is unspecific and broad. Your child might have a hard time interpreting exactly what you expect. Similarly, if you tell your child to “Behave” or “Be careful” they won’t fully know what you mean by that.

Instead, set clear expectations by providing your child with effective instructions. First, make sure they’re paying attention to you — make eye contact, and get rid of distractions like the TV.

Then, give them one specific instruction at a time. For example, you might say, “Please go brush your teeth right now.” You may want to ask your child to repeat the instruction back to you to make sure they understood.

Use a rewards system

A reward system is a tangible way to reinforce positive behaviors. A classic example is a sticker chart; a child receives a sticker for each time they demonstrate a specific positive behavior and receives a larger prize when their chart is filled. This can be a great way to promote positive behaviors for kids with and without ADHD.

But keep in mind that the brains of kids with ADHD often aren’t very responsive to anticipated rewards that are very delayed. In other words, having to wait until the entire sticker chart is filled may not be effective for them. They do, however, respond well to immediate rewards. Giving your child small rewards throughout the day, rather than a large one after a period of time, may be the way to go.

Make sure you choose rewards that matter to your child. Many kids prefer non-physical rewards — such as an ice cream date with you — to physical rewards, like toys.

Give praise

Although a physical rewards system works for many kids, simple verbal praise for positive behaviors can be effective, too. 

For praise to be effective, it should be immediate and specific. Praise your child immediately when you see them doing something positive — don’t wait until the end of the day. And praise the specific behavior. For example, instead of saying, “Great job, Johnny!” you can say, “It shows a lot of kindness that you shared your toy with your sister, Johnny. Thank you for sharing.”

It’s also important to praise effort, and not only ability. In other words, notice when your child with ADHD is trying — even if they didn’t quite succeed. This might look like praising them for working on their homework rather than completing it. By praising them for their effort, they’re more likely to complete it.

Ignore mild misbehaviors

Experts say that sometimes, the best solution is to simply ignore the bad behavior — especially if it’s mild. Obviously, if your child’s behavior is putting them or someone else in danger, then you need to intervene. But ignoring your child’s behaviors when they’re acting out mildly can be effective in cutting down on attention-seeking behavior.

For example, your child with ADHD may make a noise repeatedly when your family is watching television together. You might find this behavior annoying, but it might be the most effective strategy to actively ignore this. Your child will likely get bored and stop this behavior on their own.

Keep in mind that to be effective, ignoring needs to be used very intentionally. It also should be counterbalanced with positive attention. When you and your child have a positive relationship, they will work for your positive attention and praise.

Work with a professional

Lastly, if these discipline strategies don’t work, then consider working with a professional. Professionals can help in two main ways. First, they can provide behavior therapy for your child. This teaches your child the skills they need to be successful at home and at school.

A professional can also provide parent training for you. As the parent, you’re the person who has the greatest influence on your child. Parent training can teach you strategies to provide discipline and structure, as well as how to communicate with your child to build a positive relationship.

Takeaway

Providing discipline and structure is an important part of parenting any child. But disciplining a child with ADHD can be uniquely challenging. The important thing to remember is to use discipline strategies that make sense for your child and their needs.