Behavior & Discipline

How to Manage Your Child’s Toughest Behavioral Problems

Too much screen time. Zero school motivation. Fights. Outbursts. The silent treatment. If this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. Many ADHD families report high levels of stress and conflict. To solve these and other behavioral problems, focus more of your parenting energy on rewarding the positive than on enforcing harsh punishments. Here’s how.

Behavioral Problems: ADHD Parenting Guidance

Parents, especially of younger children, comprise the first line of defense against behavioral problems because they are truly the agents of change. This is not to say that parents are at fault for behavioral problems, but rather that their influence over the solution cannot be overstated.

When caregivers are well-versed in the tried-and-true approaches proven to remedy ADHD behavioral problems, it leads to a positive parent-child relationship and to a happy, healthy, and successful child who is better equipped to cope with ADHD symptoms and other challenges.

These behavioral techniques should follow a hierarchy that looks like the following:

  • Setting the stage for success (this is the base for all behavioral solutions, and should be used frequently)
  • Positively attending to desired behaviors and actively ignoring problem ones
  • Giving good directions
  • Implementing behavior plans and reward systems
  • Enforcing consequences for misbehavior, which should be done sparingly

[Click to Read: How to Reinforce Good Behavior]

Behavioral Problems: At-Home Strategies for Parents

1. Rapport and Relationship Building

Despite many reminders, your child won’t get off their video game and go to bed. Annoyed, you raise your voice, hoping that will get their attention. Instead, they yell back, and you lose your temper. At last, they either stop playing, or you give up your requests. Either way, it’s an exhausting pattern that is only reinforced by its repetition.

Too many of these types of interactions can create feelings of anger and resentment from both sides. To set the stage for success, begin by building and reinforcing your relationship with your child by creating more moments of genuine joy. This is the first step toward effective behavioral changes.

A few times each week, do the following:

  • Pick an enjoyable activity for your child (be it video games, a sport, or anything interesting to them) and be fully present in their experience. That means putting phones away, saving any chatter about personal obligations, and avoiding the urge to multi-task in the moment.
  • Follow their lead. Even if the activity is boring to you, seek out what matters to them in that experience.
  • Give attention to positive behaviors. You might commend your child on their ability to get through a particularly tough level on their video game or thank them for explaining how the game works.
  • Avoid directions, questions, and critical statements that can spoil the mood and put your child on the defensive.

Establishing a warm relationship with your child helps them feel appreciated, and it boosts your intrinsic authority as their parent. It also helps strike a balance between structure and nurture, which is at the heart of being an effective behavior manager.

[“You Are Wonderful!” How Praise Triggers Better Control in the ADHD Brain]

2. Observe Behavioral Problems and Causes

There is a logic to your child’s behaviors. Carefully taking note of behaviors and their contexts is the second step toward eventually changing them.

Use any kind of note-taking system to record answers to the following questions:

  • What is the problematic behavior in question? Be as specific as possible, and describe it in observable, measurable terms. (Make sure it’s a behavior that happens frequently, like yelling and becoming rageful multiple times a day).
  • When does the behavior take place?
  • Where does it take place?
  • With whom does it take place?
  • Why does it take place? Are they looking for sensory stimulation? To escape an activity that they don’t like? To get attention?

Breaking down behaviors in this format allows for opportunities to de-escalate and reinforce positive behaviors in ways that work for your child, rather than resorting to consequences right away. The focus is not on eliminating the “big moment,” which can take time to mellow out, but in noticing the little trends toward positive change at every turn.

3. Set the Stage for Success

Third, put supports in place, especially with a focus on ADHD symptoms and their unique challenges, to steer your child toward positive behaviors. Supports should center on clear rules and routines, visual cues, and creative reminders to prompt your child toward desired behaviors, consistent limits and corrective feedback, and frequent positive feedback, rewards, and other incentives to increase motivation toward target behaviors.

If your child struggles with routines, for example, post in a prominent area a chart or checklist of required tasks labeled and listed with times for each.

Similarly, and especially if your child is younger and learning from home, I recommend creating a chart that lists appropriate behaviors and expectations for remote learning, like keeping muted, turning on the camera, and raising their hand to speak.

4. Provide Positive Feedback

Praise your child for the behaviors you’d like to see more of:

  • Be specific. Instead of a vague “good job” or a high five, praise your child for a specific action. (“Great job using a calm voice”; “It was wonderful how you raised your hand during online class”; “You are so focused on your work.”)
  • Be consistent. Catch your child when they demonstrate the desired behaviors.
  • Give more positive feedback than negative, and watch your feedback become that much more effective.
  • Give feedback immediately and while in close proximity to them to drive the connection between a certain behavior and a positive response.
  • Use non-verbal reinforcers, like a thumbs up or a high five, only in situations where it’s clear what behavior you are responding to.
  • Be sincere. Engaging with this skill can feel unnatural if it’s new, but with enough practice, it’ll become a genuine part of your toolbox.

At the same time, withdraw attention from difficult behaviors like whining, arguing, and interrupting, and provide positive feedback around a preferred behavior occurring subsequently or simultaneously instead. Eventually, the problem behavior will decrease as your child recognizes that their undesirable behavior is not serving a function.

5. Give Instructions Effectively

Getting your child to listen to you largely depends on how you’re delivering instructions:

  • Keep your cool – it models appropriate behavior and prevents yelling.
  • Be clear and straightforward to the point of performance. Don’t frame the instruction as a question. Instead of, “Can you start your homework?” say, “Please start your homework.”
  • Give instructions one at a time. Remembering a series of steps can be hard for children with ADHD. If possible, break up the task further to start, and remind your child their past successes with the task.
  • Wait for follow-through and catch it with praise, no matter how “small” the task. Children respond better when given credit for following through.

6. Create a Behavior Plan and Reward System

Clear behavioral goals and rewards are great for motivating and stimulating children and teens with ADHD toward positive behaviors. Use behavior charts and point systems to keep track of up to three target skills and behaviors at a time. On the chart, be sure to positively phrase the task (i.e. what to do instead of what not to do) and be specific: “Focus on lessons for 30 minutes”; “Get started on schoolwork right at 4 pm.”

Reward systems can vary based on age. Young children respond well to simple systems like sticker charts, while older children can follow a points system and pick rewards from a co-created menu. Teenagers can follow a more sophisticated point system, where they can “deposit” and “withdraw” points depending on the task, and where point values increase with task difficulty.

7. Enforce Consequences Sparingly

It’s a fallacy that harsh punishments will make your child think long and hard about what they’ve done. In fact, harsh punishments are quite ineffective, as they:

  • Only have short-term impact
  • Increase emotional reactions from your child
  • Can deteriorate relationships
  • Teach your child what not to do rather than the appropriate behavior

If you do pursue consequences for misbehavior, follow these guidelines:

  • Establish your consequence plan in advance to avoid an impulsive decision
  • Administer the consequence in a neutral and calm voice, and immediately after the behavior occurs. This teaches your child that they shouldn’t wait to hear a raised voice to start complying
  • Give consequences in small doses
  • Reset after delivering a consequence and continue to reinforce positive behaviors, even if the consequence has yet to be delivered

With practice and persistence, these strategies will improve your child’s behaviors and decrease family conflict at home – now, and years into the future.

The content for this article was derived from the ADDitude Expert Webinar “Discipline Strategies for ADHD: How to Manage Your Child’s Most Challenging Behaviors” [Video Replay & Podcast #346] with David Anderson, Ph.D., which was broadcast live on March 2, 2021.

Behavioral Problems Associated with ADHD: Next Steps