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.
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.