Dos and Don’ts of Parenting a Child with ADHD

Life with a child or teen with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be frustrating, even overwhelming. But as a parent you can help your child overcome daily challenges, channel their energy into positive arenas, and bring greater calm to your family. And the earlier and more consistently you address your child’s problems, the greater chance they have for success in life.

The child with ADHD has a neurodivergent brain. Neurodiversity is a viewpoint that brain differences are normal, rather than deficits. Neurodivergent people experience, interact with, and interpret the world in unique ways.

Children with ADHD generally have deficits in executive functioning: which is the ability to think and plan ahead, organize, control impulses, and complete tasks. That means you need to take over as the executive, providing extra guidance while your child gradually acquires the executive skills of their own.

Raising a child with ADHD isn’t like traditional childrearing. Normal rulemaking and household routines can become almost impossible, depending on the type and severity of your child’s symptoms, so you’ll need to adopt different approaches. It can become frustrating to cope with some of the behaviors which result from your child’s ADHD, but there are ways to make life easier.

 While children with ADHD can still learn what is acceptable and what isn’t, their disorder does make them more prone to impulsive behavior.

ADHD and your family

Before you can successfully parent a child with ADHD, it’s essential to understand the impact of your child’s symptoms on the family as a whole. 

Children with ADHD exhibit a slew of behaviors that can disrupt family life. 

  • They often don’t “hear” parental instructions, so they don’t obey them.
  • They’re disorganized and easily distracted, keeping other family members waiting. 
  • They start projects and forget to finish them—let alone clean up after them.
  • Children with impulsivity issues often interrupt conversations, demand attention at inappropriate times, and speak before they think, saying tactless or embarrassing things.
  •  It’s often difficult to get them to bed and to sleep. Hyperactive children may tear around the house or even put themselves in physical danger.

Because of these behaviors, siblings of children with ADHD face a number of challenges. Their needs often get less attention than those of the child with ADHD. They may be rebuked more sharply when they err, and their successes may be less celebrated or taken for granted. They may be enlisted as assistant parents—and blamed if the sibling with ADHD misbehaves under their supervision. As a result, siblings may find their love for a brother or sister with ADHD mixed with jealousy and resentment.

The demands of monitoring a child with ADHD can be physically and mentally exhausting. Your child’s inability to “listen” can lead to frustration and that frustration to anger—followed by guilt about being angry at your child. Your child’s behavior can make you anxious and stressed. If there’s a basic difference between your personality and that of your child with ADHD, their behavior can be especially difficult to accept.

In order to meet the challenges of raising a child with ADHD, you must to be able to master a combination of compassion and consistency. Living in a home that provides both love and structure is the best thing for a child or teenager who is learning to manage ADHD.

Fostering the development of a child with ADHD means that you 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. 

Behavioral techniques for managing a child’s ADHD symptoms must also be in place. 

There are two basic principles of behavior management: positive and negative reinforcement. 

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’s crucial to stick to these guidelines. 

Punishing a behavior one day and allowing it the next is harmful to a child’s improvement. Some behaviors should always be unacceptable, like 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 your 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’re easy to see. Repetition, encouragement, and positive reinforcement can help your child better understand your rules.

Although the symptoms of ADHD can be nothing short of exasperating, it’s important to remember that the child who is ignoring, annoying, or embarrassing you is not acting willfully. 

Kids with ADHD want to sit quietly; they want to make their rooms tidy and organized; they want to do everything their parent says to do—but they don’t know how to make these things happen.

Keep in mind that having ADHD is just as frustrating for your child, it will be a lot easier to respond in positive, supportive ways.

Define the rules, but allow some flexibility

It’s important to consistently reward good behaviors and discourage destructive ones, but you shouldn’t be too strict with your child. Remember that children with ADHD may not adapt to change as well as others. You must learn to allow your child to make mistakes as they learn. Odd behaviors that aren’t detrimental to your child or anyone else should be accepted as part of your child’s individual personality. It’s ultimately harmful to discourage a child’s quirky behaviors just because you think they are unusual.

