8 Secret Tips for Parents of Children with ADHD

Posted February 7, 2011 by

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For the parents of a child with ADHD – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder—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 in my work with my own son, I discovered a number of techniques and strategies that can help parents of children with ADHD improve behavior.

Here are 8 Secrets I have learned that can help parents improve their child’s behavior and school achievement:

ADHD Tip #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. Time-outs 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 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.

ADHD Tip #2: Use Reward, not Punishment

One of the most important things to realize about children with ADHD is that these kids 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 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 to correct errors and mistakes by showing or demonstrating what he should do rather than focusing on what he did wrong.

ADHD Tip #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: 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.

ADHD Tip #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.

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.

ADHD Tip #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, and wrestling with them.

ADHD Tip #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 Tip #7—Practice Motor Skill Improvement to Reduce Frustration

Make a game of practicing motor activities that will stimulate your child in his 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, giving the child more self-confidence as well. Children with ADHD may have problems in motor coordination so these tips can make a big difference.

ADHD Tip #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.

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.

About

Dr Robert Myers is a child psychologist with more than 25 years of experience working with children and adolescents with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and learning disabilities and is the creator of the Total Focus Program. 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, 4parenting.com which reaches 3 million parents each year. Dr. Myers earned his Ph.D. from the University of Southern California.

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  1. knowyourchildki Report

    Thanks for sharing the useful tips! That’s true, there are many ways to parenting ADHD children. But the first thing parents need to do is understand what is ADHD and how can they help their child. Really appreciate the parents who have the awareness of youth mental health disorders, no matter they try the medication methods or different parenting styles to help their child. Kindergarten is an important stage of children’s life. So parents and teachers should pay more attention to children’s behaviour at this time. I found If parents can find those symptoms of autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or anxiety disorder, etc., much early. Children can get timely treatment that can help them have a better performance in future studying and mental health development.

    Reply
  2. Jewels Report

    Hi?I Have a child with Adhd he also has had a terrible time as a small child with some really terrible things that have happened to him!! I do keep him busy and keep routine!!! I have probably spoilt him rotten too over trying to make things ok for what has happened!!! I am a single mum and have planned big Halloween party he is getting really excited,,,, but I no that every year I do the same and he ends up being such a brat it reduces me to tears whenever I do anything with him he ruins it all the time he is on medication 2 times a day < he just never smiles and nothing I do ever is enough for him I find it very lonely as none of my family bother!! do u have any tips on????? on how to keep happy????

    Reply
  3. Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor Report

    To ‘tstewart212’: It sounds like you have quite a few things you’d like to work on with your son. In order to be most effective, we do recommend that you work on one behavior issue at a time. For now, it would be best to simply walk away when he talks back. By doing this, we show him that it doesn’t help him gain any power or push your buttons. We would recommend that you focus on the hitting behavior by problem solving with your son. For example, you might start by asking him, “What was going on for you right before you hit your brother?” or “What were you trying to accomplish by hitting your brother?” Then you can discuss what he can do instead that will be a more appropriate way to handle the situation. Problem solving is an on-going process that you will want to repeat with each incident and follow up with a short consequence, such as the loss of his video games until he makes an amends to his brother. I’m including an article for more information and ideas that will be helpful: The Jekyll and Hyde Child: Targeted Behavior Problems. We wish you and your family luck as you continue to work through this. Take care.

    Reply
  4. tstewart212 Report

    Hello, I have read a couple comments that are about the same. My oldest son will be 11 in May. He hasn’t seen or talked to his natural father since he was 17 months old. My husband has raised him since he was a little over 2. He was diagnosed with ADHD when he was in Kindergarten. He does very well in school, just seems to be very angry. Talks back, hits on his brother and sometimes he even picks on his baby sisters. He is very jealous of the dog. He gets mostly A’s in school and his behavior there seems to be fine as well. This behavior is just at home and is worse if he is here with my husband. What can I do?

    Reply
  5. MELISSAD01 Report

    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!!!
    Melissa

    Reply
  6. Sara A. Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor Report

    Dear Lori:
    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?

    Reply
  7. Lori Report

    My son is almost 18 and have always suspected he is adhd. We live in a rural area and have talked to several professionals who won’t even take time to test him. He does have good grades but he is difficult to communicate with and he can’t seem to focus or stay on task. Any advice on what steps to take to even begin to diagnose him? Please don’t recommend the school counselor. Not an option since he’ll be singled out. Thanks

    Reply
  8. Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor Report

    Dear fulloflife:

    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.

    Reply
  9. fulloflife Report

    My son is 8 and very bright. I keep getting the comment from his teachers that they do not know why he knows what he does because he is never paying attention. My question is, I have morning and nightly routines that the children are suppose to follow. They have been in place for almost a year now and my son still has troubles remembering to do all 5 items without getting side tracked and having to be reminded what to do next. Am I expecting to much of him? I set the routines up so there is consitency and he knows what is expected of him when he gets up and goes to bed. How can I make this easier on both of us?

    Reply
  10. Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor Report

    Dear rayjor68:

    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.

    Reply
  11. Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor Report

    Dear greekg0ddess05:

    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.

    Reply
  12. rayjor68 Report

    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.

    Reply
  13. Melissa Report

    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?

    Reply
  14. greekg0ddess05 Report

    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.

    Reply
  15. Scott Volltrauer Report

    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.

    Reply
  16. parent children relationship Report

    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.

    Reply
  17. Elisabeth Wilkins, EP Editor Report

    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:

    http://www.empoweringparents.com/Five-Simple-Brain-Exercise-Activities-for-Your-ADHD-Child.php

    ADD/ADHD Kids and Homework:

    http://www.empoweringparents.com/blog/school-and-homework/your-adhd-child-and-school-quick-tips-on-eliminating-homework-hassles-this-year/

    And to prepare for when your son is a little older, here’s one on teens with ADD/ADHD and School:

    http://www.empoweringparents.com/blog/adhd-add/your-teen-with-adhd/

    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.

    Reply
  18. Rick C Report

    I have a wonderful 10 year old son. What are some strategies to help my son to be successful in school in regards to focusing and staying on task? Strategies to help with math concepts, reading for comprehension, book report projects so he learns the skills to do it himself and require less directions from me? Are there any new medications with less side effects than the ones we’ve tried before like Adderol?

    Reply

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