Adhd out of control


Out of Control Child: Stopping the Family Anxiety Cycle

By Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC

Does your child’s behavior make you feel out of control? Do you find yourself walking on eggshells so that you don’t “set him off?” It might be your five year old who has tantrums and acts out, or perhaps it’s your teenager who fights with you all the time. Your consequences mean nothing to him, and in fact seem to make him more defiant. Whatever the reason, you’ve got the kid who simply doesn’t react to parenting the way you thought he would. Debbie Pincus, creator of the Calm Parent: AM & PM, explains how you can change the way your family interacts.

When a child becomes the “anxiety sponge” for the family he or she will often develop some problems.

If you have a “problem” child, you are not alone. Many families struggle with difficult, acting-out kids who act like nothing matters to them, which in turn leaves you feeling baffled and lost. You lose sleep most nights wondering, “How did my family get here? What’s going on and how can we change things so our lives aren’t a battle zone?”

While there are many helpful techniques parents can use with their kids—in fact, Empowering Parents is full of articles that will help you parent more effectively—I’d like to view this problem from a slightly different angle today. So let’s step back and look at the big picture: What really happens when a kid acts out chronically in a family and the attention all goes to them? And how can parents turn this around?

The Big Picture

In order to turn things around with your child, I believe it’s helpful to widen the lenses that we use to view our difficult kids. Let’s say you’re focused on your acting-out child—attempting to fix and change him—only to find that his behavior is worsening. (Or perhaps it changes, but only temporarily.) To a certain extent this happens because you’re looking at your child as the “problem” rather than seeing the way the family operates as a whole. When you can see your family in this new way you’ll recognize that your child is only part of this unit—a fragment of the whole.

What do I mean by this? Think of it this way: Each family member is only a part of the larger group. Children with problem behaviors are rarely the underlying problem, though some kids are more defiant and rebellious from the start, and therefore more difficult to parent. They may come this way, genetically predisposed to act out more and be rebellious. As a result of their difficult behavior, you naturally begin to focus on them. For the most part, kids who act out are symptoms of something much larger—often, it’s an emotional or relationship problem. This does not lay the blame on anyone; it simply means every member of the family group is a contributor in some way. I believe that if you want to go about changing the problem, you need to get the focus off the “symptomatic” one and instead onto the relationship patterns in the family. I also want to add here that if this is going on in your family, it’s not too late: it’s possible to change your family’s pattern no matter what stage you’re in with your child.

Let’s consider how anxiety travels in a group of people. If Dad comes home from work upset about a deal that didn’t go through, he may automatically take it out on Mom by criticizing her about the messy house. Mom may react to this by shutting down or defending herself, but either way the anxiety has moved to Mom. Next Jack, the two-year-old, seeing or feeling Mom’s distress, starts crying. The anxiety has moved to him. Now Chloe, the six-year-old, experiences this emotional intensity and feels uncomfortable and upset. She runs to her room and starts yelling and acting out.

In this way, anxiety moves from person to person in a family unit. This is a natural and automatic response. Most of the time, rather than disturbing everybody in the family, anxiety seems to settle in one person—often a child. In the family just described, the original anxiety exchange was between the two parents. If they don’t get it worked out over time, the six year old might continue to react to the intensity by acting out more and more—and the adults will begin to focus on her. Not realizing that their child’s response is an expression of anxiety that came from the family unit, they may come to see her as the problem and begin worrying about her. The more she is fretted over, the more anxious and symptomatic she will become—and the more symptomatic she becomes, the more focused they will become on her. The cycle has now been set in motion.

When a child becomes the “anxiety sponge” for the family he or she will often develop some problems. If the adults put the focus on the child and not on themselves, they never get to resolve their own problems or ineffective patterns—instead, the over-focused child will develop problems. Take into account that when anxiety collects in a person, their brain and body chemistry becomes changed. As a result, the child may show hyperactivity, learning issues, or behavioral or social symptoms. Once a disorder develops, more and more intense focus is drawn to their problems at home and at school. It becomes a vicious cycle that’s hard to stop.

This snowball effect can start simply: Let’s say every time a mother is upset, she offloads her stress by complaining loudly. The father shuts down and withdraws and then the child picks up on his distress. Kids are very tuned in. If you have a child who’s particularly vulnerable to moods, he might absorb or take on the stress and become the sponge. You’ll see him becoming anxious in some way; he’ll be the one with the “symptoms.” While there’s no one to blame for this, it’s ultimately our responsibility as parents to keep an eye out and not let our stuff spill onto our kids.