Children with ADHD need consistent rules that they can understand and follow. Make the rules of behavior for the family simple and clear. Write down the rules and hang them up in a place where your child can easily read them.

Children with ADHD respond particularly well to organized systems of rewards and consequences. It’s important to explain what will happen when the rules are obeyed and when they are broken. Finally, stick to your system: follow through each and every time with a reward or a consequence.

As you establish these consistent structures, keep in mind that children with ADHD often receive criticism. Be on the lookout for good behavior—and encourage it. Encouragement is especially important for children who have ADHD because they typically get so little of it. These children receive correction, remediation, and complaints about their behavior—but little positive reinforcement.

A smile, positive comment, or other reward from you can improve the attention, concentration, and impulse control of your child with ADHD. Do your best to focus on giving encouragement for appropriate behavior and task completion, while giving as few negative responses as possible to inappropriate behavior or poor task performance. Reward your child for small achievements that you might take for granted in another child.

Remember it takes 5 positive comments to overcome one negative.

Create structure

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.

Children with ADHD are more likely to succeed in completing tasks when the tasks occur in predictable patterns and in predictable places. Your job is to create and sustain structure in your home, so that your child knows what to expect and what they are expected to do.

Tips for helping your child with ADHD stay focused and organized:

Use clocks and timers. Consider placing clocks throughout the house, with a big one in your child’s bedroom. Allow enough time for what your child needs to do, such as homework or getting ready in the morning. Use a timer for homework or transitional times, such as between finishing up play and getting ready for bed.

Simplify your child’s schedule. It is good to avoid idle time, and a child with ADHD may become more distracted and “wound up” if there are many after-school activities. You may need to adjust the child’s after-school commitments based on the individual child’s abilities and the demands of particular activities.

Create a quiet place. Make sure your child has a quiet, private space of their own. A porch or a bedroom work well.

Do your best to be neat and organized. Set up your home in an organized way. Make sure your child knows that everything has its place. Lead by example with neatness and organization as much as possible.

Break tasks into manageable pieces

For someone with ADHD, some tasks can feel too complex and off-putting. Where possible, break tasks into achievable goals. As well as simplifying the picture, this can regulate the emotions associated with succeeding or failing.

Try using a large wall calendar to help remind a child of their 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 discrete tasks.

If a child has been asked to clean their room, for example, it may be helpful to break this into smaller tasks, such as making the bed, putting any toys on the floor back into storage, or folding their clothes.

Limit 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, your child will have an outlet for built-up energy.

If a child is easily distracted, it pays to keep their surroundings uncluttered. Depending on the child’s preferences, radios or televisions could be turned down or off.

Getting them to work on tasks away from the lure of TVs or games is important, and toys should be put away when they are doing something in their bedroom.

Encourage exercise

Physical activity burns excess energy in healthy ways. It also helps a child focus their attention on specific movements. This may decrease impulsivity. Exercise may also help to improve concentration, decrease the risk for depression and anxiety, and stimulate the brain in healthy ways. 

Many professional athletes have ADHD. Experts believe that athletics can help a child with ADHD find a constructive way to focus their passion, attention, and energy.

Children with ADHD often have energy to burn. Organized sports and other physical activities can help them get their energy out in healthy ways and focus their attention on specific movements and skills. 

The benefits of physical activity are endless: it improves concentration, decreases depression and anxiety, and promotes brain growth. Most importantly for children with attention deficits, however, is the fact that exercise leads to better sleep, which in turn can also reduce the symptoms of ADHD.

Find a sport that your child will enjoy and that suits their strengths. For example, sports such as softball that involve a lot of “down time” are not the best fit for children with attention problems. Individual or team sports like basketball and hockey that require constant motion are better options. Children with ADHD may also benefit from training in martial arts (such as tae kwon do) or yoga, which enhance mental control as they work out the body.

Regulate sleep patterns

Bedtime may be an especially difficult for children suffering from ADHD. Lack of sleep exacerbates inattention, hyperactivity, and recklessness. Helping your child get better sleep is important. To help them get better rest, eliminate stimulants like sugar and caffeine, and decrease television time. Establish a healthy, calming bedtime ritual.

