How Do You Discipline Kids with ADHD?

Key Takeaways

  • Kids with ADHD are people first.
  • Kids want to feel loved and respected by the people who care for them.
  • Invest time into preventing problematic behaviors.
  • Most behaviors have a time and a place. Help them find the time and place for the behavior in question.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) seems to be growing more popular each year. The CDC estimates that 11% of children from ages 4-17 fit the diagnosis. I’m getting this question often: How do I discipline kids with ADHD?

Not Sure What ADHD Is? Start here –>What is ADHD?

I’ve worked with families over the last two decades in various settings. I’ve worked years in music instrument retail, taught private and small-group music lessons, worked in many classrooms, and have worked in families’ homes. I’ve interacted with a lot of kids with ADHD and I’ve watched a lot of adults interact with kids with ADHD. I’ve never heard a person with ADHD say, “All those punishments and bribes really helped me like my teachers and my parents more.” You may think, “my kids don’t have to like me,” but when it comes down to it, it really helps. I don’t really have to like my boss to do what he says but we both get along better when I do like him.

Think About the Question First

A better question for me to answer is, “How do you approach a child with ADHD?” That’s a different question because “How do you discipline…” implies I’m doing something TO the child. But I’m looking for ways to empower this young person to recognize the control they have over their behavior. By the way, kids with ADHD are still people. People don’t like to have things done TO them. They like some independence. They like to be treated with respect. They like to feel like they belong.

You might be thinking, “but what about this behavior they’re doing?!”

I know. It can be unsettling. You can punish them. You can bribe them. You can shout and nag them to get them to do what you want, but what will that do to the relationship? Is what you want them to do so important that you’re willing to put your relationship with them on the line? When the answer is “no,” do this.

How do you approach a child with ADHD?

I approach them the same way I approach all children: Calm, respectful, and with a strong sense of personal boundaries. Here’s what that looks like.

Calm

I’m calm in the sense that I don’t assume my emotions will do anything to help them want to behave better. If I’m excited about something, I show it. If I’m frustrated about something, I show it. If I’m sad about something, I show it. But I don’t pretend the behavior is more important than the relationship. Here’s an example:

You come into the kitchen after some time away from the kids to find out your daughter has drawn all over the table with markers. Your instinct is to shout, “What in the world are you doing?! How many times have I told you to color on paper?!” Being calms means I might come in and say directly but controlled, “I’m not going to let you color on the table. Use the paper instead.” Then I’d get the paper out for them and depending on the age I would invite them to help me clean. If I was frustrated I might say, “I’m feeling upset about this table. I’m glad you’re excited to color but I really want you to make sure you get paper out each time.” If they continue to do the behavior then put the markers out of their reach for a period of time or stay close to them during the activity the next several times they’re doing it. They’re not a bad person for wanting to color on the table. In fact, if you were at a junkyard together and they found an old table you would even encourage them to do color on it.

Respectful

Kids are people. Anything that you would do to improve a relationship with an adult, will also help a relationship with your child flourish. That means when you approach this person, you are respecting their desire to live a life that’s free of criticism, punishment, nagging, yelling, etc.

“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time.”

Right?

Sure, but our emotions don’t know the difference. You can tell someone they did something wrong without being a jerk about it, right? I mean, not many people know how to but it is possible. Using the coloring situation from above as an example, my language is respectful. I didn’t criticize or yell. I made it clear what the rule was and gave them a path to do it right the next time.

That’s the problem with most punishments and criticisms by the way: Punishments and criticisms are focused on pointing out what’s wrong instead of encouraging what’s right.

Strong Sense of Personal Boundaries

My approach to children will seem like a “free for all” at times. But I know exactly what I will allow my children to do to me and what I won’t allow.

Here are a few rules that come to mind:

No hitting

No stealing

And that’s about it, at least what I can think of. These things have happened with each of our older kids a few times and a I respond in the same way as I described above: Calmness and respect.

It’s tempting to want to spank a child for hitting me but that sends a confusing message. I’m going to hurt them for trying to hurt me? Just doesn’t make sense.

If they try to hit me though, I’ll just leave the room. I’m under absolutely no requirement to allow abuse.

How Do I Prevent Some of These Behaviors?

I show them when and where they CAN do them.

Is running and shouting wrong?

Is crying or tantruming wrong?

Is taking things apart or fidgeting wrong?

Is hitting wrong?

It depends on the situation, right? Let’s assume you’re in the house and they’re throwing a tantrum. Is there anywhere in the house that is an appropriate place to throw a tantrum?

Their bedroom? Great. Ask them to go there. If their tantrum is going to cause you to lose your patience then find some separation. Don’t tell them to stop crying. Give them a place where it’s okay to cry.

If they won’t go there then maybe you can find a place to cool down.

The same way with throwing things. Find a place they can throw things or objects they can throw. When we try to shut down the whole behavior then they start to assume there’s something wrong with them. That’s not a healthy image to create for themselves.

Philip Mott

I've been working with families for two decades now. I write about topics pertaining to parents of children ages 4-12.

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