How to Stop the Cycle

If you see this cycle happening in your family, the first thing to do is recognize it for what it is. Stop it by taking the intense focus off your acting-out child and pay more attention to yourself and your relationship patterns. Ask yourself some hard questions, like the following: “By putting so much focus on my child, what do I get to avoid in myself and in my own adult relationships?” Consider what he might be expressing through his behavior. Are these expressions of tension in the family, or ineffective relationship patterns that need more attention paid to them?

Remember that your family, not your child, is the emotional unit. This will help you see that you are a part of the problem, and also part of the solution. Work to change what is under your control instead of worrying, over-focusing and trying to control your child. If you begin to see that your child is the symptom-bearer of the family unit rather than a “problem child,” you’ll be more understanding and empathetic rather than angry and frustrated. Don’t get me wrong, you still need to hold him accountable for his poor behavior. But now, instead of seeing him as “broken” or the problem, you’ll hold him to higher expectations.

Don’t get me wrong, when our kids are acting out, we need to hold them accountable rather than anxiously focus and fret about them. What’s the difference between anxious parenting versus being parental? Being responsible and standing our ground is being parental, because we’re doing what our child needs to guide him to a better place. Anxious parenting happens when our emotionality slips in and we start reacting to our child rather than responding to his behavior thoughtfully, and most of the time we don’t even realize we’re doing it.

Pause and ask yourself some important questions.

  • Why aren’t I taking a firmer stand right now when I know that would be best?
    (Do I want him to like me or validate me? Or am I just trying to contain my child’s anger so my husband doesn’t get mad at him or me?)
  • Am I acting from my best principles that might cause some short-term pain for some longer-term gain?
  • Is the consequence I’m giving my child right now actually a disguised punishment to get back at them for their awful behavior? (Is this really the best way or does it just feel good in the moment because it relieves my distress?)
  • Am I afraid to discuss some issues with my spouse? To avoid each other do we instead deflect onto our kids? Are they getting caught in the middle and acting out this adult tension?

Most of the time we think we’re being thoughtful in our responses to our acting-out kids but often we’re actually being reactive, adding fuel to the already hot inferno.

What Can Parents Do?

Take care of yourself. Take care of yourself emotionally and physically, so your children don’t end up with that job. Pay attention to and attend to your adult relationships. Instead of being irritable and upset, say what’s on your mind. Resolve issues so that your unresolved anxieties don’t get spilled on to your kids.

Observe. Observe yourself and your relationship patterns: your own thinking, feelings and behavior. See how your family’s (both nuclear and extended) emotional pressures contribute in producing your child’s negative behavior. Consider what’s going on from wider lenses. See the whole family drama.

Set limits and give enforceable consequences. If your child is acting out, set limits and give him enforceable consequences. Take charge, not control. Be parental; don’t parent with an “anxious focus” on your child.

Recognize your own contribution. Start with yourself and go from there. After all, you’re the only one you really have control over in life. Look at what’s in your hands, not what’s not in your child’s hands. Watch what you’re doing and try to be as clear and direct as possible. You’re not responsible for your child’s outcome and you’re not the cause of the problems. If you can look at your contribution then you can change that part of yourself that’s adding to the cycle of anxiety and bad behavior.
Try to parent from your principles, rather than from your deepest anxieties. By understanding how your family operates—and how anxiety operates in your family—you can use your principles to guide your thinking and responses. This will help to stop the reactivity that often gets moved from one family member to the next. Your principles, rather than your anxieties, will lead the way. And when you see your child as separate from you, you will also see yourself more clearly and more objectively.

Why Our Kids Are Out of Control

Michael is out of control. He has several temper tantrums a day, throws food during meals, deliberately breaks toys and household items, hits and bites his younger brother and sister and refuses to comply with reasonable requests. Asked to put away his toys or go to bed, the 5-year-old replies, “No. And you can’t make me.” He is, in truth, a very unpleasant child. He is also very unhappy: No one can behave as he does and feel good about himself or be pleased with life.

