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.
But it’s important to understand that 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 my work with my son, I discovered several techniques and strategies that can help parents of children with ADHD improve their behavior. Here are eight things I have learned that can help parents improve their child’s behavior and school achievement:
A parenting technique that works for 95% of children might not work for the 5% of kids with ADHD. For example, the time-out is a behavior modification tool that is often misused with children who have ADHD. Time-outs are often recommended to help children with ADHD learn to control impulsive behavior such as talking back, hitting or hyperactivity. However, the standard application of this popular intervention may not work in the presence of ADHD.
Parents are usually told to apply 1 minute of time-out 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.
It’s easy to see how understanding the effects of ADHD in children can make parenting much easier.
One of the most important things to realize about children with ADHD is that these kids respond much better to rewards than punishments. So using the time-out example: if your 6-year-old doesn’t sit quietly in time-out, tell him the time-out 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 correct errors and mistakes by showing or demonstrating what he should do rather than focusing on what he did wrong.
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.
But without knowing it, we are rewarding the inappropriate behavior because any kind of attention is better than no attention at all for a child with ADHD. 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 with attention and hyperactivity problems.
Helpful Tip: Inappropriate 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.
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 example, parents and children can work together on relaxation exercises that improve concentration and reduce frustration. The exercises are fun and improve their relationship as they learn new skills together.
Many of the programs for kids with ADHD 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.
Note: Current professional treatment guidelines recommend a trial of a comprehensive behavioral program BEFORE medication for children with mild to moderate ADHD symptoms. Recent research studies indicate that behavioral interventions not only change behavior, they change how the brain looks and works.
Most kids with ADHD need lots of physical contact. Love them by touching them, hugging them, tickling them, and wrestling with them.
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.
Children with ADHD often struggle with motor coordination and working to improve their coordination can greatly reduce their frustration and increase their confidence. Therefore, make a game of practicing motor activities that will stimulate your child’s development.
For example, for younger kids, 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. These simple activities can make a big difference.
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.
Remember, 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. Your parenting strategies may need to be administered in smaller doses with more emphasis on rewards and on your child’s strengths. Check out the ADHD/ADD articles in EP to learn more.
Related Content: 10 Simple Concentration and Focus Building Techniques for Kids with ADHD
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.
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My son is 11 and has been on meds for ADHD since 1st grade, my husband is military and we move very much. Since mid 3rd grade I noticed him changing, Im not sure what happened but now, in 5th grade he has NO friends, or atleast none his age, all are younger. He is very socially awarkward and very immature for his age, always making odd noises and he enjoys playing with things that are much to young for him, pokemon etc. I dont tell him to stop but I do know he needs to if he is going to fit in with children his age. He has been bullied by children younger than him and just walks away. Even with medication he asks very odd question that show his intelligence, one time he was with a group of boys who were playing near our house, he heard them talking about some bugs that were all over the trees and my son went over there and listened then he said "hey how many steps do you think are in a mile?" the boys just looked at him then they walked away! I know I cant make friends for him, or shelter him from being called all the names (weird, dork, geek, gross etc) but how do I help him build confidence, learn to sociallize and mature in some way...he chews on stuff, picks his nose and is always begging to just stay inside and play video games!!! I just dont want him to be alone with no one on his side, that is his age. He is my oldest with a much younger sister and my husband is deployed right now...also my husband is not his biological father, he hasnt seen or heard from him in over 4 years and he never asks about him.... I just want my son to be as comfortable as possible!!!! We have placed him in sports and on teams, after school programs etc he just acts the same and if he makes friends they are still atleast 2 or more years younger than him and he doesnt put forth any effort in sports or team activities! HELP US!! PLEASE!!! thank you for your time!!!
It sounds like this situation with your son has been very frustrating for you. It is very important that in pursuing a diagnosis for your son, you continue to seek the help of local professionals. The school counselor can link you with the school’s psychiatrist for evaluation. If you truly feel that having a diagnosis is what your son needs to function better and feel better, I encourage you move forward despite your fears of him being “singled out.” As Dr. Bob says, “I encourage parents not be afraid of the diagnosis, give it undue weight and importance or use the label as a crutch for your child. Instead, I believe we need to accept it as the first step in turning a difficult situation around to a positive direction. Helping a child with ADHD succeed requires a team approach that often needs to continue over many years. That team includes the family, health professionals, teachers and, of course, the child.” Please see Dr. Bob’s article for more information: ADHD: Disorder or Difference?
