Using Negative Consequences with Your ADHD Child

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

Kids with ADHD often struggle to follow through on the things that are expected of them, make impulsive choices, and have a hard staying calm in stressful situations. This understandably leads many parents to feel like they are constantly correcting and reprimanding their child – not because they want to, but because they don’t know what else to do. Using positive strategies like giving attention, praise, and rewards for good behavior can go a long way in reducing the need for negative consequences and that constant stream of negative feedback. In an ideal world positive strategies would be all that you would need to help your child learn new skills and behave in ways that will keep him or her safe and happy. But in reality, positive strategies aren't always enough. Every parent needs to use negative consequences sometimes, but knowing when to use them can be tricky.

Overusing negative consequences can really take a toll on your relationship with your child and your child’s self-esteem. Kids who lose privileges, have toys taken away, or get sent to time out too often may start to avoid the adults who are handing out these punishments. This is especially true when those same adults don’t balance out the negative consequences for bad behavior with lots of praise and attention for good behavior. Kids also start to internalize the frequent negative feedback that they are receiving, and begin to feel like they "can't do anything right."

In addition, negative consequences generally only tell children what not to do. They don't help them learn what to do instead. Think about this typical scenario: a brother is constantly picking fights with his sister and they rarely play together without the playtime ending in tears. His parents want more than anything for him to get along with his sister, and they take way videogames whenever he starts picking a fight. He gets upset about losing his videogames and leaves his sister alone for a little while after he receives his punishment. So, taking away videogames stops the fighting in the moment, but does it teach him how to positively interact with is sister next time? Does he learn any new skills that might help him avoid future punishments? Nope. Only coaching or modeling a new behavior and pairing praise or rewards with new skills will help kids with ADHD learn and practice new ways of interacting with their world.

So, while negative consequences aren't ideal, there are some times when you simply need to use them:

  1. When your child is demonstrating a negative behavior that is so rewarding or interesting to him or her that no amount of praise or rewards will motivate him or her to change his or her behavior. This is often the case with something like stopping a videogame the first (or second) a child has been asked to do so.
  2. When your child is engaging in an impulsive or unsafe behavior that you need to stop immediately.

When should you avoid using negative consequences regularly with your child?

  1. When your child needs to learn a new skill in order to meet goals or expectations. For example, if your child is always late for school because he or she can't get ready on time, punishing your child for being late probably won't help change the situation. Your child likely needs help learning a new routine, and might need some support from you in order to get everything done on time in the morning. Providing support along with praise and rewards will teach new behaviors in a way that negative consequences cannot.
  2. When you've been using negative consequences repeatedly for the same problem, but the behavior has not improved over time. This means that negative consequences aren't working and it's time to try something else.

For those times when you do need to use negative consequences, there are things you can do to make these consequences more effective and less frequent. In my next post I'll talk about these specific strategies, and will give you some tips on how to maintain a positive relationship 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.


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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