Insufficient sleep can make anyone less attentive, but it can be highly detrimental for children with ADHD. Kids with ADHD need at least as much sleep as their unaffected peers and tend not to get what they need. Their attention problems can lead to overstimulation and trouble falling asleep. A consistent, early bedtime is the most helpful strategy to combat this problem, but it may not completely solve it.

Help your child get better rest by trying out one or more of the following strategies:

Decrease television time and increase your child’s activities and exercise levels during the day.

Eliminate caffeine from your child’s diet.

Create a buffer time to lower down the activity level for an hour or so before bedtime. Find quieter activities such as coloring, reading or playing quietly.

Spend ten minutes cuddling with your child. This will build a sense of love and security as well as provide a time to calm down.

Use lavender or other aromas in your child’s room. The scent may help to calm your child.

Use relaxation tapes as background noise for your child when falling asleep. There are many varieties available including nature sounds and calming music. Children with ADHD often find “white noise” to be calming. You can create white noise by putting a radio on static or running an electric fan.

Help your child eat right

Diet is not a direct cause of attention deficit disorder, but food can and does affect your child’s mental state, which in turn seems to affect behavior. Monitoring and modifying what, when, and how much your child eats can help decrease the symptoms of ADHD.

All children benefit from fresh foods, regular mealtimes, and staying away from junk food. These tenets are especially true for children with ADHD, whose impulsiveness and distractedness can lead to missed meals, disordered eating, and overeating.

Children with ADHD are notorious for not eating regularly. Without parental guidance, these children might not eat for hours and then binge on whatever is around. The result of this pattern can be devastating to the child’s physical and emotional health.

Prevent unhealthy eating habits by scheduling regular nutritious meals or snacks for your child no more than three hours apart. Physically, a child with ADHD needs a regular intake of healthy food; mentally, mealtimes are a necessary break and a scheduled rhythm to the day.

  • Get rid of the junk foods in your home.
  • Put fatty and sugary foods off-limits when eating out.
  • Turn off television shows riddled with junk-food ads.
  • Give your child a daily vitamin-and-mineral supplement.

Encourage out-loud thinking

Children with ADHD can lack self-control. This causes them to speak and act before thinking. Ask your child to verbalize their thoughts and reasoning when the urge to act out arises. It’s important to understand your child’s thought process in order to help him or her curb impulsive behaviors.

 Getting them to pause and say out loud what they are thinking can have several benefits.

It can allow the parent to learn their child’s thought patterns. It can also give the child time to consider their thought, and whether or not to act on it.

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.

The idea behind wait time is similar to thinking out loud. If a child waits a few seconds before speaking or acting when they have a thought, they have time to consider if it is appropriate.

This will take a lot of practice, but it can be worth it, and it can give them a real advantage in their social life.

Believe in your child

Your child likely doesn’t realize the stress that their condition can cause. It’s important to remain positive and encouraging. Encourage your child’s good behavior so they know when something was done right. Your child may struggle with ADHD now. Have confidence in your child and be positive about their future.

Think about or make a written list of everything that is positive, valuable, and unique about your child. Trust that your child can learn, change, mature, and succeed. Reaffirm this trust on a daily basis as you brush your teeth or make your coffee.

Teach your child how to make friends

Children with ADHD often have difficulty with simple social interactions. They may struggle with reading social cues, talk too much, interrupt frequently, or come off as aggressive or “too intense.” Their relative emotional immaturity can make them stand out among children their own age and make them targets for unfriendly teasing.

Don’t forget, though, that many kids with ADHD are exceptionally intelligent and creative and will eventually figure out for themselves how to get along with others and spot people who aren’t appropriate as friends. Moreover, personality traits that might exasperate parents and teachers may come across to peers as funny and charming.

Helping a child with ADHD improve social skills

It’s hard for children with ADHD to learn social skills and social rules. You can help your child with ADHD become a better listener, learn to read people’s faces and body language, and interact more smoothly in groups.

