✎ Written by: Dubravka Rebic
Parenting a child with ADHD can be challenging and complex. But just as a child who struggles with reading can grasp how to decode words, children with ADHD can learn patience, communication, and solution-seeking skills to become more confident, independent, and capable.
ADHD is a developmental disorder of self-control – or what some professionals like to call the executive functions critical to planning, organizing, prioritizing, and executing complex tasks.
In a child with ADHD, the “executive” in the brain that is supposed to be organizing and controlling behavior, helping the child plan for the future, and follow through on those plans, is struggling. However, in many cases, the child is not suffering from a lack of skill or knowledge, so showing the child how to do something to correct her problems may not be of much help.
ADHD usually starts to appear around age 3 or 4 and does not go away with age (although the presentation may change). But as a parent, you can help your child overcome their daily challenges, channel their energy into positive arenas, and bring greater calm to your family.
In Taking Charge of ADHD, Russel Barkley offers effective guideline principles for parenting a child with ADHD.
1. Provide Immediate Feedback
When confronted with a job that your child finds tedious or unrewarding, try arranging positive feedback and consequences throughout the task.
Positive feedback can be given in the form of praise, as long as you state expressly and precisely what the child did that was positive. You could also use rewards such as extra privileges, or systems by which the child earns tokens or points toward privileges.
For example, if your child normally has problems sharing toys with a younger sibling, the most effective reinforcement of cooperative play would be for you to be on the alert of any instances of sharing and kindness shown by the child with ADHD and then give immediate praise when you spot it.
Similarly, when you're attempting to change negative behaviors, try providing quick rewards and feedback for good behavior and immediate consequences for when they misbehave.
For example, if your child refuses to share toys with the younger sibling, you can try telling the child exactly what he has just done wrong and why it is not acceptable; then you remove a privilege the child had access to that day or some earned tokens in a token program.
Whatever type of feedback you give, the more immediately it can be provided, the more effective it will be at changing future behavior.
2. Use Positives Before Negatives
According to Berkley, the rule of using positives before negatives states that when you want to change an undesirable behavior, you should first decide what positive behavior you want to replace it with.
For example, if your child frequently interrupts, intrudes, and blurts out comments at the dinner table, try speaking to them before the next family mealtime about what you would like to see them do more of at the table. You could ask them to wait until others have finished before they start talking.
Explain that they can earn points for following the rules. Throughout the meal, try marking points on a card and make sure the child sees this occurring. Also, provide a nonverbal cue, such as a wink, that lets the child know you appreciate how hard they're struggling to adhere to these rules.
3. Plan Ahead for Problem Situations
You can make problem situations less stressful if you try these five steps before entering any problematic setting:
Stop just before entering the site of a potential problem, such as a store, a restaurant, or a friend’s home.
Review two or three rules with your child that they often have trouble following in that situation. For a store, the rules could be, “Stay next to me, don’t ask for anything, and do as I say.” No long-winded explanations, just a brief statement of the rules. Then ask the child to repeat these simple rules back to you.
Set up a reward or incentive like selecting a snack at the checkout counter or stopping for frozen yogurt on the way home that your child can earn by obeying the rules.
Explain the punishment that may have to be used, such as losing points or a privilege.
Follow your plan as you enter the situation, and remember to give your child immediate and frequent feedback. If you must, punish your child swiftly for any acts that violate the rules.
Try using the same strategies for managing your child's behavior every time you’re in this scenario. Applying consistency means:
Being persistent and not giving up too soon when you start a behavior change program. Try a behavior change program for at least 1–2 weeks before deciding it isn't working.
Responding in the same fashion even when the setting changes. For example, you should respond to behaviors in a public place in the same way that you would respond at home.
Making sure that both parents or caregivers are using the same methods.
4. Hack the Brain's Reward System to Change Behaviours
Children with ADHD have an increased amount of slow-wave brain activity (theta brainwaves which are slow, drowsy, mind-wandering waves). Slow-wave brain activity is often associated with drowsiness and lack of concentration, while having smaller degrees of fast brainwave activity typically associated with focused concentration and sustained attention.
If your child has low brain electrical activity, teaching them how to increase it might help them alleviate their ADHD symptoms. The brain's electrical activity is measured using a device known as an electroencephalograph (EEG), and neurofeedback is a form of EEG brain-training technology that has been used for over 40 years to train dysregulated brainwaves.
