In our last blog, we talked about the difference between punishment and discipline. If you haven’t already, I will encourage you to go back and read that blog first and start there. Why? Because the most successful discipline for inappropriate behaviour and poor choices comes from a place of respect and love. Discipline should never be about punishing the child for payback; it should help them develop skills and strategies they need to make more appropriate and better choices in the future. I love the quote: “Too often we forget that discipline really means to teach, not to punish. A disciple is a student, not a recipient of behavioural consequences.” (Dr Dan Siegel)
Children with ADHD have a disorder of self-control due to deficits in their executive functioning systems in their brains. This means that they have significant difficulty inhibiting primary emotions and reactions, and often do things without thinking of the consequences first. This can get them in trouble, very often. So, discipline is essential for children with ADHD, but how can we do it effectively?
Let’s jump right in and have a look at some important points to consider when you’re disciplining your child for negative behaviour:
- Always discipline from a place of calm, maintaining a positive, loving and respectful relationship.
Imagine this: You are at work, and your boss comes in ranting and raving at you, calling you names, threatening you, and doing all of this in front of your colleagues. Would you listen to what they have to say? I know I wouldn’t.
But what if your boss came to you quietly, and asked to see you in their office when you were next available, stayed calm and simply discussed an issue with you, would you listen then? Sure, I might not like what they had to say, but I would hear them out.
It’s the same with our children. Are they going to listen to us when we are yelling the displeasure of their behaviour at them? Or would they learn and listen better if you quietly raise the issue with them from a place of calm? Sometimes they still won’t want to listen, but at least you haven’t hurt your relationship in the meantime.
So how can we ensure our relationship stays healthy?
Implement some self-calming strategies when you are struggling with their behaviour.
I often, close my eyes for a second, take a few deep breaths and say a little prayer, “God help me to parent well!” If you don’t pray, then even reminding yourself here with a mantra “I can do this!”, “I will stay calm!” or “Breathe.” Think of something that might work for you like deep breathing, acupressure, mantras, prayer, or thinking of your happy place.
Model self-control and think about the big picture
Now that my kids with ADHD are a bit older (11 & 8), I tell them when I am too angry to deal with the situation there and then. Yes, children with ADHD need consequences to be immediate, but I would rather keep my relationship intact than to jump to punishment because I can’t control my impulses.
I say “I am furious about (….). I need a couple of mins to calm down before we talk about it.” This models self-control and gives them a strategy to use when they are angry. When my children are yelling at me or emotionally dysregulated, I often say “I am happy to speak to you about this when you speak calmly to me.” And then I ride out the storm.
It is easier said than done, particularly if you have ADHD or if you have difficulties with emotional dysregulation yourself. But having a proactive plan with strategies can go a long way to ensuring you are disciplining out of a place of calm.
2. Re-frame our thinking about “behaviour” vs “a neurodevelopmental disorder of self-control”
One of the most important things to keep in mind for discipline is the difference between “naughty behaviour” and “a disorder of self-control”. I always try to keep in mind that my children have a deficit of impulse control.
Children with ADHD have a 30% delay in their development of self-control, and they may develop only 75-80% self-control capacity compared to their peers. This is so important to keep in mind when disciplining children with ADHD. I might have an 11-year-old child, but their ability to use self-control may only be that of a 6/7-year-old. Your 5-year-old child might only have the self-control abilities of a 3-year-old.
Now, this doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t have consequences for their poor decisions; otherwise, they will never learn. But it does mean that we need to view our children, not as naughty, but having a developmental disorder and parent from there. They need more support and strategies in place so that they can reach their potential.
3. Explain how to behave rather than jumping straight to punishment.
Our kids jump on the lounge, despite the fact it is against the rules of our home. They know these rules, but it’s usually in the afternoons when their medications are starting to wear off, they can’t inhibit their desire to jump on the lounge.
