Effective Discipline for ADHD Kids

January 24, 2011 by Dr.Yannick Pauli


Next to questions about ADHD treatment, many parents turn to me for advice on how to discipline ADHD children effectively.  Although natural treatments will help reduce behavioral problems in the long run, parents have to contend with their children’s stubbornness, hyperactive tendencies, and other misbehaviors today.  Parenting an ADHD child is no easy task. Even the most patient parents end up dropping their compassionate approach for a cycle of nagging, yelling, and punishing, which only seems to make their children misbehave even more.

So how do you get an ADHD child to behave?  As with ADHD treatments, there is no magic bullet or formula to better discipline; each child responds to different techniques. There are a few general guidelines you can follow to keep your child’s misdeeds in check.

Understand that discipline is not punishment

Before anything else, you must realize that there are differences between discipline and punishment.  Most parents assume that discipline involves punishing a child, but they could not be more different from each other.

Punishment is the act of doing something unpleasant to a child who breaks the rules or behaves inappropriately. This is usually done in the form of spanking or yelling. When it comes to children with ADHD, punishment is the least helpful way of encouraging proper behavior. First of all, ADHD children are more anxious and nervous than other children, and punishment only makes these emotions worse. A nervous child cannot learn from the experience and will end up repeating the same mistake. Since punishment is generally unpleasant, it will also encourage your child to tune out on your yelling and lecturing. Finally, punishment encourages aggression, especially when a parent hits a child. Punishment teaches a child that it’s all right to yell and hit someone when you feel frustrated about something that person did.

On the other hand, discipline teaches proper behavior by showing a child the natural consequences of deviating away from social norms or responsibilities.  Discipline forces the child to look at what went wrong and how his or her behavior made an impact on others, thus providing the child an incentive for avoiding that behavior in the future. Discipline also teaches children to deal with their frustrations in a calmer, more rational manner instead of promoting aggression.

In other words, discipline teaches children how to learn from their mistakes instead of suffering for them.  Punishment, on the other hand, is all about the parent being responsible for controlling the child’s behavior, rather than teaching the child to control his or her behavior.

How to discipline an ADHD child

According to Dr. Jane Nelsen, the author of the book Positive Discipline, there are Four R’s to disciplining a child.


Make sure you reveal the consequences of certain behaviors in advance so your child knows what’s coming when he or she chooses to misbehave. Let’s say your child just got a new bike and you’re worried about her safety.  You can say, “If you want to ride your bike, you have to wear your helmet or I’ll know you’re not ready for a bike yet.” This wording is more effective than just saying, “Don’t ride a bike without a helmet, or I’ll take your bike away.” The latter sounds more like a challenge for the child to test the rule. The first statement, on the other hand, places the child responsible for her own safety and behavior.


The consequences should always be logically related to the deed. For instance, taking away TV privileges has nothing to do with promoting bike safety.


Give your comments respectfully rather than in a threatening matter. This helps your child realize that she has a choice about her behavior. You can say, “When I see you on your bike without a helmet, I know you’re not ready to ride it safely and need to keep it in the garage first.” Observe how this statement is less likely to encourage balk-talk than, “I’m taking your bike away! You could get killed riding it without a helmet!”


Finally, provide a reasonable solution that will help your child correct her behavior in the future.  You can say to your child, “You may ride your bike again with a helmet in the afternoon.” Stay consistent with the consequence of riding without a helmet (time away from the bike), but keep the time limit as short as possible to make your child pay attention to the lesson. If you keep your child away from the bike for a week after her first offence, she’ll spend more time feeling resentful than learning from her mistake. But if your child repeats the violation again, increase the time limit away from the bike to a day.

Children with ADHD need to practice behaving, and we need to give them second chances. Dr. Nielsen says that if any of these R’s is missing, the technique becomes punishment, and your child will react through another set of R’s – resentment, revenge, rebellion, and retreat (e.g. lying, running away). If your ADHD child shows any these responses, there’s a possibility that one of the four R’s of discipline was missing from the technique.  The good news is that you too have second chances to help your child achieve better behavior in the future.