Having dinner together as a family is an important part of a child’s development. Family dinners support healthier eating habits and provide an opportunity for kids and parents to connect and decompress after a hectic day. But in families of kids with ADHD, dinnertime can be a challenge. The impulsivity and hyperactivity that comes with ADHD can make it hard for kids to stay seated, wait patiently, and have enjoyable conversations. The good news is that with some structure and support, kids with ADHD can be successful at the table. Start with these 5 tips:
Provide clear expectations. Tell your child exactly what is expected of him or her during dinner. Focus on very specific behaviors, like “stay in your seat,” “talk without interrupting,” “no electronics at the table.”
Be realistic. If your child really struggles with a behavior, then make sure your expectations not beyond your child’s reach. For example, if your child currently gets up from his or her seat four times during dinner, then he or she will likely find it very difficult to sit for the entire meal. A more reasonable expectation may be to allow him or her to get up only once or twice during dinner. Once he or she has mastered this, then you can expect him or her to work on staying seated for the entire meal.
Try using a talking stick. If family members struggle to have good conversations during dinner, then try using a talking stick. The person holding the talking stick speaks while others listen and ask questions. Then the stick gets passed to the next person at the table. You may need to set some ground rules around topics that can be discussed – especially if things have a tendency to become way too silly, or too tense.
Pay attention to good behavior. It can be easy to accidentally give your child less attention when he or she is quiet and following the rules and more attention when he or she is misbehaving – and demanding your negative attention. You’ll see better behavior at the dinner table if you give your child the most attention when he or she is behaving well. He or she will be much less likely to engage in attention-seeking behavior if he or she is included in conversations and feels seen and heard at the table.
Reward good behavior. When your children meet your mealtime expectations, provide them with a reward. Some of my favorite rewards include: healthy desserts, the privilege of listening to music during dinner, playing a quick game as a family at the end of the meal, or points toward a larger reward at the end of the week. Just make sure the reward is something that your child really wants, and let him or her know about the reward ahead of time. During dinner, point out good behavior and tie it to the reward, “You’re doing a great job staying in your seat. If you keep this up then we’ll be able to listen to music during dinner again tomorrow!”
ABOUT DR. MARY ROONEY
Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.
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