Neurofeedback for ADHD is based on a learning method called operant conditioning, which involves rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence (whether negative or positive).
The goal is to train the brain to regulate itself and help your child understand when their brain is in the desired state. Eventually, their brain may be able to maintain a more balanced state even when it's not receiving feedback.
Frequency neurofeedback for ADHD received a grade 1 ("best support") rating from the American Academy of Pediatrics in 2013. Visit our research overview article for a comprehensive summary of neurofeedback research in multiple conditions, with supporting scientific references.
5. Externalize Time and Bridge Time Where Necessary
Children with ADHD are often less sensitive to mental information about time but are more sensitive to things occurring around them in the present moment. So, they are more likely to be guided by time when you provide external reminders about the interval assigned for a task.
For example, if your child has 20 minutes to clean up their room, try setting a timer for 20 minutes. Place it where it will be visible in the child’s room, and draw their attention to it.
For tasks that involve much longer time intervals, like homework, you should probably try to bridge time – that is, break the assignment into small, daily steps so that a bit of the task is done every day.
By bridging time, you build little bricks in the bridge across the gap in time between when the work was assigned and when it may be due (a few weeks or even a few months from now).
6. Make Thinking and Problem-Solving More Physical
When encountered with a problem, your child may react impulsively, without contemplating their options. If that's the case, try finding ways to represent a problem and its alternative solutions in a physical way.
For example, if your child has to write a short essay for school and doesn't seem to be responding well to this assignment, have them use a word processor and write down everything that comes to mind over a short period of time.
This way, thoughts aren’t forgotten and the child can then play around with the ideas in a physical form instead of a mental one.
The same thing can be done using index cards or even by drawing pictures or symbols on a blank sheet of paper, where each one represents some idea that has to be kept in mind to solve a problem.
Interestingly, the two discoverers of DNA, Drs. Francis Watson and James Crick, appear to have used the same method when they puzzled over DNA structure. They put down scraps of paper of the various parts known to be involved in DNA and then just kept playfully moving them around in different arrangements until, quite by accident, the correct arrangement became apparent!
7. Practice Forgiveness
Practicing forgiveness is the most important principle, but often the most difficult to implement consistently in daily life. You can practice forgiveness by:
Meditating: After problems have occurred and been settled, practice letting go of anger, frustration, or disappointment by meditating for three minutes. Complete the meditation by telling yourself something about your child or by pretending you’re saying something to them, such as, “I love you, and I forgive you.”
Forgiving others: Focus on forgiving others who may have misunderstood your child’s inappropriate behavior that day and acted in ways that were offensive to you and your child. Take any corrective action that’s needed and continue to advocate for your child, but try to let go of the hurt, anger, and resentment others may have inflicted on you.
Forgiving yourself: Finally, you must learn to practice forgiving yourself for your own mistakes in the management of your child that day. Without giving yourself the license to make the same errors repeatedly without consequence, try to replace the guilt with a frank evaluation of your performance as a parent that day, identifying which areas to improve and making a personal commitment to strive to get it right the next day.
You may find this principle the hardest to adhere to, but it’s fundamental to the art of effective and peaceful management of your child with ADHD.
And remember, self-care is also crucial. Parenting a child with ADHD is a marathon, not a sprint. Try to make sure you're eating right and getting enough sleep. Without you being physically and emotionally healthy, it may be challenging to provide support to your child.
Children with ADHD may require a lot more monitoring and supervision than others, but don't get discouraged! Take time to follow guideline parenting principles and watch your direct investment of time and energy pay off in the happiness and well-being of your child!
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About the author:
Dubravka Rebic puts a lot of time and energy into researching and writing in order to help create awareness and positive change in the mental health space. From poring over scientific studies to reading entire books in order to write a single content piece, she puts in the hard work to ensure her content is of the highest quality and provides maximum value.
Barkley, R. A. (2013). Taking charge of ADHD: The complete, authoritative guide for parents (3rd ed.). The Guilford Press.
Whitehead JC, Neeman R, Doniger GM, Preliminary Real-World Evidence Supporting the Efficacy of a Remote Neurofeedback System in Improving Mental Health: Retrospective Single-Group Pretest-Posttest Study JMIR Form Res 2022;6(7):e35636