But here is where I have learned to ask myself: Do they need to be punished for it? Will punishment change behaviour? When the kids were younger, they would get an imposed consequence for jumping on the lounge, or sometimes even me just yelling “GET OFF THE LOUNGE!” And then five mins later, they would be jumping on it again. Instead, I now simply explain how to behave – “I can see you need to jump! Go out to the trampoline and show me how high you can jump there.”
When children are a little bit older, you can also start to encourage them to come up with those solutions themselves. I learned a fantastic strategy from my son’s Occupational Therapist (OT) years ago. My son was trying on a body sock to see if it helped him settle. It didn’t! As soon as he put it on, he began running around the room, bashing into the walls and cupboards. The OT just simply said. “What do you think I’m thinking right now?” he responded, “I’m silly in the body sock!”. Then she said, “So what do you think I am going to say?” He responded, “Take off the body sock and sit down”. He knew exactly what to do; he just needed someone to prompt him.
Dr Russell Barkley talks about ADHD as a performance disorder, not a knowledge disorder. Our kids know they shouldn’t jump on the lounge (knowledge), but they do it despite that knowledge (performance). Is this to be naughty? No (mostly!), it is because they are impulsive – they act before they think.
So tap into the knowledge they already have. Asking, “What do you think I’m going to say right now?” gives them the time to think about what they are doing and make a more appropriate choice. They still might need help to move on, but, it goes a long way to self-awareness and self-monitoring. It also gives you an excellent opportunity to catch them, making the right choice “Wow! I’m impressed with the way you moved away from the lounge to stop yourself jumping on it!”
4. Be proactive
We often know what our children’s triggers are. There are three main things that my children meltdown over – cleaning, sharing and when screen time is over. If we are proactive and identify areas where our children may explode or act poorly, we can actually stop the negative behaviours before they happen. We don’t need to jump to punishment or discipline.
So how can we plan?
Review often rules and support working memory by externalising information.
Before the child gets started on an activity, we can outline the rules clearly, write them down and remind them of rewards and consequences if they break the rules. For example, one of the rules in our house is the kids can have 45 mins screen time on certain days during school terms. However, they are not allowed to play video games or watch YouTube during the week. So before turning on the TV, we remind them of the time limit and if they are on Youtube or playing games, they will have to turn the TV off straight away and will lose screen time for the next day.
Children with ADHD often having difficulties with working memory. We need working memory to remember to do things in the near future. Children with ADHD are often unable to keep important information in their mind so they can lose track of expectations and rules. By having a visual picture or list in their view, can remind them of the expectations they need to adhere to for a task. You can even write the reward or consequences for them, so they are fully aware of what you expect.
The neurobiology of the ADHD brain makes it difficult for a child with ADHD to do something that doesn’t interest them. We often need to support them doing these tasks with extrinsic motivation, with the view of teaching them to use internal motivation.
I struggled with this notion for YEARS. I never use to believe that children should be provided with an external motivation to do something mandatory, such as doing chores. However, once I discovered there is a biological reason that my children often can’t get started on tasks they don’t enjoy, I saw the necessity of supporting their motivation.
Children with ADHD need to have a keen interest in what they are going to do, to be able to get started. This is because of a neurotransmitter called dopamine. Children with ADHD have deficits in the dopamine reward system in their brain. We need to support them to get started on non-preferred tasks by increasing the release and uptake of dopamine in their brain. The promise of a reward can actually increase dopamine instantly and help them get started.
I am not talking about providing them with presents every time they do something they don’t enjoy. Try saying something like, “Let’s clean your room, then we can go to the park” or, “After you have done your homework, let’s make some cookies together.” Frame it as a reward, and you will increase your child’s compliance and then reduce the need for negative discipline. What would you rather hear? “Go and clean your room or you won’t get screen time today” or “Once you’ve cleaned your room, you can have your screen time”?
5. When we need to discipline our children for negative or poor choices, make sure the consequences are immediate, consistent and natural.
The timing of the consequences for children with ADHD is vital. Dr Virginia Douglas (ADHD researcher) said: “ADHD children live in the here and now [with very limited hindsight or foresight], either you become part of that moment, or you will have minimal influence over their behaviour.”