It can be hard to know if you’re expecting too much of your child. You write he has attention issues at school and at home, so this is something he struggles with all day long and in different environments. Some kids with attention deficits may always need assistance to get them back on track. It sounds like you have a good system in place. You could try adding Dr. Bob’s First Time Club incentives. This is a reward chart that gives points for doing it right the first time. Give us a call her on the Support Line. We’d be glad to discuss more techniques from the Total Focus program.
What we would recommend is talking to her pediatrician about her behaviors. The doctor should be able to tell the difference between a child who likes playing ‘dress up’ from a one who behaves compulsively. He would also be able to tell you how long a child at her developmental age should be able to sit still. Remember that if she has ADHD, Dr. Bob says these kids are not as mature as other 4 years olds.
We’re sorry to hear your son is struggling with this. We would recommend that you continue to work with the treatment team you have in place that knows your son well. For example, be sure to tell the physician who is prescribing his medications to reduce symptoms of ADHD, what behaviors you son is still struggling with. We wish your family the best.
My 4 year old granddaughter i just know has adhd as well as her father . she is a handful in a split living condition 3 days with her mother and 4 days with her father which is 45 min from one another ... she cannot sit still not ever long enough to have a meal sometimes to watch a movie for short increments at a time . my question is for us to get her to do what we want her to do we need to always tell her the opposite of what we want and she will do it if we ask her to do something she has a hard time with it... also it takes her literally about 20 min to just pick out a pair of underpants to wear and forget about the outfit it is a struggle everyday and all day long she want to change her clothes. and if she sees someone on tv or at home walk in she looks at what they are wearing and has to change her whole outfit including undies what do we do at this point without loosing our minds... help this is just the tip of ice.
I have purchased some of the programs nothing is working as of this point.
Hello. My son is having so many problems at school with academics and behavior. He is so far behind in his grades. He is getting suspended monthly. He does have an IEP. However, I'm not receiving the support from the school.
He's a great kid who has ADHD and ODD. My concern is his self esteem as well as him falling so far behind that one day it may be to hard for him to catch up. I've called Sylvan and other learning centers...I cannot afford them. I'm a single parent doing the best I can. Is there help? What can I do?
I have an 11 year old son, diagnosed with ADHD about 4 years ago. He is on 20mg of Metadate, which is the only medication we have tried (along with Fish Oil supplement).
He is a STRAIGHT A student in school, but his social behavior is out of control... He has been in trouble so many times for the inability to keep his hands to himself. Usually resulting is the other child getting hurt. What techniques would you recommend for my son? How can I help him get this under control?
We have a rewards system in place as well as a consequences system. This is something that my son's school recommended for us to do. But I was just wondering if there was anything else that we can do.
Insightful article. Having worked with "alphabet kids" for a couple of decades the benefits of remembering to "Leverage the Child’s Desire for Positive Attention" cannot be overstated.
Kids are kids, they need love, support and nurture.
About "ADHD Tip #2: Use Reward, not Punishment"
I agree so much with your thoughts on that. However, it's a sad fact that I observe a lot of parents who still impose corporal punishment to their children when they commit mistakes. Sad to say, this is also true among mentally and physically challenged kids. More campaign towards appropriate parenting should be done.
Dear Rick: Thanks for your question. A lot of parents -- and kids -- struggle with staying on task in school, especially when ADD/ADHD is present. I'd like to point you toward some excellent articles in EP that Dr. Bob has written, which I think will be helpful to you and your son:
5 Simple Concentration Building Exercises for Kids with ADD/ADHD:
ADD/ADHD Kids and Homework:
And to prepare for when your son is a little older, here's one on teens with ADD/ADHD and School:
You can also search the Empowering Parents site for all our articles, blog posts and podcasts on ADD/ADHD--we have many that I think will be helpful!
P.S. Please contact your pediatrician regarding new medications for ADD/ADHD.