Managing Your ADHD Child
To successfully manage ADHD children, it is important to keep in mind what you have learned about their overall strengths and weaknesses. Specifically, we know that they have difficulties in inhibiting their responses to events and experiences, and that their responses are often emotionally based and without the benefit of analysis. Secondly, they have a lot of difficulty in placing themselves and their behavioral choices in the future, or conversely in comparing a current situation to a past situation that is similar.
This means they don't learn easily from previous mistakes. On the good side, they have high energy and intensity which channeled constructively can be used to assist them in managing their behavior as well as in performing in socially acceptable activities such as art, music, sports, and creative tasks.
Keeping all of this in mind, it is necessary to develop and implement a behavioral plan that will provide a lot of structure, uses clearly defined rules and consequences, and offers regular incentives and rewards that appeal to the ADHD child's need for immediate gratification and emotional stimulation. Most important, it is also necessary to work daily on a positive parent-child relationship that maintains the child's sense of being loved and cared for in spite of problems that arise. This is the cornerstone of effectively dealing with all children, ADHD or otherwise.
Below we have summarized some general guidelines for effectively managing the ADHD child. Parents of non-ADHD children should also find these guidelines to be helpful in establishing good behavior.
Stop the Explanations!
In trying to get ADHD children to perform tasks (even simple ones), parents may develop the habit of offering reasonable explanations of why things need to be done. "You have to get dressed now because you're going to be late for school!" "You need to brush your teeth because you'll get cavities if you don't!" This seems reasonable and for most children it works fine. It is helpful to know why some things need to be done. For the ADHD child, however, these sorts of explanations and energized warnings do not increase compliance, and in fact over time make things worse. The negative energy that usually emerges from the parent as these admonitions and explanations are offered actually offer the ADHD child a reward for his poor behavior, because the attention given feeds the need for stimulation. So it is important to omit explanations, lectures, verbal attempts to cajole, or even warnings about what will happen if the child does not comply. Save the explanations for another time when you are not in the process of enforcing a rule or request.
Don't Be Pulled Into Arguments and Debates
When you give a command or make a request, there should be no further conversation. If you have gotten into the habit of allowing your child to challenge your requests and pulling you into debates, this will be a hard habit to break. You simply make the request in a direct way such as "It's time to pick up your toys." Don't answer questions such as "why", or as stated above fall prey to providing explanations when your child challenges you. Simply give the request and apply consequences you have established previously if the request is not followed.
If you are in the habit of allowing arguments and debates, you will need to demonstrate to your child that you will not be pulled into arguments before trying consequences. A good technique is to simply look at the child without reacting as he goes through his bag of tricks to cajole you into an argument. Other techniques are to shrug your shoulders, or walk away. Eventually when he understands you won't play his game, he'll stop automatically.
Use Incentives and Rewards
Remember that ADHD children need more rewards and incentives than other children. One of the best incentives you can offer is verbal, positive feedback for rules followed or chores accomplished. The feedback should be very detailed and descriptive such as "I appreciate your picking up your toys and putting them in the toy box. Good job!" Saying just "good job" is not enough as it doesn't reinforce specifically what has been done, or offer the needed attention. You can also offer physical affection, written notes, and genuine looks of appreciation. Sometime rewards are necessary, especially in working with problem behaviors. Rewards include things such as extra privileges, or if using a home token or credit system, giving points for good behavior that can be spent on privileges. A powerful reward is your time such as playing a game together, throwing the ball outside, etc.
When giving positive feedback or rewards, be sure to give credit for even partially correct behavior. If you ask your child to put her clothes in the clothes hamper, and she gets only some of them in before getting distracted, then you can say something like "I see that you heard me say to put the clothes in the hamper. I appreciate that you got started." You can then request that she finish.
Break Tasks Down Into Their Parts
In the above example, you could break the task down into smaller parts, and then time them while offering feedback all along the way. For example, if there are ten pieces of clothing on the floor, request that the child pick up five of them and set a kitchen timer for two minutes. As soon as she makes a move to begin picking up the clothes, let her know you see that she has started. As she gets the second or third piece of clothing in the hamper, comment that she's halfway done and cheer her on. If she gets done before the timer goes off, you can praise her for beating the clock. If she doesn't finish before the ringer goes off, praise her for whatever portion she's completed, and then have her finish the task. The idea is to break tasks down to the smallest component necessary to make it possible for the child to comply, and then use reinforcement along the way as she complies. You are training her to focus and concentrate. Eventually, you will need to offer much less feedback while still getting good results.
