One of the most confusing things about parenting an ADHD child is deciding whether to punish or not. On the one hand, the child has ADHD and, presumably, he or she isn’t in control of outbursts, accidentally bouncing around and damaging items, or getting homework done. But on the other hand, it doesn’t make sense not to do anything when your child is clearly making up his or her own rules and not following your or the school’s expectations.
Parents, Teachers, let me be straightforward:
Take out the word “punishment” and never use it again. Also, “whooping,” “butt-kicking,” and any other term of physical or emotional hurt. Punishment is a control tactic. It uses fear and suffering to change behavior. In psychology (via the American Heritage Dictionary), “punishment” means
This is the idea behind some private addiction recovery programs – you expose the patient to sickening experiences (visually, for example) so that the body eventually recoils from the addictive substance. The idea is to make the person hurt and suffer.
This is an ineffective and unnecessary way to parent and teach. Kids don’t need to suffer. Do you want your children to recoil from you???
Why the misbehavior?
The reasons that ADHD children don’t adhere to behavior expectations are threefold:
- Their Executive Functioning is delayed. The brain’s pre-frontal cortex is the site of executive functioning. These functions or skills include planning, goal-setting, scheduling, follow-through, understanding the consequences of your actions, time management, and organization. BOOM! There’s your ADHD! Children and teens with ADHD tend to have delayed development in these areas. We tend to think of these as related to a person’s maturity level when, in fact, they have nothing to do with maturity, focus, motivation, or integrity. Depending on the level of skill in this area, your children may be able to understand the importance of doing a task, but not be able to remember to do it on time. They may also be completely baffled as to why you’re upset or concerned that the task isn’t done.
- They have the capability but not the capacity. Capability means they have the intellect or the physical skills to get something done. Capacity means that they can hold onto all that information and complete the task regardless of what else is going on. Many, many ADHD children have “capacity overload.” They can do the task but there’s so much else going on in their heads and their lives that they don’t have the wherewithal to focus and follow-through. Capacity is often emotionally based. When I see a child that absolutely refuses to do his/her homework, I know that they’re challenged by their capacity, that the child or teen is overwhelmed emotionally. He or she simply does not have the capacity to hold it all together.
- They think the expectations are hypocritical and unfair. ADHD children have internal seismographs (used for measuring earthquake intensity). If the earth is shaking, even a little, the seismograph registers it. In ADHD children and teens, inconsistency – You say one thing but do another – sets off their internal meters. Usually, the result is shutting down or acting out, depending on the severity of the “earthquake.” Parents and teachers will find their kids fidgeting or scowling or interrupting or melting down when rules only apply to some people but not others (Parents, teachers, do you follow your own rules?), or when there’s no way to recover from a rule infraction. “You break a rule, you have to pay for it!” type of attitude.
What to do instead of punishing?
Focus on structure rather than control; count successes rather than mishaps.
These work at home or in a classroom:
- Approach your child at their current developmental and emotional level, rather than the one you want them to be at or the one you think they should be it. People can’t skip developmental stages. You can’t force someone to become more mature. You’re teaching skills and skills are cumulative and people need to master one skill before mastering the next. Think capacity before capability. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to come to school with supplies, but at times in kids’ lives it may be overwhelming. Be clear about family rules and about what happens when rules are broken (think cause-and-effect, rather than punishment), but don’t pile them on. Ten rules is plenty for someone in high school.
- Create rules or expectations to guide happier family/classroom interactions, not to control behavior. You haven’t been able to control your kids’ behavior since they turned 1, as far as I can tell. Kids just happen to be terrified of disappointing their parents and when you get super mad they get scared and they behave so they can please you. That’s blind obedience. There’s no thinking involved, no learning, no choice; there’s just fear. When your purpose is to create better family relationships, kids can tell. Sample rule: Cleaning up after yourself is a courtesy to others. *That also means that you’ll drop whatever rules are just there to make your life easier but they don’t bring the family closer together. Example: Why can’t they wear mismatched clothes? Does it really matter? *Further, it’s important that your child be able to “redeem him/herself” with another behavior. “If you do what I asked you to do in the next 15 minutes, you don’t have to stay home tonight,” for example.
- Think of yourself as your child’s trainer, coach, or executive assistant. The trainer doesn’t do the workouts for their client but a trainer will teach the client the proper skills to accomplish the tasks. A coach isn’t out on the field making the plays but he or she is right there encouraging. An executive assistant doesn’t run the corporation but he or she helps the CEO with many of the Executive Functions, like planning, keeping a calendar, setting reminders, keeping the coffee pot going 🙂 You don’t do the work for the child or teen, but you come alongside your child so that he or she can do the work themselves. Create opportunities for success. That’s what trainers and coaches and executive assistants do.
- Stop using the word “punishment” and stop trying to control behavior. You want buy-in, not fear and anger
- Create opportunities for children to be successful. Build success upon success. Acknowledge all successes.
- Teach your child the skills they need to organize their time and get work done in a timely manner. This will probably take years, just so you know.
- Be supportive and encouraging. Come alongside your child. Create a structure of expectations that are appropriate to their current capacity.
- Don’t take things personally. They’re not “ADHDing at you” – they’re confused too. If they forget a task, give them one opportunity to redeem themselves before giving them the agreed-upon consequence.
Copyright 2017 Yafa Luria/Margit Crane All Rights Reserved
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