More children than ever before are being diagnosed with ADHD. Contrary to popular assertions, that’s not because of an over-diagnosis epidemic. It’s because doctors and mental health providers are more aware than ever before of how ADHD affects children. They diligently work to provide early diagnoses that offer children prompt access to services.
These five strategies for parenting a child with ADHD can improve your communication with your child, reduce family conflict, and help ADHD become just another fact about your child—not something that has to be the source of chronic family chaos.
Know What Your Child Can Control—and What They Can’t
If your child had a stomach bug, you wouldn’t punish them for throwing up on the rug. So why would you punish them for ADHD behavior that’s out of their control? Punishing a child for a mental health diagnosis only confirms that you can’t be trusted and that your behavior is arbitrary. That undermines the effectiveness of your discipline strategies.
Spend some time learning what your child can control and what he or she cannot. For example, your child can’t control the fact that he tends to forget things. He can control whether or not he writes down homework assignments. By cultivating behaviors your child can control, you set her up for success.
Set Your Child Up for Success
We all know to set children up for success. What does that mean, though? Children with ADHD struggle with tasks that are simple and mundane for other kids. It’s a parent’s job to help children overcome those difficulties. Some simple strategies for helping your child succeed include:
-Cultivating a sense of self-efficacy. Don’t do everything for your child, and don’t tell her that her ADHD means she can’t succeed.
-Advocate for your child at school. Children with ADHD are entitled to reasonable accommodations in education, including an individualized education plan. Meet with your child’s team each year to create a climate in which he or she can succeed.
-Don’t allow anyone to bully your child, especially teachers.
-Create a home environment that helps your child to succeed. Put reminders on the refrigerator. Put homework and other vital materials in easily sorted bins. Keep your home calm and chaos-free, since kids with ADHD are easily distracted.
-Be consistent, and when you do something that hurts your child or undermines family rules, apologize. This models the behavior your want your child to adopt.
Don’t Let ADHD Become an Insult or an Excuse
ADHD makes some activities more difficult, but don’t allow it to become an excuse. If your child hears you saying that something is “so ADHD,” or that she can’t do something because of her ADHD, this can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Remember also that your child's ADHD should not be an insult to be used against them. Talking about how hard ADHD is for you, treating your child differently because of their ADHD, or even joking using ADHD as an insult such as “That was a very ADHD moment” will hurt your child’s feelings and impede his or her sense of efficacy.
Know the Difference Between Punishment and Discipline
Children need discipline. What they don’t need is punishment. Punishment does not work, and those goes doubly so for children with ADHD. Rather than retaliating against your child for problematic behavior—and that’s what punishment is, a form of retaliation—focus on setting clear rules, and following through with natural consequences. Some excellent strategies include:
-Establishing a set homework time each evening. If your child doesn’t do his homework, he’ll be the one who has to answer to his teacher.
-Rewarding the behavior you want to see, and ignoring the rest. Children with ADHD sometimes exhibit problem behavior to get attention.
-Talking to your child about her behavior rather than punishing it. “Why?” is a powerful question in parenting. Remember that children sometimes act out when they have unmet emotional needs.
Punishment may feel good in the moment, but it can compound problematic behavior. You’ll often find that you're punishing your child for behavior she can’t control—undermining communication and wasting precious energy.
Tend to Your Own Emotional Needs
Parenting is difficult even under the best circumstances, and even with an easy child. Parents of children with ADHD face a range of challenges—from explaining ADHD to family and friends to dealing with behavioral problems at school. Many parents of children with ADHD are tempted to turn themselves into martyrs, tending to the child’s every need while never considering their own.
This is a recipe for burnout and resentment. It also models poor self-care to your child. To be an effective parent, you must tend to your own emotional and physical needs. That includes eating well, getting regular exercise, talking to a therapist about how your child’s ADHD affects your life, and leaning on family and friends when you need extra support.
If you need to take a break, park your kid in front of a movie, or hire a baby-sitter to avoid losing your mind, that is precisely what you need to do. Your child deserves a happy, healthy parent. Your choices determine whether he or she gets that parent.