ADHD and behaviour - tips on how to discipline your child

If your child has ADHD, coping with his behaviour can wear you out. But even though he may act up, he still needs the security of limits. So how do you discipline him without losing your mind?

Kids act up: it’s what they do. They can drive you crazy at times but staying calm and consistent when it comes to discipline will give your child clear boundaries when it comes to behaviour. However, it’s not as simple if your child has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and it can become a vicious cycle: you find your child unmanageable so you develop a negative attitude towards him; he senses your negative feelings and acts up even more.

How does ADHD affect your child?

Kids with ADHD can be poor listeners and have difficulty following directions. This means they have a tendency to forget where you’ve drawn the line and that, coupled with poor impulse control and high energy levels, can make discipline a problem. It’s a recipe for chaos if you don’t work out the best ways to get your child to listen and respect your house rules. Understanding exactly how he is affected by ADHD and modifying your expectations is the first step on the road to raising a kid who co-operates. "You need a system of discipline that is easy for your child to learn and follow," says Dr Thomas Phelan, clinical psychologist and expert on child discipline and ADHD. "It also needs to provide immediate positive reinforcement and minimise emotional arousal."

Judging how well he can behave

You want your child to behave as well as he can – that’s only natural. But just how well can he behave? "It’s vital that parents understand the nature of ADHD, so they can have realistic expectations of what their children are capable of doing," says Dr Phelan. "Some children with ADHD simply can’t consciously control their behaviour, so if your child is acting up, you need to ask yourself if it is a behaviour he can control." Say you tell your child to tidy his room and find him playing with a toy five minutes later… if he has ADHD he hasn’t simply chosen to ignore your request – he’s demonstrating key symptoms of the condition: being easily distracted and finding it difficult to follow direction and complete a task.

Once you can get a handle on this it’ll be easier to work out whether your child is choosing to disobey you or whether it’s out of his hands entirely.

You also need to bear his abilities in mind when it comes to discipline, because some methods just won’t work. Take shouting – you may believe this tactic works but in reality it's likely to drive your already excitable ADHD into a frenzy. And although Supernanny’s tried-and-tested Naughty Mat and Naughty Step techniques give children a time-out from acting up, an ADHD child may not be capable of sitting still for a full time-out.

Helping your child to be good

When it comes to discipline, kids with ADHD do need the security of limits even if they don’t seem to pay much attention to the ones you’ve set. Over and above those things he really can’t help, your child needs to be held responsible for bad behaviour you know he can control – but you need to approach discipline carefully.

Keep the focus on helping your ADHD child be good rather than punishing him for being bad, and establish a brief set of house rules – with consequences – that you stick to. "Bear in mind that you can’t simply give your ADHD child an instruction and then go to do something else while he does what he’s told – he very likely won’t," says Dr Phelan. "You need to structure the situation, sustain your child’s motivation and reward his positive behaviour."

Dr Phelan uses bedtime as an example: "Don’t just tell your child it’s bedtime. Say that bedtime is at 8pm, that you’ll be telling her it’s time to get ready for bed at 7.30 and that this will be her signal to put on her pjs and brush her teeth. Then she needs to report to you and the rest of the time up until 8pm is story or chat time. This structure gives your child a clear idea of what she’s supposed to be doing once you’ve given her notice, at 7.30. This structure and the hope of a reward – the story or chat – helps your child stay focused and motivated until she’s ready for bed. Provide encouraging and reinforcing comments as needed after your first announcement about bedtime: ‘Wow, you’re really moving along there!’. These verbal rewards help sustain your child’s motivation."

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