To Punish or Not to Punish ADHD Children?

by Yafa Crane Luria 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

“Any aversive stimulus administered to an organism as part of training”

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Eyes of child© Luca Chiartano | Dreamstime.com_252056

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Mom Daughter1To summarize:

  1. Stop using the word “punishment” and stop trying to control behavior. You want buy-in, not fear and anger
  2. Create opportunities for children to be successful. Build success upon success. Acknowledge all successes.
  3. 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.
  4. Be supportive and encouraging. Come alongside your child. Create a structure of expectations that are appropriate to their current capacity.
  5. 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.


xo, Yafa

Copyright 2017 Yafa Luria/Margit Crane All Rights Reserved


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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Linda Swanson April 27, 2016 at

Thank you for this, Margit. I’m delighted to have found your website.

I so appreciate your emphasis on the behavior – and the reason behind or meaning of the behavior. When we understand that what we see as misbehavior is not a matter of won’t, but is likely a matter of can’t, I think it’s easier to pause and respond thoughtfully rather than have a knee jerk reaction that inflames the situation.

I look forward to reading more of your writings! Thanks!


Margit Crane Luria May 2, 2016 at

Thanks, Linda! Glad to meet a fellow traveler!


Jessica Jackson November 5, 2016 at


First, love all of what you have said here. I am an adult with adhd and I had wonderful support, as a child, resulting in my being very in tune with my strengths and weaknesses and I have developed very strong coping skills over the years.

I’m now parenting a child with adhd. His manifests as a combination of my symptoms and my husband’s symptoms. He’s in eighth grade now and his grades are suffering because of the strict homework policy. (No late homework is accepted and a zero is given. We now have an excellent coaching system in place for him at school,, but it’s coaching with no flexibility in the policy. I’m curious if this type of rule does more harm than good for a child with adhd. I was taught to take responsibility for my missed assignments by apologizing to the teacher, directly, owning my mistake. I would then ask to make up the work, or requesting extra credit, as much to show I valued the material as to keep my grades from tanking. Extra credit is also not permitted at my child’s school. What bothers me is that his grades end up reflecting his diagnosis rather than his ability, but I can’t tell if I’m asking too much for some flexibility at his age or if this type of trial by fire is a good way to help him connect with his homework responsibilities? I really want him to learn the skill and I know what worked for me, but my way isn’t an option. (He is on a 504. I’ve been told that changing grading policies falls under an I.E.P)

Any insight is appreciated.


Yafa Luria/Margit Crane November 7, 2016 at

Hi Jessica, It’s pretty common for 504s to have a provision for late work, like one extra day for homework (if the child requests it); two extra days (or an extra weekend) for projects. They may be trying to trip you up with the idea that you’re CHANGING grades. Check out for specifics. Hope this helps. You can join us for a webinar or schedule a free call if you’d like. Sign up on my contact page, above.


Keren March 1, 2017 at

The idea of doing away with punishment is an enticing one. But what on earth do you do when your child is actually hurting someone else and no amount of limit-setting is working for them? When my eight year old is throwing things at his little brother, or jumping on top of him, or whatever, and both I and his brother are telling him to stop, and nothing is working (including getting close and touching him gently to get his attention), I honestly see no other route than telling him he must go into his room until he’s calmer. Or what about when he wakes up in the morning and immediately starts fighting with his brothers? My response is that if it happens again, he needs to stay in his room in the mornings.

Sure, you can call those “consequences” instead of “punishments,” and I try to frame it as such: “Everyone has to feel safe, and they don’t feel safe out here with you in the mornings because you’ve hurt them every day for the past three days.” And we’re obviously working with him in other ways to teach him the right way to react when he feels aggressive or wild or whatever. But in his mind, these are very much punishments, and we’re the horrible wardens trying to make his life miserable.

Is there really an alternative? You don’t seem to provide an alternative response to aggressive behavior in this article. Yes, I can work with him without punishments when it comes to forgetting things, losing things, lack of organization, etc. Because in the worst case scenario, I can just ignore the “misbehavior.” But when someone is getting hurt, I can’t. And I’m stuck with punishment as the only option that seems to get through to him.


Yafa Luria/Margit Crane March 1, 2017 at

Right, you are Karen. Aggressive behavior is a sign of something else going on besides ADHD. I would recommend that you take your child to your pediatrician and discuss this. I’m not a diagnostician but physical harm to others is not a symptom of ADHD. Not saying your child doesn’t have ADHD but most likely has something else going on at the same time. Good luck and feel free to call if you want to talk:


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