Establish Clear Consequences
Although incentives are the primary method of establishing good behavior habits, sometimes they are not enough. In these cases you need to apply consequences. Natural and logical consequences work very well for most children, however, the ADHD child does best if the consequences are simplified and the same for most situations. I recommend sticking with time-out as the primary consequence, especially if you set up a home token or credit system. Sticking with time-out provides the repetition these children need to reinforce and remember the rules. It is effective in interrupting unwanted behavior patterns while being short enough to maintain the necessary potency for children with short-attention spans. It also can be applied the same way every time, making the need for consistency easy to enact.
The key is to always apply consequences firmly, but in a neutral manner without any added negative emotion or commentary. This leaves the child in the position of having no alternative but to turn his attention to his own behavior (as opposed to yours).
The only other consequences recommended are those that involve the need for reparation. If the infraction involves causing harm to someone else, or destroying property, then in addition to time-out you should have the child take the needed steps to repair the situation. If he throws a baseball through the neighbor's window, then he needs to earn the money to replace it.
Act First, Talk Later
Once you have established the rules, system of incentives, and consequences, then enforce them directly and quickly. Don't use warnings, give second chances, or stop to explain or debate. Act swiftly and decisively to carry out the plan you have established. Negotiating rules and privileges is a productive strategy, but should be confined to family meetings or strategy sessions when behavior is not in question. Never negotiate a rule while offering a consequence.
Be consistent with every facet of your behavior management program. This means a consistent system of rewards and privileges, consistent consequences, consistent effort in implementing the plan especially in the beginning, and consistent responses to misbehavior. Set up your plan and don't deviate, even when setbacks occur. Above all, if there are two parents, they must be in agreement about the plan and both use the same methods in its implementation.
Avoid Personalizing Your Child's Behavior
It is very important, particularly with difficult children, not to interpret your child's behavior problems as a reflection of your worth as a parent. This means not taking your child's behavior toward you personally, and not internalizing other adults' negative evaluations of your parenting skills. ADHD children have specific problems that are not related to parental abilities. Others, although well intentioned, often don't understand or buy such explanations and can actually make things worse even as they are trying to give support. Getting professional help can help ease this situation as well as assist you in carrying out your plan.
Spending "special time" with children is one of the most powerful tools parents have to enhance the parent-child relationship and establish a base from which to manage behavior. Without such a base, no behavioral plan will work. Children must feel connected to you through love, caring and nurturing in order to have the basic incentive to comply with your wishes. Spending free time that is not task-oriented or focused on discipline is necessary to foster this connection. With children who are difficult to manage, this is even more important due to the daily assault on the parent-child connection by negative behavior patterns.
Identify and Encourage Strengths
It is important to recognize and keep in mind that having ADHD is not a lifetime curse. In fact, people with ADHD have certain strengths that not only serve them well as they develop, but are assets that are to be appreciated. Their drive and intensity is a resource that can have very productive results when coupled with strong interest. It allows them to pursue a desired direction with sustained energy over time. Their emotionality and hyperresponsiveness are assets in activities that require more direct response and less analysis such as artistic pursuits, athletic activities, salesmanship, inspirational speaking, and so forth.
Parents should mentally review their ADHD child's strengths daily. A good exercise is to make a list of everything you like about your child including his or her potential strengths, and place the list in place where you see it every day. Better yet, review it at the end of the day to help balance out the day's struggles. Take note of any small improvements. This will assist you in keeping a big picture view and avoid getting mired down in negative thought patterns about deficits. Enjoy your "spirited child!"
If you have a child that seems particularly defiant, non-compliant, and/or is prone to becoming explosive at seemingly benign situations, then the ideas offered in this article will not work well. These children, who are usually diagnosed with "Oppositional Defiant Disorder," may also have ADHD, but the problems associated with their explosiveness require different strategies for management. I would suggest reading The Explosve Child by Ross W.Greene for an excellent explanation of the problems associated with these children as well as strategies for handling them.