Family Rules for Kids with ADHD

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Family rules are like a code of conduct for your household. “We clean up after ourselves.” “We follow directions the first time.” “We wait our turn to talk.” Family rules are great. They provide clear expectations. They help parents be consistent. And they cut down on the amount of arguing or negotiating that occurs when rules are broken. But when a child has ADHD, coming up with family rules that work for everyone can be tricky. Kids with ADHD may not be able to meet the same expectations as other kids in the family. In fact, it’s not uncommon for an older child with ADHD to have more difficulty with the family rules than their younger brother or sister. So, how do you come up with rules that will work for everyone? These four tips will help you get on the right track:

  1. Focus on “do” rules rather than “don’t” rules. All kids, especially those with ADHD, learn best when they are told what to do rather than what not to do. Consider this example: the doorbell rings when your child’s best friend arrives for a playdate, and your child starts to run down the stairs. You call out, “No running in the house!” What does your child do? They slide down the banister. Did your child follow the instruction? Yes they did! But did they do what you really wanted? Not even close! If you had told the child what to do “Remember, we walk in the house,” then they would have clearly known what was expected, and would have been more likely to follow the direction.
  2. Keep the list short. Kids with ADHD have a hard time keeping track of lengthy lists of rules. So, limit your list to 5 rules. Rules that apply across a variety of situations can help you meet this goal. For example, “We respect others” captures a wide range of problem behaviors, like grabbing a toy from another child, using a sassy tone of voice, criticizing a sibling, etc. Some of my favorite family rules for kids with ADHD are, “We wait our turn to talk.” “We follow directions the first time.” “We show good sportsmanship whether we win or lose.” “We put things back where they belong.”
  3. Set rules based on ability level. Think about each child in your family, and his or her actual ability to follow each of the rules right now. Consider this house rule, “We put things back where they belong.” ADHD will make it hard for kids to follow this rule, even as they get older. If your child almost never puts things back right now, you may need to remind him or her to follow the rule in the beginning. So, try starting with this version instead: “We put things back where they belong with one or fewer reminders.” Eventually, as new behaviors become habits, you can increase your expectations and drop the reminders portion of the rule.
  4. Praise and reward good behavior. Kids with ADHD rely on feedback from others and positive reinforcement to follow rules and learn new behavior. So, praise your child when you see them following one of the rules. And the praise should be specific to the rule. “Great job putting your toys back on the shelf where they belong!” Do this often! The more often you praise your child the more likely you are to see changes in behavior.

When structured correctly, family rules can work for kids with ADHD and their siblings. In fact, they’ll provide a solid foundation that will help your family flourish!



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.


Huntington Learning Center is the tutoring and test prep leader. Its certified tutors provide individualized instruction in reading, phonics, writing, study skills, elementary and middle school math, Algebra through Calculus, Chemistry, and other sciences. It preps for the SAT and ACT, as well as state and standardized exams. Huntington programs develop the skills, confidence, and motivation to help students of all levels succeed and meet the needs of Common Core State Standards. Founded in 1977, Huntington's mission is to give every student the best education possible. Call us today at 1.800.CAN LEARN to discuss how Huntington can help your child. For franchise opportunities please visit

This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.

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