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."

Follow these tips:

  • Keep it positive Instead of making your house rules a list of don’ts, make them a list of do’s – for example, instead of phrasing it like this: ‘Jake must not interrupt if Mum and Dad are talking’ do it like this: ‘Jake can wait a minute' and then say "Excuse me" if he needs Mum or Dad when they’re talking; instead of ‘Jake must not shout’, say, ‘Jake can ask nicely if he wants something’.
  • Score good behaviour It’ll give him the incentive he needs to co-operate if he gets an immediate reward in the form of points. Draw up a reward chart with pictures of what he’ll get when he has enough points and keep it doable – for example, 10 points could win him a new comic book. This works better than promising an unspecified reward at the end of the week if he tidies up his toys every evening – that objective is too far off and he’s likely to forget what he’s working towards and how well he’s doing.
  • Use visual reminders Children with ADHD are easily distracted from the task at hand, whether it’s getting ready for school or concentrating on homework. A kitchen timer is a useful little tool for keeping their minds on the job: you can say they have until the bell rings to get dressed, complete a page of homework and so on.
  • Take one step at a time Don’t reel off a list of instructions to your ADHD child – they can’t manage multi-tasking and he’ll find it difficult to absorb anything after the first request. Tell him what you’d like him to do one thing at a time. The same goes for doing: turn off the TV if he’s studying; play with one toy at a time; tidy up after one game or activity before moving onto the next.
  • Show, don’t tell When it comes to new tasks or activities he’ll find it easier to pick things up if you demonstrate how to do them one action at a time, with any spoken instructions kept very brief and clear. You may need to repeat yourself, but use a clear slow tone and try not to get impatient if he’s having difficulty following you.
  • Keep playdates painless Children with ADHD are particularly excitable, so having a whole platoon of friends over is a recipe for discipline disaster. Restrict it to just one or two other children and invite them to your home, where you’ll be better able to supervise your child. Make sure the other children’s parents know that you have a few simple rules for your child and that his friends will need to follow them too.
  • Set aside a sanctuary Try to set aside one corner of a room in your house as his calm down spot. Keep it low-key, without bright paint colors or busy wallpaper: perhaps a table and chair facing a blank wall. If he’s overstimulated and unable to calm down enough to behave, take him to sit there for a few minutes to help him focus.

Related links

Your ADHD child - Our top tips for getting the best out of him! Many parents whose children have ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) find themselves trapped in a loop of negativity, constantly telling their kids off. But it is possible to be positive…

The Reward Chart is always a useful tool for getting the best behaviour out of your child, as Supernanny demonstrates…

ADHD: Can your child grow out of it? Children with ADHD may eventually grow out of the condition, according to new research. The study suggests that the brains of children and teenagers with ADHD are not actually different to other children, but that they develop more slowly. This means they may eventually catch up…..

Find out more

  • Parent Magic: Find out about Dr Thomas Phelan’s renowned 1-2-3 Magic parenting solution to discipline and how it can help you and your child overcome the discipline difficulties of ADHD.
  • 1-2-3 Magic: by Thomas W Phelan, PhD. Dr Thomas Phelan explains why too much talking and too much emotion set your child up for behaviour problems and offers a simple system that stops your child acting up and encourages him to behave.
  • Parenting Children With ADHD: 10 lessons that medicine cannot teach: by Vincent J Monastra, PhD. Straightforward solutions to address basic problems, including the importance of a lesson plan, how to teach children to manage their anger, why nutrition is critical and why yelling rarely solves anything.
  •  The Gift of ADHD: How to transform your child's problems into strengths: by Lara Honos-Webb, PhD. Looks at the emotional strengths that accompany ADHD, including emotional sensitivity toward others, passion and exuberance, unusual problem-solving skills and a love of nature, to help you avoid negative labels and see your ADHD child in a more postive light.
  •  Learning to Slow Down and Pay Attention: by Kathleen G Nadeau. Cartoons, activities and simple help explain to your child what he’s going through, reassure him he’s not alone and show him ways to help himself.
  • The Putting the Brakes On Activity Book for Young People with ADHD:  by Patricia Quinn, Judith Stern and Neil Russell. It's a handy resource for helping kids understand ADHD and teaching them study techniques that will help them to focus better.

Related Advice