Understanding the Unique Needs of Children with ADHD
Tailoring Parenting Strategies
Raising a child comes with its joys and challenges, and parenting a child with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) adds an extra layer of complexity to the journey. ADHD is not just about restlessness or impulsivity; it involves neurological differences that affect a child’s self-regulation, behavior consistency and responses to consequences. Understanding why your child needs a different parenting strategy and learning some effective tools can ease the burden of parenting and increase the probability that a child with ADHD will achieve their potential.
Children with ADHD Struggle with Self-Regulation
Imagine trying to concentrate on a task while being distracted by internal distractions – e.g., lack of sleep and external distractions – e.g., noisy pencil sharpeners or peers talking. Children with ADHD experience this struggle daily. Self-regulation, the ability to manage one’s emotions, impulses and attention, is a challenge for them. This struggle can lead to difficulty focusing on tasks, following instructions and staying organized.
Children with ADHD often have difficulty finding their motivation to complete a task. This may appear as immaturity. While it may be tempting to nag or punish, such strategies often don’t improve the situation. Parents of children with ADHD should focus on teaching self-regulation skills. It might seem like your child is intentionally ignoring you; however, it is essential to remember that their brain is wired differently.
View yourself as your child’s coach.
Provide reminders, set timers, use visual cues and break tasks into smaller steps (one-page essay can be turned into four different one-paragraph assignments). These practices can help them build their self-regulation skills over time.
The Inconsistent Behavior Puzzle
One day, your child with ADHD may be enthusiastic and engaged in their schoolwork, and the next day, they might appear unmotivated and disinterested. A reward that works to get homework done one day has no impact on another day. This inconsistency in behavior can be highly frustrating for parents. Such inconsistency has to do with the ADHD brain. A new task or a reward initially increases dopamine, the neurotransmitter that allows a person to feel pleasure, motivation and satisfaction. Over time, however, the task or reward no longer has the same impact. Some parents think no matter what they do, they can’t motivate their child.
Even though your child may be very smart, their behavior is often inconsistent. It may appear that your child is not trying or, worse, intentionally being defiant. While your child may know what to do, they may have a hard time executing the desired behavior. Rather than focusing on when your child fails to do what is expected, praise them when they make attempts. Your motto should be “catch your child being good” and praise the positive behavior. There is a basic rule in psychology: Whatever behavior you pay attention to, that is the behavior that will increase. So focus on the positive and remember that progress should be celebrated, no matter how small.
Unique Responses to Consequences
Many parents use consequences, including natural consequences, to shape behavior – e.g., “you forgot your homework; I guess you will get an F grade.” Children with ADHD often have difficulty learning from consequences due to difficulties connecting actions to outcomes and anticipating future consequences.
Traditional discipline techniques like time-outs or loss of privileges might not yield the desired results for children with ADHD. Immediate consequences and consistent feedback are more effective in helping them make the connection between their actions and the outcomes. Explaining why behavior is unacceptable and discussing alternative choices can guide them toward better decision-making. Remember, your goal is to teach, guide and support, rather than punish.
Embracing a Positive Approach
Parenting a child with ADHD requires a shift in perspective and a willingness to embrace a positive approach. Here are a few strategies to consider:
• Open and honest communication is essential. Sit down with your child and discuss their struggles, goals and strengths. Creating a safe space for them to express themselves can lead to productive conversations and a deeper understanding of their needs.
• Reward the effort rather than focusing on the end result. Acknowledge your child’s attempts to manage their symptoms, follow routines and complete tasks. Positive reinforcement can boost their self-esteem and motivate them to continue trying their best.
• Create structure and routine. Children with ADHD do best in structured environments. Establish clear rules and routines for daily activities and tasks. Visual schedules and reminders such as alarms and timers can help guide your child along – e.g., “Alexa, set a bedtime reminder for 8 p.m.” The more structured and organized your home life is, the better mental structure your child will have.
• Break tasks into manageable steps. Large tasks can feel overwhelming for children with ADHD – e.g., cleaning your room. Break tasks into smaller, achievable steps – e.g., pick up all the clothes and put them in the hamper. When your child tells you this is complete, you can praise them and give another manageable task, such as “now pick up all the toys off the floor.” This approach helps them stay engaged, maintain focus and experience a sense of accomplishment as they complete each step.
• Offer Choices. Whenever possible, allow your child to make choices (just be sure you are comfortable with whatever they pick). This sense of autonomy can boost their confidence and motivation. For example, allow them to choose the order in which they want to work on homework or which of two outfits they want to wear to school the next day.
• Practice patience and develop a support network. Parenting a child with ADHD requires an extra dose of patience. Be prepared for setbacks, and remember that progress takes time. Connect with other parents online or in person and discuss what strategies work best in their home. Educate yourself about the nature of ADHD and behavior management. Resources such as CHADD (children and adults with ADD) or Understood.org provide excellent parent resources.
While parenting any child can be a rollercoaster ride, with steep ups and downs, parenting a child with ADHD presents its own challenges. The good news is ADHD is viewed as a manageable, treatable condition. Identifying challenges, such as problems with self-regulation, inconsistent behavior and inconsistent responses to consequences, can help parents of an ADHD child develop positive support strategies.
ADHD symptoms often improve with physical and emotional maturation. While waiting for your child to “grow up,” embrace a positive, coaching approach to parenting. ADHD does not impact intelligence; some doctors and lawyers have ADHD. By focusing on their strengths, using effective parenting strategies and celebrating your child’s progress, you will help them achieve their full potential.
Michelle Yetman, Ph.D., is an associate professor and a clinical psychologist at LSU Health Shreveport.