Before you lose your temper for the umpteenth time when your child is out of line, remember it’s not their fault, or yours. Children with ADHD just need a different approach to discipline.

Disciplining your children probably isn’t on the list of your top five favorite parts of parenting, especially if your kid is diagnosed with ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder).

But remember that you’re not alone. Take the average kids’ softball or soccer team. Statistically, at least one of the children between ages 5 and 17 years old has received an ADHD diagnosis.

Because it’s so common, there’s plenty of research on strategies you can practice to help make discipline easier for both you and your children. Read on for what works, what does not, and how to take care of yourself when your nerves are frayed.

You might be tempted to yell when your child is in the middle of a tantrum or your teen refuses to listen, but “when it comes to disciplining a child with ADHD, one thing that definitely doesn’t work is losing your temper,” Dr. Anjani Amladi, a board certified Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist based in Sacramento, California, says.

“For children without ADHD… an adult raising their voice may have an impact. For a child with ADHD, this is rarely the case.”

Remember the importance of “modeling calm,” says Dr. David Grodberg, chief medical officer at Brightline, a behavioral healthcare company for children and families.

“Children inevitably respond to parents’ behaviors,” Grodberg adds. “Be aware of how stressed you are and how that might be affecting [your child]. At minimum, we encourage parents even for 10 seconds to do relaxation and deep breathing exercises.”

For children with ADHD, “Routine and structure [are] really important,” Amy Mrozowski, a school-based, licensed clinical social worker with Providence Public Schools in Rhode Island advises. Here’s how to put that into practice:

  • In addition to consistency with medication, the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH) recommend regular schedules for school, homework, extracurricular activities, time with friends, and bedtimes. All are critical for helping children stay energetically and emotionally regulated enough to prevent at least some aggression before it starts.
  • A balanced diet and consistent exercise are effective for managing ADHD symptoms.
  • Get proper sleep. In one 2020 study, researchers found that poor sleep quality and daytime sleepiness were associated with poor executive functioning for teens who have ADHD.

Discipline is proactive, Amaldi says. “It allows for kids to be in control of their behaviors and to make decisions by providing them with a clear framework of what is expected of them. Positive behaviors are rewarded, and negative behaviors are subject to a consequence that is related to the problem and results from that specific behavior.”

ADHD behavior management plans are a well-respected strategy for discipline and offer collaboration between home and school support for your child.

By contrast, Amladi continues, “Punishment is reactive and takes control from the child and puts it into the hands of the adult who then chooses what the outcome of their decision is.” A timeout is one common example of discipline rather than punishment, but as you’ll see below, it should be used carefully.

Choose a parenting framework that works for you and your family

If you need more structure to help address disciplinary issues, there are a number of psychosocial treatment models that can help shape your decision-making. Two of the most common — but by no means only options — are Parent Management Training (PMT) and Collaborative and Proactive Solutions (CPS).

PMT encourages parents to:

  • use clear commands
  • carefully and strategically enforce timeouts
  • create designated time for them and their children to work one-on-one to reinforce positive behaviors

This approach focuses heavily on parent training and behavior, and encourages parents to be consistent, contingent, and predictable in their actions so children will follow that example. PMT also emphasizes positive reinforcement and rewards as part of a strategy to incentivize more productive behavior and reduce outbursts.

In the CPS strategy, children are active participants. It includes four modules that focus on parents and children working together to anticipate problems and plan how to solve them. It also reframes expectations that children with ADHD are unintentionally having difficulty meeting, such as staying calm and regulating or engaging in social problem-solving.

A 2019 study, involving 130 Australian families with children ages 7 –14 years old, split participants into two groups to compare the effectiveness of the two approaches. Researchers reported both approaches had nearly equal significant success.

Timeouts for kids must be strategic and specific

For parents using the PMT framework with younger children, Grodberg supports the use of a timeout in high-stress situations and emphasizes that they should be used strategically, and only in response to two or three specific behaviors that you’re trying to discourage.

You should make clear which behaviors are on that list so there’s less confusion. When these behaviors occur, Grodberg suggests:

  • quickly and calmly announcing the timeout is starting
  • reminding your child that you love them
  • being clear about the length — use a timer if necessary
  • picking a stimulus-free place for the timeout to occur
  • making sure your child remains visible to you during the timeout
  • discussing why it happened after it’s over and reminding your child that the timeout was in response to a specific behavior
  • using positive reinforcement to encourage your child to continue the positive actions and behaviors that resulted when they took steps to avoid discouraged behaviors and instead made other choices

Every kid responds differently

Not all psychologists support the use of timeouts for every child. In fact, psychiatrist Dan Siegel has researched an alternative strategy he refers to as “time in.”

Siegel believes that timeouts are ineffective because they isolate children at a time when what they really need is connection. He believes ostracizing only makes them want to act out more.

Instead of sending your child off to be alone, Siegel recommends sitting with them to reflect on their behavior and taking some time to talk through what happened, why they may have acted out, and how they can act differently next time.

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The NIMH recommends giving positive reinforcement when rules are followed. NIMH reminds adults that children with ADHD often get criticism, and over time, they even expect it. So instead of focusing on negative outbursts, giving attention to positive actions will make life easier for both you and your kid.

Every kid responds differently

Some evidence demonstrates reinforcing positive behaviors with rewards can have the opposite effect and undermine child-rearing for some children and teens.

This is where it helps to really observe your child’s response and take an objective view to see if they’re learning the character behind the positive behavior or just doing what it takes to get the prize.

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There are multiple frameworks for exactly how to incentivize positive behaviors, and establish accountability.

Point/token method

Amladi recommends a point/token system, where children are rewarded with points, physical tokens, or similar objects in exchange for completing goals, tasks, and chores. The points or tokens can be “cashed in” for rewards.

To put this into practice, consider the behavior you’d like to encourage and the kind of reward that will incentivize your child.

If you want your child to regularly clean their room, assign points and give praise whenever they do. After they’ve done so an agreed-upon number of times, reward them with something they like. The goal, Amladi said, “is to help your child get excited about working toward rewards, and this should help with intrinsic motivation.”

Reward, selectively and specifically

If you are going to use a reward system, it’s important to be specific in your praise, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). You can avoid simply saying your child did a “good job” after they’ve cleaned their room or kept from engaging in negative behavior.

Instead, you can praise the quality of the effort they took in cleaning their room. The APA also warns against offering praise for trivial accomplishments or half-hearted efforts.

Researchers conducting a 2016 study involving 167 children with ADHD reported that children in the study had trouble regulating their behavior when rewards were intermittent or when the relationship between actions (their behavior) and an outcome (potential rewards) was unclear.

Study authors recommend parents implement consistency and clarity in rewards to increase the likelihood of achieving the best outcomes.

Parenting a child with ADHD can be very isolating, which makes it extra important to take time to care for yourself.

Amladi recommends a variety of strategies for helping parents stay calm, from “joining a parent support group, engaging in individual or family therapy” to lifestyle interventions like “exercise, meditation, eating healthy, and getting enough sleep.” All of those actions, “can go a long way toward managing stress.”

After all, she continued, “It’s difficult to have the bandwidth to take care of others if you’re not taking care of yourself.”

Whether you try the breathing exercises, meditation, or both practices Grodberg recommends, the practices can help you and your child stay calm and grounded, and build a foundation for a better future.