Children with ADHD are often thought of as not learning from consequences. The truth is, they do! However, they need to be immediate, consistent and related to the behaviour to have any impact. Natural or logical consequences are more potent than non-related consequences.
A couple of days ago, I asked my kids to get all their dirty washing from their bedroom and sort it into the baskets ready for the washing machine. A couple of hours later, I had finished all the laundry. My son came and asked for his favourite PS4 jumper. After some looking, we discovered that he had stashed all his dirty washing down the side of his bed, rather than cleaning it up when asked.
I could have punished with yelling, removing privileges, or removal of screen time. Ultimately, this would be me venting my frustrations. But what would that have taught him?
Instead, I can discipline. I think – What skills does my child need to learn here? What are the natural consequences for his actions? What is the best way of teaching him this?”
I calmly explained that I had already finished my washing for the weekend, so he had a choice:
- He could wear the dirty jumper
- He could wash the jumper himself or
- He could put the jumper in the basket, and I would wash it in a couple of days when I do my next load of washing.
He chose option c.
Allowing natural consequences let our children see that whatever choice they make there is a consequence. If they sneak all the lunchbox snacks, they won’t have snacks in their lunchbox until my next scheduled grocery shop. If they make a mess, they clean it up. If they steal something, they take it back and apologise and pay for it if need be. Yes, these seem like punishments, and they are in a way, but they are simply the logical consequences of their choices, all delivered in a calm, kind, yet firm fashion.
6. Emotion coach during the discipline and consequences, while maintaining firm, but kind boundaries.
Our children don’t like getting disciplined. Who does? And the tricky thing is that when we discipline children with ADHD, it is often because of something they had done because they were impulsive and acted before they thought it through. This, however, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a consequence for it. And because children with ADHD often have emotional dysregulation, they are very often vocal about their displeasure. This can lead our children to swear, yell, hit, kick, scream and name-call. I have been called all sorts of horrible names while maintaining boundaries and consequences for behaviour.
I have found, the best way to deal with the blow out from discipline is to, stay calm and emotion coach. For example: “You’re frustrated about me not washing your jumper.”
We can often get in the trap of disciplining a child for showing their emotions, rather than just letting them feel that emotion. While a child is in emotional meltdown, they are not going to be learning anything from you. Ride the storm then talk about it later, how they feel, how you felt and how they could do it differently next time.
Here’s a final example of how it all can come together:
My daughter with ADHD loves playing with LOL and OMG dolls. She sets up little dollhouses for them in the shelves in her room. By the end of her playtime, there are dolls, clothes and accessories: everywhere. Which is fine – creativity begets mess!
However, she often outright refuses to clean up her room afterwards. She cries, throws herself to the ground and screams about how unfair it is that she has to clean up and I should just do it for her. I have 3 choices here:
- a. Clean her room for her.
- b. Punish her for not cleaning her room and while I’m at it, for the tantrum.
- c. Show empathy and emotion coach through.
I choose c. I emotion coach her through the frustration of having to clean up, then help her get started with a reward “Once you clean up your room, we can do some colouring in together!” I also support her planning and organisation difficulties by having a printable on her wall of the steps to follow in order to get her room clean.
Now, I have been proactive, dealt with her poor motivation, stayed calm, used emotion coaching, outlined my rules and expectations and supported her working memory difficulties. I have done everything I can do to set her up for success. Most of the time, this is enough and she chooses to tidy up.
If she chooses not to clean up then I can give her a consequence. I usually explain that if I end up having to clean up her mess, she will not have access to her dolls for a set period. This is enough motivation for her to clean them up herself. If not, I maintain my calm, clean them up and let her sit with the discomfort of her choice, while emotion coaching. I don’t need to jump to anger and punishment.
I hope that has given you some good ideas and strategies for discipline. I want you to be able to take action from what you have read in the last couple of blogs, as it can make your family life much more peaceful.
Let’s get ADHD Done Differently.