  • Speak gently but honestly with your child about their challenges and how to make changes.
  • Role-play various social scenarios with your child. Trade roles often and try to make it fun.
  • Be careful to select playmates for your child with similar language and physical skills.
  • Invite only one or two friends at a time at first. Watch them closely while they play and have a zero-tolerance policy for hitting, pushing and yelling.
  • Make time and space for your child to play, and reward good play behaviors often.

Take breaks

You can’t be supportive 100 percent of the time. 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. 

 Friends and family can be wonderful about offering to babysit, but you may feel guilty about leaving your child, or leaving the volunteer with a child with ADHD. Next time, accept their offer and discuss honestly how best to handle your child.

Good break options include:

  • going for a walk
  • going to the gym
  • taking a relaxing bath

As a parent, you set the stage for your child’s emotional and physical health. You have control over many of the factors that can positively influence the symptoms of your child’s disorder.

Maintain a positive attitude. Your best assets for helping your child meet the challenges of ADHD are your positive attitude and common sense. When you are calm and focused, you are more likely to be able to connect with your child, helping him or her to be calm and focused as well.

Keep things in perspective. Remember that your child’s behavior is related to a disorder. Most of the time it is not intentional. Hold on to your sense of humor. What’s embarrassing today may be a funny family story ten years from now.

Self-care

As your child’s role model and most important source of strength, it is vital that you live a healthy life. If you are overtired or have simply run out of patience, you risk losing sight of the structure and support you have so carefully set up for your child with ADHD.

Seek support. One of the most important things to remember in rearing a child with ADHD is that you don’t have to do it alone. Talk to your child’s doctors, therapists, and teachers. Join an organized support group for parents of children with ADHD. These groups offer a forum for giving and receiving advice, and provide a safe place to vent feelings and share experiences.

Take care of yourself. Eat rightexercise, and find ways to reduce stress, whether it means taking a nightly bath or practicing morning meditation. If you do get sick, acknowledge it and get help.

Calm yourself

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’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, consider being flexible with the third, uncompleted task. It’s a learning process and even small steps count.

Living with a child who may demonstrate hyperactive and impulsive behavior can be a constant challenge. If a parent addressed every problem, every day would be stressful and unpleasant for everyone.

Learning to let the smaller things go can alleviate stress in the long-term, and help a parent focus on curbing the more important behaviors.

One chore left undone isn’t a big deal when your child has completed two others plus the day’s homework. If you are a perfectionist, you will not only be constantly dissatisfied but also create impossible expectations for your child with ADHD.

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’s a disability and should be treated as such. When you begin to feel angry or frustrated, remember that your child can’t “snap out of it” or “just be normal.”

Don’t be negative

It sounds simplistic, 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.

Positive feedback can help build a child’s confidence.

A child with ADHD may feel that they are disliked or that they always do things wrong. Reinforcing this with negative language can be hurtful and make disruptive behaviors worse.

It is impossible to be positive all the time, and so it is essential for a parent to find an outlet to express their concerns or worries. This might be a friend, partner, or a therapist.

There are also online groups where parents of children with ADHD can discuss their challenges with people in similar situations.

Do not see other adults as the enemy

It is natural for parents to feel protective, but when a child has ADHD, it can seem that other caregivers do not understand them or do not care enough. Good communication can help solve this problem.

It can help to talk with anyone your child has contact with about ADHD, explaining their preferences, and describing the most effective interventions for challenging behavior.

Don’t let your child or the disorder take control

Remember that you are the parent and, ultimately, you establish the rules for acceptable behavior in your home. Be patient and nurturing, but don’t allow yourself to be bullied or intimidated by your child’s behaviors.

While some allowances can be made, ADHD does not excuse poor behavior. Children and parents both need boundaries, and it is essential for children to learn that there are always consequences when they misbehave.

These consequences should be appropriate and consistent. If a child sees a parent does not always follow through on the consequences, this may encourage the unruly behavior.

More than 1 in 10 children have ADHD in the United States. 

Whether medical, psychological, or sociological, new ways of living with the condition are constantly being tested.

There is more social acceptance of ADHD than ever before, and support for parents and other caregivers is increasing.

Life may need more planning and thought with a child who has ADHD. It can, however, be just as pleasurable and fulfilling.

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