Are Children with ADHD More Sensitive to Punishment?

Health Writer

Children with ADHD might be more sensitive to punishment and negative feedback according to a study completed at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University (OIST) and published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

Parents and medical professionals familiar with ADHD have long argued that discipline for children with ADHD should focus on positive rewards rather than punishment. As a parent, you might have heard, “Children with ADHD don’t always respond to normal discipline methods.” Is this true? Is there a real difference between how children with ADHD and those without ADHD respond when they are faced with punishment or negative feedback?

How researchers tested their theory

Scientists from both Japan and New Zealand used a computer-based video game to test whether children with ADHD were more sensitive to punishment. The research team developed the game to include both rewards and punishments but made sure it was still fun to play. A "win" resulted in extra points and a short animation. A "loss" resulted in losing points and a laughing sound.

A total of 210 children took part in the study, 145 of whom were diagnosed with ADHD. Each computer screen had two games side-by-side and the children were allowed to choose which one to play. While both games had the same chance of a win, one of the games had a much greater chance of a loss. The rewards were arranged to discourage playing only one of the games. A typical session lasted 30 minutes, and children continued their game over a series of sessions until they reached 400 points or 300 “trials” of the game. At the end of the game, every child won a prize.

As expected, both children with and without ADHD preferred the game where they won on a more regular basis. But over the course of the experiment, the children with ADHD were much more likely to play the game where they were more apt to win. The children without ADHD did not seem distracted by the laughter or loss of points when they lost, and continued to focus on trying to win the game.

What the results mean

Children with ADHD might perform better when a task has a combination of rewards and punishments, with punishment referring to negative feedback, such as the laughing and loss of points in the game. Gail Tripp, PhD, the director of the Human Developmental Neurobiology Unit at the Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology Graduate University, and one of the authors of the paper, thinks parents and teachers can use this information to better help their child be persistent and succeed, “If a child with ADHD is reluctant in doing a task, or if the child gives up easily, it might be important for the parent or the teacher to check if the task has the appropriate balance of reward and punishment,” she said in a release from the institute.

She further points out that there might not be a built-in punishment, but the child might perceive sustained effort as a type of punishment if there is not a balance of rewards through the process.

Offering encouragement, smiles, or other types of frequent rewards might help the child stay on task. This also was demonstrated during earlier research; when children with ADHD were offered only one video game to play, they simply stopped playing when the losses were more frequent than the wins. Based on the study, the researchers concluded that children with ADHD are more sensitive to the cumulative effects of punishment than those without ADHD.

The next time your child has a challenging task or assignment, look for ways you can balance the hard work with rewards, such as:

  • Offer encouraging words
  • Give specific praise, such as “You did a great job organizing your thoughts”
  • Point out your child’s strengths, such as being creative
  • Provide consistent feedback, don’t wait until the project is completed
  • Look for small successes
  • Offer a reward, such as a special snack or extra screen time when the task is completed

It is often easier to point out mistakes, offer criticisms, or become frustrated with your child’s inattention. However, as the study showed, children with ADHD respond more positively to rewards and are more sensitive to negative feedback. Notice what your child is doing right instead of pointing out what he is doing wrong.

See More Helpful Articles:

Creating a Discipline Process at Home

Teens With ADHD: Keeping Emotions in Check When Disciplining Teens

Symptoms vs. Misbehaving in Children With ADHD

Giving Your Child With ADHD Consequences for Behavior

Behavior Management 101: Why Yelling Doesn't Work

Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author ofI diot's Guide to Adult ADHD,Idiot's Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love and Essential Guide to Asperger's Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbaileyand on Facebook at eileenmbailey.