ADHD: Why Traditional Punishment Doesn't Work

by Eileen Bailey Health Writer

Children with ADHD seem to be in trouble more often than their non-ADHD counterparts. Some of the time, their actions aren’t so much misbehaviors as they are a lack of skills needed to control and manage symptoms of ADHD.

The words punishment and discipline are often used interchangeably, however, they are not the same. Punishment is a punitive measure meant to stop a behavior. Discipline is a teaching process; punishment can be a part of the discipline process, but to be effective it should be balanced with recognizing and rewarding positive behaviors.

Punishment alone doesn’t usually work for children with ADHD because it is based on the premise that the child willingly did something wrong and the consequence or punishment will prevent the behavior from occurring again. When children with ADHD misbehave, it can often be as a result of impulsiveness or inattention. In these situations, the child hasn’t “willfully” misbehaved, he just hasn’t managed ADHD symptoms -- and that could very well be because he doesn’t yet have the skills to do so.

That isn’t to say that children with ADHD shouldn’t have consequences for their misbehaviors. But this is where discipline comes in: as parents, we can use these times as a way to teach our child skills he can use for many years to better manage impulsiveness or inattention.

Punitive measures might involve tie outs, or taking away toys or television time. (More severe punishments, such as spanking, should not be used.) These tell your child what not to do. Without also teaching your child what to do, punishments usually don’t work. When you discipline your child, you take into account that ADHD impacts their ability to control impulses, pay attention, engage their short-term memory and follow through on tasks. When you discipline your child you focus on long-term goals, i.e., what you want your child to learn and how you want him to behave in the future.

Use the following guidelines to create your own discipline process at home:** Communicate clear expectations.** You should let your child know exactly what behavior you expect to see and remind him often. Be as clear as possible, e.g., “I expect you and your brother to play together without fighting for ten minutes.”

Praise desired behavior. This is the “catch them being good” rule. Children with ADHD often respond to positive reinforcement, e.g., “You have been playing together nicely with your brother for five minutes. That is great!” When working on changing a child’s behavior it is often necessary to give positive reinforcement statements quite often. As the behavior changes, you can space out how often you praise your child.

Give appropriate consequences. Consider the misbehavior when deciding a consequence. For some, a discussion on the appropriate behavior might be enough; for others you might want to use time-outs or take away a toy for a short time. Consequences should be immediate. If your child misbehaved in the afternoon, not allowing him to watch his favorite television show five hours later isn’t going to have an impact.

Discuss what happened. Start by asking your child what happened. It is important to listen and find out what he was thinking and feeling, although not all may be able to express fully what they are thinking in the moment. Then, you can discuss a more appropriate way to handle the situation. Relay your expectations again (you can’t do this too often), and ask your child for ideas on how he could change his behavior the next time.

Discuss strategies. Think about what skills your child needs to develop in order to behave the way you want. If he acted impulsively, could he count to 10 before acting? If he was distracted, what can he do next time?

Look for opportunities to praise your child. After your conversation, look for times when your child is behaving in the appropriate way, times he is following his own advice on how to act. Let him know that you notice how much he is trying.

**Remember, the goal is not to punish your child but to determine how he can learn to better manage his behavior. Discipline involves reasonable expectations, clear communication and praise for desired behaviors.


Parenting Your ADHD Child - Easy Techniques That Work: Child Development Institute

What’s the Difference Between Discipline and Punishment?: University of Minnesota

Eileen Bailey
Meet Our Writer
Eileen Bailey

Eileen Bailey is an award-winning author of six books on health and parenting topics and freelance writer specializing in health topics including ADHD, Anxiety, Sexual Health, Skin Care, Psoriasis and Skin Cancer. Her wish is to provide readers with relevant and practical information on health conditions to help them make informed decisions regarding their health care.