The symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can present parents with many challenges. Kids with ADHD “often lose track of their things, have difficulty staying on top of homework and seem generally scattered when attending to chores or assigned tasks,” says George Kapalka, Ph.D, clinical and school psychologist and author of three books on ADHD, including Parenting Your Out-of-Control Child: An Effective, Easy-to-use Program for Teaching Self-Control.
Impulsivity is another challenge, which can lead kids to be defiant or to argue, he says. “They tend to easily get overstimulated and they overreact to frustration or failure.”
Lucy Jo Palladino, Ph.D, clinical psychologist and author of Dreamers, Discoverers, and Dynamos: How to Help the Child Who is Bright, Bored, and Having Problems at School, agrees. She says that kids with ADHD have “hair-trigger, fight-or-flight reactions to stress,” which can make enforcing rules difficult for parents. Parents may have a tough time knowing how to provide structure without pressure, she says.
“Children with ADHD know what to do [but] they don’t do what they know,” Palladino notes. Consequently, parents might not know when to be firm and when to be patient, she says.
Plus, parents have to deal with the tricky balance of believing “in your child’s abilities while protecting him from the pitfalls of his ADHD,” she says. You might wonder, “How much accommodation and special treatment is best?,” and worry that you’re fostering dependence or self-doubt in your child.
Fortunately, while there are many challenges that come with raising kids with ADHD, there are also effective strategies and rewards. Kapalka and Palladino share 16 targeted tips for parenting kids with ADHD.
Parenting Strategies for Kids with ADHD
1. Stay calm.
Both Kapalka and Palladino emphasize the importance of staying calm. As Kapalka says, “Once the parent is out of control, the child’s anger becomes even more escalated, assuring that the interaction will result in a non-productive outcome.” So pay attention to yourself if you have a tendency toward ADHD behaviors like reactivity.
Arguing with your child won’t get you anywhere. Take homework time, for instance—an activity that can feel like a tug-of-war. Arguing simply creates “a diversion that delays homework even longer,” Palladino points out. Instead, “Diffuse, don’t engage.”
Palladino suggests the following: “Say, ‘I understand this is no fun for you,’ followed by silence, positive expectancy and a loving touch on the shoulder. The wrong move here would be saying, ‘Stop complaining. You’re dawdling over nothing.’”
2. Set limits on your own behavior.
“If you’re inclined to be a worried, rescuing parent, remind yourself that the more you do for your child, the less he does for himself,” Palladino says. The key is to “Support, but don’t get into the driver’s seat.”
For example, during a homework session, it’s fine to ask “Do you need more of those papers with the lines and boxes on them to finish these long division problems?” she says. But taking your child’s pencil and saying you’ll both work on that long division can be problematic.
If you’d still like to keep an eye on your child, “sit close by, but bring your own work to the table—pay your bills, balance your checkbook.”
3. Set structure—but make it pressure-free.
According to Palladino, structure involves “star charts for young children, calendars and planners for older ones, and clear rules and sensible routines, especially at bedtime.” Structure helps reduce disorganization and distractibility, Kapalka notes. As such, “set a consistent time to do homework, with certain privileges only available to the child after” they’ve successfully completed their assignments, he says. (Another tip — work with your child’s teachers to create a consistent homework routine, he says.)
As Palladino explained earlier, it’s best to avoid imposing pressure. So what does pressure-free structure look like? It includes “not using threats or unreasonable deadlines and punishments that contribute to hostility, fear or drama,” she says.
4. Give your kids the chance to make wise choices.
To help teach kids self-control, Kapalka says that “Parents must provide ample opportunities for children to be faced with choices of how to respond.”
Palladino suggests using a technique called “structured choice,” which gives your child two choices that steer him or her in the right direction. For example, parents might ask, according to Palladino: “Do you want to do your math or your science assignment next?” or “Before we can go, your room needs to be picked up. Do you want to start with the clothes on the bed or clear the top of your desk?”
5. Use reasonable consequences for rule-breaking.
As a start, Palladino suggests parents ask their child what the consequences should be if he or she breaks a rule. This helps kids create commitments that they can actually own, she says.
In addition, create and consistently enforce positive consequences for positive behaviors and negative consequences for negative behaviors, Kapalka says. This helps your child “recognize that positive behaviors result in positive consequences, and negative behaviors result in negative ones.”
6. Expect rule-breaking, and don’t take it personally.
As Palladino says, it’s in your child’s “job description” to occasionally break the rules. When your child breaks the rules, “…correct him the way a police officer gives you a ticket. He doesn’t take it personally or groan or yell, ‘I can’t believe you did that again! Why do you do this to me?’ Like the officer, be respectful, consistent, and matter-of-fact.”
7. Advocate for your child when appropriate.
Certain accommodations might be necessary for your child because of his or her ADHD. However, you still want to encourage kids to cultivate their abilities.
Palladino gives an example of finding this tricky balance: “… stand up for his right for an accommodation like talking books, but encourage and expect him to learn to read fluently, giving him time, attention, a tutor, and most especially, your belief that he can.”
8. Avoid muting a headstrong child.
As Kapalka says, one of the mistakes parents can make is “Trying to turn a spirited, willful child into one that never questions authority and accepts all that is said ‘just because I said so’ as a parent.”
Instead, he suggests that parents “ accept that some children will protest and talk back, and parents must set a limit that on the one hand realizes that children need at least some way to express their frustration, while still enforcing reasonable standards and rules.”