Disciplining ADHD Children with Patience and Empathy

I thought I would write today about what I have read regarding disciplining children with ADHD and about the discipline strategies that I have found to be most helpful at my house. Of all the books that I have read, the book that I have found to be the most useful is called The Explosive Child.  Much of what I suggest in this post was culled from that book.

I think that parental patience and disciplining with empathy are the key components of an effective ADHD disciplining strategy, but picking your battles, and maintaining perspective of what rules are truly important as well as a few other practical disciplining tools can help you make the best of often volatile, ADHD, child rearing situations. 

Children with ADHD can be developmentally immature and are often trying their best. Coexisting conditions such as language processing problems, distractibility problems and Oppositional Defiance Disorder issues can contribute greatly to the behavioral problems that exist in these children. Trying to discipline highly distractible children with a combination of communication and impulse control issues can be challenging. Remembering the ADHD child's limitations will allow you to better see behavioral challenges from the child's point of view and will help you avoid common pitfalls to effective parenting such as miscommunication, unrealistic expectations, and angry child/parent interactions. 

It is very important that parents of children with ADHD pick their battles carefully. Not all rules are of equal importance. Parents must not discipline children for rules that, in the 'big picture' of life, are simply not that important. Parents must also remember that most children do not set out to make their parent's lives miserable. Most children would stay out of trouble if they could. Picking your battles is practical advice no matter what you are attempting to do but when parenting children with ADHD there is plenty to concern yourself with without wasting your disciplining energy on matters that are not important. If your family always eats at the Chinese restaurant after church and your ADHD child hates Chinese food. Do not insist that he find something to eat there. Pack him a sandwich to eat and let it go. Disciplining in an exceedingly strict manner will seldom work well with these children. Your child may not be able to articulate what the Chinese food problem is but respect their preference, do not hold a grudge, let it go, and move on. 

Clear Communication is imperative to an effective discipline strategy. Children with ADHD must be told: What the house rules are, what is expected of them, what the consequences are of unacceptable behavior, and what anger outlets are acceptable. 

House rules should be spelled out on a behavior chart or in another clearly stated manner. Children must be told what is expected of them beforehand. Expectations should be age appropriate and realistic given the child's maturity level. Children with ADHD can lag in maturity by 30% percent when compared to non-ADHD children. Parents should take this into account when explaining to children, with ADHD, the behavior that is expected of them. 

Certain children with ADHD have a tendency to lose their tempers or 'explode'. They can quickly become angry and violent. These children need to be told what is acceptable behavior when they are angry and what is not. At my house it is acceptable for my children to go to their bedrooms and hit the wall with their pillows, it is acceptable to throw their stuffed animals against their bedroom walls or on their bed, it is acceptable to punch their bed mattress, it is acceptable to go outside and bang a stick against the sidewalk, it is acceptable to run around the block providing they tell me where they are going, etc. Children need to have an acceptable outlet for their anger and they need to be congratulated when they choose an acceptable anger strategy. Children who demonstrate their anger in an unacceptable manner must be told in advance how they will be disciplined for losing their temper and the discipline should be applied consistently and promptly when they fail to utilize an acceptable anger outlet strategy. 

Situations where the child may find it difficult to control their behavior require special preparation. The parent should anticipate potential problems that might arise beforehand and discuss these with the child. An example would be this; your ADHD child is going with you to an elderly neighbor's house to visit. This neighbors house in not child friendly and there is nothing there for a child to do. You will need to tell the child that the house is not child friendly and that you are going to bring an acceptable toy for the child to play with, the child will need to be reminded to be quiet, polite, and to socially engage the neighbor for an age appropriate amount of time. You can tell the child that after 'X' number of minutes it will be OK to bring out the toy and play quietly until you are finished with the visit. It should be clearly spelled out in advance what is not OK behavior and what the consequences are for misbehaving. 

Rewarding positive behavior, as quickly and consistently, as punishing unacceptable behavior will go a long way to keeping your children well behaved. Positive reinforcement tools such as awarding chips or points for good behavior, which can later be used for privileges, often motivates children with ADHD to be on their best behavior. At my house, my kids get 10 minutes added to their screen time when they are caught behaving well. They lose 10 minutes of screen time if they break a house rule or misbehave. Larger behavioral successes may get them an extra hour of screen time, or a trip to the movies, while larger behavioral violations will make them lose an hour of screen time or may cost them the loss of a play date. 

Maintaining a quiet, good humored, patient, calm, and respectful parental manner when ADHD children are misbehaving is an art worth mastering. It is important that children with ADHD know that their caretakers will be calm and consistent in their discipline and will: Communicate clearly what is expected of them. Respond fairly and immediately when discipline is necessary. Be consistent in their expectations. Listen to them actively and respectfully, and Be empathetic to the problems that they are experiencing. 

Children with ADHD often do not hear things that a parent says the way the parent intended. Parents must communicate in a clear, respectful, non-sarcastic and unambiguous way what is expected of these children. Do not say; "Who were you expecting to pick up your dirty socks?" A better statement would be: "Please pick up your dirty clothes and put them in the laundry hamper." The punishment you give your ADHD child should fit the violation and should be immediate. Grounding a child for a week on Friday for not taking out the recycling on Tuesday is too much discipline too late. A more appropriate discipline response might be a loss of screen time or other prized privilege on the day of the infraction. 

Children with ADHD need to know that the house rules apply no matter what. Children with ADHD are less successful at interpreting the house rules when the rules change with different circumstances. If it is not OK to play ball in the house on most days, it should not be OK because your neighbor's young children are over and they are allowed to do this at their house. Rules must be consistently applied in order to maximize compliance. 

There are always two sides of a discipline issue. Truly listening to what your ADHD child reports regarding their inability to behave as expected is an important component of parenting in a fair and empathetic manner. If the child has a truly reasonable excuse for the failure to follow through with the expected behavior, discuss with empathy how to avoid this pitfall in the future and discipline accordingly. A child who broke a sibling's toy while trying to stuff it into the sibling's toy box so that that the toy would not get lost, needs to be thanked for trying to do something 'nice' but still needs to be told that they are expected to help repair the toy because the toy is now broken. Listening to and trying to understand the difficulties that your ADHD child is having is important to maintaining a respectful and loving relationship with your child. This approach will also teach your child to have empathy for other people's problems. 

Parental patience is the key to parenting children with ADHD. A few other practical disciplining strategies such as communicating clearly what is expected, consistently and promptly administering discipline for unacceptable behavior, maintaining a 'big picture' perspective; listening to and displaying empathy regarding the circumstances of the misbehavior, giving the child a safe outlet for displaying heightened emotions, and relying more on positive reinforcement rather than on punishment when disciplining can help you make the best of often volatile, ADHD, child rearing situations.


  1. Hello,
    I was wondering if you would consider providing a 'reciprocal' link on your site to my ADHD blog http://mungosadhd.blogspot.com. I have just begun my journey of assessment and diagnosis, and would be interested to see if there is any similar stories to mine.
    Respectfully yours,

  2. Mungo,

    I would love to but it seems that you only have one post right now. Can you ask me again when you have 20 posts?

    Good Luck!! Tess

  3. I'm up to 38 posts now! Want to consider linking me?

  4. And now I'm up to 95 posts! I am SO linkable, I can hardly stand it... :-)


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