Raising a child with ADHD is not like traditional child rearing. Normal rule-making and household routines can become almost impossible, so you will need to adopt different approaches, such as behavior management therapy. It’s frustrating and disheartening to cope with constant impulsive behavior from your child, but there are ways to make life easier.
Parents must accept the fact that children with ADHD have functionally different brains from those of other people. While ADHD children can still learn what is acceptable and what isn’t, their internal regulation makes them more prone to impulsive behavior.
Fostering the development of a child with ADHD means that you, as a parent, will have to modify your behavior—and learn to manage the behavior of your child. Medication may be the first step in your child’s treatment, but behavioral techniques for managing a child’s ADHD symptoms must always be in place. By following these guidelines, you can limit destructive behavior and help your child overcome self-doubt.
Principles of Behavior Management Therapy
The two basic principles of behavior management therapy are encouraging and rewarding good behavior and negatively reinforcing bad behavior by following it with appropriate consequences. By establishing rules and clear outcomes for following or disobeying these rules, you teach your child to understand that actions have consequences. These principles must be followed in every area of a child’s life: at home, in the classroom, and in the social arena.
Decide ahead of time which behaviors are acceptable and which are not.
The goal of behavioral modification is to help your child consider the consequences of an action and control the impulse to act on it. This requires empathy, patience, affection, energy, and strength on the part of the parent. Parents must first decide which behaviors they will and won’t tolerate. It is crucial to stick to these guidelines. Punishing a behavior one day and allowing it the next is detrimental to a child’s improvement. Some behaviors should always be unacceptable, such as physical outbursts, refusal to get up in the morning, or unwillingness to turn off the television when told to do so.
Your child may have a hard time internalizing and enacting your guidelines. Rules should be simple and clear, and children should be rewarded for following them. This can be accomplished using a points system. For example, allow the child to accrue points for good behavior that can be redeemed for spending money, time in front of the TV, or a new video game. If you have a list of house rules, write them down and put them where they are easy to see. Repetition and positive reinforcement can help your child to better understand your rules.
Define the rules, but allow some flexibility.
It is important to consistently reward good behaviors and discourage destructive ones, but you can’t be too strict with your child. Remember that ADHD children do not adapt to change as well as others; you must learn to allow your child some leeway. Odd behaviors that are not detrimental to your child or anyone else should be accepted as part of your child’s individual personality. It is ultimately harmful to discourage a child’s quirky behaviors just because you think they are peculiar.
Aggressive outbursts from children with ADHD are a common problem. Inflicting a “time-out” is an effective way to calm both you and your overactive child. If your child acts out in public, he or she should be immediately removed in a calm and decisive manner. “Time-out” should be explained to the child as a period to cool off and think about the negative behavior he or she has exhibited. Try to ignore mildly disruptive behaviors as a way for your child to release his or her pent up energy. However, destructive, abusive, or intentionally disruptive behavior should always be punished.
Other “Dos” for Coping with ADHD
Make a routine for your child and stick to it every day. Establish rituals around meals, homework, playtime, and bedtime. Simple daily tasks, such as having your child lay out his or her clothes for the next day, can provide essential structure.
Break tasks into manageable pieces.
Child educational psychologist and author Charlotte Reznick recommends using a large wall calendar to help remind a child of his or her duties. Color-coding chores and homework can keep your child from becoming overwhelmed with everyday tasks and school assignments. Even morning routines should be broken down into discreet tasks.
Reznick uses the example of a book report to illustrate how tasks can be broken down. Daily or weekly reading goals should be listed on the wall calendar.
Simplify and organize your child’s life.
Create a special, quiet space for your child to read, do homework, and have time-outs from the chaos of everyday life. Keep your home neat and organized so that your child knows where everything goes. This helps reduce unnecessary distractions.
Children with ADHD welcome easily accessible distractions. Television, video games, and the computer encourage impulsive behavior and should be regulated. By decreasing time with electronics and increasing time doing engaging activities outside the home, you can find productive outlets for your child’s built-up energy.
Physical activity burns excess energy in healthy ways. It also helps a child focus their attention on specific movements, which decreases impulsivity. Exercise also improves concentration, decreases depression and anxiety, and stimulates the brain. Many professional athletes, including Michael Phelps, have ADHD. Experts believe that athletics can help a child with ADHD find a constructive way to focus their passion, attention, and energy.
Regulate sleep patterns.
Bedtime is especially difficult for children suffering from ADHD. Lack of sleep exacerbates inattention, hyperactivity, and recklessness, so helping your child get better sleep is vital. To help your child get better rest, eliminate stimulants, such as sugar and caffeine, decrease television time, and establish a healthy, calming bedtime ritual.
Encourage out-loud thinking.
Children with ADHD lack self-control, which causes them to speak and act before thinking. Ask your child to verbalize his or her thoughts and reasoning when the urge to act out arises. It is important to understand your child’s thought process in order to help him or her curb impulsive behaviors.
Promote wait time.
Another way to control the impulse to speak before thinking is to teach your child how to pause a moment before talking or replying. Encourage more thoughtful responses by helping your child with homework assignments and asking interactive questions about a favorite television show or book.
Believe in your child.
Your child likely doesn’t realize the stress that he or she can cause. It’s important to remain positive and encouraging. Praise your child’s good behavior so that he or she knows when something was done right. Your child may struggle with ADHD now, but it won’t last forever. Have confidence in your child and be positive about his or her future.
Find individualized counseling.
You can’t do it all. Your child needs your encouragement, but he or she also needs professional help. Find a therapist to coach your child and provide another outlet for him or her. Don’t be afraid to seek assistance if you need it, too. Many parents are so focused on their children that they neglect their own mental needs. A therapist can help manage your stress and anxiety as well as your child’s.
You can’t be supportive 24/7. It’s normal to become overwhelmed or frustrated with yourself or your child. Just as your child will need to take breaks while studying, you’ll need your own breaks as well. Scheduling alone time is important for any parent: hire a babysitter, go for a walk, go to the gym, or take a relaxing bath.
You can’t help an impulsive child if you yourself are aggravated. Children mimic the behaviors they see around them, so if you remain composed and controlled during an outburst it will help your child to do the same. Take time to breathe, relax, and collect your thoughts before attempting to pacify your child. The calmer you are, the calmer your child will become.
“Don’ts” for Dealing With an ADHD Child
Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Be willing to make some compromises with your child. If your child has accomplished two of the three chores you assigned, don’t worry about the third, uncompleted task. It’s a learning process, and even small steps count.
Don’t get overwhelmed and lash out.
Remember that your child’s behavior is caused by a disorder. ADHD may not be visible on the outside, but it is a disability and should be treated as such. When you begin to feel angry or frustrated, remember that your child cannot “snap out of it” or “just be normal.” Reznick says that a key for dealing with ADHD children is to not yell at them. Yelling increases their stress levels, making it even harder for them to calm down and think rationally.
Don’t’ be negative.
It sounds simplistic, but take things one day at a time and remember to keep it all in perspective. What is stressful or embarrassing today will fade away tomorrow.
Reznick suggests working on a few goals at a time and remaining positive during the learning process. “Tell your child what they should be doing instead of what they shouldn’t be doing,” she said.
Don’t let your child or the disorder take control.
Remember that you are the parent and, ultimately, you establish the parameters for acceptable behavior in your home. Be patient and nurturing, but don’t allow yourself to be bullied or intimidated by your child. “You want their input, but you have to make the decisions. They’ll [try to] wiggle out of it,” Reznick says. “You have to feed them, clothe them, and get them to school. The rest is negotiable.”