For the parents of a child with ADHD, everyday tasks turn into battles—from getting the child out the door in the morning to getting him to bed at night. My son was diagnosed with ADHD at age 6, so I remember what it was like to have a daily tug of war with an attention disordered child all too well. Parents look for help everywhere. They may read one book after another and hear a parade of behavioral experts speak who give them parenting tips that don’t seem to work. The more books they read and experts they seek out, the worse their child’s behavior seems to get.
“ADHD is a ‘brain difference.’ Your child’s brain works differently than 95% of his peers. So ‘one size fits all’ parenting techniques won’t necessarily fit your child.”
In my practice and in my work with my own son, I discovered a number of techniques and strategies that can help parents improve the behavior of a child with ADHD.
ADHD Secret #1: Parenting Techniques Must Be Adapted to Kids with ADHD
What works for adolescents with ADHD may not work for a seven-year-old with this diagnosis. Likewise, if a behavior modification technique works for 95% of children, that doesn’t mean it will be effective for the 5% of kids with ADHD.
The time out is a classic example of a behavior modification tool that is often misused with children who have ADHD. Timeouts are often recommended to help children with ADHD learn to control impulsive behavior such as talking back, hitting or hyperactivity. However, standard application of this popular intervention may not work in the presence of ADHD.
Parents are usually told to apply 1 minute of timeout for each year of age, thus 6 minutes for a six year old. For a child this young with ADHD, this may be too much time. Psychologists suggest applying the 30% rule to kids with ADHD and learning disabilities, which means that social-emotional development for these kids may be 30% less than their peers. Thus, a 6 year old should be considered to react more like a 4 year old. Therefore, 4 minutes would be more appropriate.
ADHD Secret #2: Use Reward, not Punishment
One of the most important things to realize about children with ADHD is that they respond much better to reward than to punishment. So here’s how to adapt the time out to a child with this diagnosis so that the tool is more effective. If your 6 year old won’t sit quietly in timeout, tell him the timeout is 8 minutes (double the time based on the 30% Rule). But he can reduce it to 4 minutes by sitting quietly. Then watch how hard he tries to earn the “reward.” By moving away from punishment and giving the child a reward, albeit a simple one, you are speaking the language that an ADHD child understands.
Helpful tip: Don’t nag! Help your child to correct errors and mistakes by showing or demonstrating what he should do rather than focusing on what he did wrong.
ADHD Secret #3: Leverage the Child’s Desire for Positive Attention
Children with ADHD usually crave positive attention while being more likely to have a severe over-reaction to negative attention or punishment. Using what is called “selective attention” can be very helpful in increasing appropriate behavior while decreasing inappropriate behavior. Begin to pay attention to appropriate behavior through praise while ignoring inappropriate behavior. For example, your child is wiggling around and making silly noises while you are helping him with homework. Ignore the behavior and say, “Let’s see how fast we can get this work done.” When he settles down you can say, “Wow!, you are really working hard and look, we’re almost done now.” This may be difficult at first because it’s usually the opposite of how parents tend to respond to behavior. It’s our instinct to jump on irritating behaviors and try to correct them, simply to make them go away. But without knowing it, we are rewarding the inappropriate behavior because, with these children, any kind of attention is better than no attention at all. Even worse, when we ignore appropriate behavior, we don’t reinforce it. So the child with ADHD doesn’t learn that appropriate behavior often leads to positive attention. When you use selective attention, rewarded behavior will increase while ignored behavior will decrease. It’s a parental 180-degree turnaround that can work wonders with a young child who has attention and hyperactivity problems.
Helpful Tip: Innappropriate or irritating behavior should be ignored 100% of the time while appropriate behavior should be praised 70% to 80% of the time at first, and then to less than half the time as things improve. The goal is for the child to gradually be able to control their behavior on their own.
ADHD Secret #4: Teamwork Works with ADHD
You + Your Child = The Team
Most programs for kids with ADHD focus on training parents, which is very important, but these programs do not speak directly to the child. Instead, I recommend that parents and kids work together as a team. For instance, in the Total Focus Program, the parents and the child are shown ways of working together on relaxation exercises that improve concentration and reduce frustration. The exercises are fun, and a chart is kept to track progress. They end up having a good time, improving their relationship and learning new skills together.
Many of the programs for kids that are on the market focus on improving only one skill. But they offer no magic cure. In my practice, I’ve had success using a broad spectrum of approaches (cognitive rehabilitation, behavior modification and relaxation therapy) that are integrated together with a newfound “I Can” attitude to produce results that lead to major improvements in behavior and learning achievement. When I work with kids and parents, I teach problem solving skills and social skills to improve motivation and self-esteem. By doing this, the child learns to put in the work to achieve the major skills he needs to master: improved attention, concentration, and functions including memory and self-control. As a result, the whole family benefits.
ADHD Secret #5—Young Children with ADHD Respond Well to Touch
Most kids with ADHD need lots of physical contact. Love them by touching them, hugging them, tickling them, wrestling with them.
ADHD Secret #6–Focus on the child’s strengths daily—and more than you would with a child who does not have ADHD
Look for and encourage their strengths, interests, and abilities. Help them to use these as compensations for any limitations or disabilities. Reward your child with praise, good words, smiles, and a pat on the back as often as you can.
ADHD Secret #7—Practice Motor Skill Improvement to Reduce Frustration
Make a game of practicing motor activities that will stimulate them in their development. For example, skipping to music, playing catch or tossing a bean bag at a stack of blocks improves coordination and the ability to follow directions without frustration, giving the child more self-confidence as well.
ADHD Secret #8—Consistency Pays
Being consistent is good advice for any parent. For parents of young children with ADHD, it is vitally important. Exhausted parents crave a “quick fix” to impulsive, unmanageable behavior. So they tend not to stay with one strategy long enough to see it work. When you use the techniques suggested here, remember that consistency is important to achieving success with a young, attention disordered child.
ADHD is a “brain difference.” You child’s brain works differently than 95% of his peers. So “one size fits all” parenting techniques won’t necessarily fit your child. Your parenting strategies may need to be administered in smaller doses with more emphasis on rewards and on your child’s strengths. I teach parents how to understand the unique traits and behaviors of their child and how to adapt “tried and true” approaches so they will work for their child. I also help parents to develop a positive approach that helps them to be able to develop patience and insight that will result in happier days for parent and child.
Dr. Robert Myers is a child psychologist with more than 30 years of experience working with children and adolescents with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD - ADHD) and learning disabilities. Dr. Myers is Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at UC Irvine School of Medicine. "Dr. Bob" has provided practical information for parents as a radio talk show host and as editor of Child Development Institute's website, childdevelopmentinfo.com. Dr. Myers earned his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.