Clear and consistent limits and expectations are essential for helping kids with ADHD manage their symptoms and behavior. They help keep behavior that is impulsive, oppositional, or defiant to a minimum. But even in the most consistent situations, all kids with ADHD are going to cross the line at least sometimes. Kids who are on the more impulsive or oppositional end of the spectrum may even cross the line often, causing parents to hand out negative consequences frequently.
Many of the parents that I have worked with have concerns about using negative consequences with their child. They either feel like they are using them too often, find that negative consequences aren’t helping change their child’s behavior, or worry that the consequences are hurting their relationship with their child.
Research has shown that when negative consequences are used sparingly, they are helpful for kids with ADHD. In general, punishments and negative consequences work best when they are used only for behaviors that are unsafe or for negative behaviors that the child finds so inherently rewarding that no amount of praise or rewards will motivate them to change their behavior.
Research also tells us that punishments and negative consequences that are given too often or are too harsh aren’t helpful. In fact, they can be harmful. Excessive use of punishment and consequences can erode a child’s self-esteem and harm their relationship with their parent. On top of this, consequences don’t actually teach a child new behavior to use in place of their negative behavior. Instead, excessive negative consequences teach a child to be sneaky and avoid getting caught by their parents.
When a child is receiving too many negative consequences, I always recommend that parents take a step back and think about the specific behaviors that are driving the punishment. How many of these behaviors fall into the “unsafe” or “behaviors that are too rewarding” categories? These are the behaviors that will probably need a negative consequence or punishment, at least in the short term.
All other behaviors can probably be handled with more positive strategies – like providing support and skill-building to set the child up for success and motivating them to improve their behavior through the use of praise and rewards. For example, failing to finish homework on time, not getting through a morning routine on time, or not following directions are examples of situations that are handled much more effectively with positive strategies than with negative consequences.
When you do need to use a negative consequence, make it effective by following these guidelines:
When negative consequences are used sparingly and effectively, they can help your child improve their behavior. You’ll know that negative consequences are working when your child’s behavior improves over time. If you’re not seeing an improvement and have fallen into a repetitive cycle where your child misbehaves in the same way and receives the same punishment over and over again, then that’s a sign that you need a new strategy. If you feel stuck in a negative cycle with your child’s behavior, reach out to an experienced therapist who can help you identify the strategies that will work best with your child.
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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