We seem to be in the midst of an epidemic of Michaels. I have been a child psychologist for 35 years, and each year I see parents dealing with more and more severe problems. Their children are not just ill-mannered, they are whiny, selfish, arrogant, rude, defiant and violent. Most of them are also miserable, as are their parents.

Such disgraceful behavior in young children predicts serious problems later in life. As adolescents they are more likely to drop out of school, use drugs, engage in delinquency and be clinically depressed. And when I read newspaper articles about road rage, commuter rage and office rage it seems to me that many out-of-control children are growing up to be out-of-control adults.

Why are there so many out-of-control children today? Many explanations have been proposed: high-sugar diets, environmental toxins, allergies, television, psychiatric disorders. In considering these theories, it is useful to note that the rise in outrageous child behavior is largely an American phenomenon. Psychologist Tiffany Field, Ph.D., of the University of Miami School of Medicine, found that in France, for example, 3-year-olds behave admirably in restaurants. They sit quietly and talk and eat their meals like “little adults.” They do not argue or throw food or refuse to eat as many American children do.

In a separate study, Field noted another major difference in the behavior of French and American preschoolers: On playgrounds, French youngsters were aggressive toward their playmates only 1 percent of the time; American preschoolers, by contrast, were aggressive 29 percent of the time. It is probably not a coincidence that France has the lowest murder rate in the industrialized world, and the United States has the highest.

Can such dramatic differences in behavior between advanced, industrialized nations be accounted for by differences in diet, toxins, allergies, television or psychiatric disorders? It seems extremely unlikely, and I have found no scientific evidence to support these theories. I suggest that the fundamental reason behind so many more American children running amok is child-rearing practices.

Let me explain: Studies have consistently shown that the problem behavior of children is typically the result of misplaced adult attention. In a study done many years ago, psychologist Betty Hart, Ph.D., and her colleagues at the University of Washington, studied the effects of attention on Bill, a 4-year-old “crybaby” enrolled in a morning preschool. Each morning Bill had between five and 10 crying spells: He cried when he fell, bumped his head or if another child took away a toy. Each time Bill cried a teacher went to him to offer comfort. Hart and her colleagues reasoned that this adult attention, though intended to reassure and comfort Bill, might actually be the reason for all his crying.

To test their hypothesis, the researchers asked the teachers to try a new strategy. Now when Bill cried, the teachers glanced at him to be sure he was not injured but did not go to him, speak to him or look at him. If he happened to cry when a teacher was nearby, she turned her back or walked away. Teachers paid special attention to Bill only when he suffered a mishap without crying. If he fell, for example, and went about his business without a whimper, a teacher would go to him and compliment him on his grown-up behavior. The result of this new approach: In five days the frequency of Bill’s crying spells fell from an average of about seven per morning to almost zero.

To be certain that Bill’s change in behavior was because of the new strategy, Hart and colleagues asked the teachers to once again pay attention to Bill when he cried. Bill returned to crying several times a day. When the teachers again ignored the crying and attended to Bill only when he acted maturely, the crying spells dropped sharply. Hart and her coworkers repeated this experiment with another “crybaby,” Alan, and got nearly identical results.

Similarly, researchers have shown that the disruptive behavior of school children is often a result of adult attention. In studies of elementary school classrooms, for example, researchers found some students repeatedly left their seats without good reason. Typically the teacher interrupted the lesson to reprimand them. But these efforts often increased the frequency of wandering. When the teacher ignored children who wandered and paid attention to those who worked hard, the frequency of the problem behavior usually fell sharply. It may seem odd that reprimands, threats and criticism can actually reward bad behavior, but such is the tremendous power of adult attention. When children can get attention by behaving well, they do.

Unfortunately, many adults are far more likely to attend to annoying behavior than they are to desirable behavior. Glenn Latham, Ed.D., a family and educational consultant, has found that adults typically ignore 90 percent or more of the good things children do. Instead, they pay attention to children when they behave badly.

I believe that Americans attend more to bad behavior than to good behavior because they have come under the spell of self-described child-rearing authorities. These kiddie gurus–who include pediatrician Benjamin Spock, M.D., child psychiatrists T. Barry Brazelton, M.D., and Stanley Turecki, M.D., and child psychologist Ross W. Greene, Ph.D., among others–repeatedly urge parents to give special attention to children when they behave badly. Consider the following example.

In Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care (Pocket Books, 1998), a book that has sold 40 million copies, Dr. Spock recommends this approach in dealing with aggressive behavior:

“If your child is hurting another or looks as if he were planning murder, pull him away in a matter-of-fact manner and get him interested in something else.”

Given what research shows about the effects of adult attention, getting a child “interested in something else” whenever he is aggressive is a sure formula for producing a highly aggressive child.

If a child gets angry and throws or smashes things, Dr. Brazelton suggests the following:

“Sit down with her in your lap until she’s available to you. Then, discuss why you think she needed to do it, why she can’t do it and how badly you know she feels for this kind of destructive, out-of-control behavior.”

If your child has a particularly intense tantrum, Dr. Turecki gives this advice:

“With these tantrums you should be physically present with your child, with your arms around him if he’ll permit it or just be there with him as a comforting physical presence in the room. Be calm and say reassuring things: ‘I know you’re upset, but it will be okay.'”

If the child has a tantrum that is not so intense, Turecki recommends being “menacing and firm.” In other words, having a mild tantrum doesn’t pay off, but having a severe tantrum does. I can scarcely imagine a more effective way of teaching a child to have severe tantrums.

Many of the most popular child-rearing books are full of such nonsense. They repeatedly urge parents to hold, soothe, comfort and talk to a child who bites, hits, screams, throws or breaks things, ignores or refuses parental requests or otherwise behaves in obnoxious, infantile ways. Common sense and a truckload of research argue solidly against this practice. Yet these experts seem to be unaware of the well-established fact that children do what gets noticed, that adult attention usually makes behavior more likely to occur, not less.

Nevertheless, thousands of parents follow the bad advice of these and like-minded child-rearing gurus every day. And the more faithfully they follow the advice, the worse their children become. Some of these parents eventually find their way to my office, desperate for help. I advise them to redirect their attention from infantile behavior to grown-up behavior. They are often amazed by the change in their children.

Take Dennis, for example. Ten-year-old Dennis was a “born liar,” according to his mother, who added, “he wouldn’t tell the truth if his life depended on it.” Dennis had several siblings, but he was the only chronic liar. Why Dennis? With several children in the family, there was a good deal of competition for adult attention. Dennis wanted more than his share, and he got it by lying: His mother spent a lot of time with him trying to separate fact from fiction and trying to understand why he lied. Mom didn’t realize it, but all this attention just encouraged dishonesty.

The solution was to give Dennis attention when it was clear he was telling the truth and to ignore him when he might be lying. When Mom knew that Dennis had given her the right amount of change after a purchase, or when a discrete call to his teacher proved that he really had been kept after school, he got time with Mom and approval for telling the truth. Instead of “tell a lie, get attention,” the rule became, “tell the truth, get attention.” When the rule changed, so did Dennis.

Five-year-old Debbie offered a different sort of challenge, but the solution was essentially the same. She woke up every night screaming because of nightmares about “the big germ” and “the terrible lion.” Every night her parents rushed to her side to comfort her and assure her there were no big germs or terrible lions in the house. During the day, Debbie talked about her nightmares with anyone who would listen. Her mother encouraged this behavior because she thought it would be therapeutic for Debbie to get her fears “out in the open.” In fact, all this attention to her fears made them worse, not better. From Debbie’s standpoint, the lesson was: “If Mom and Dad are so interested in what I say about the big germ and the terrible lion, these monsters must really exist.”

The solution to Debbie’s problem was to pay less attention to talk about nightmares and more attention to grown-up behavior. When Mom and Dad started saying things like, “I appreciated it when you helped me set the table today” and “I heard you taking the phone message from Mrs. Smith. You were very grown up,” they provided Debbie with better ways of getting attention than screaming in the night and complaining about monsters.

Even Michael, the screaming, out-of-control boy who made life miserable for himself and everyone near him, soon became a happy, self-disciplined child. He was more challenging than most children, but once again the most important step to turning him around was giving him the attention he wanted when he gave his parents the behavior they wanted.

It sounds easier than it is. Parents who have fallen into the habit of offering attention for disagreeable behavior often have a hard time shifting their focus to agreeable behavior. Over the years I have devised a simple procedure to help parents do this. I call it the Nurture Response:

1. Be on the alert for behavior that indicates growing maturity: Taking disappointment calmly, performing spontaneous acts of kindness and demonstrating an interest in learning. When you see this kind of grown-up behavior, make a mental note of it. Perhaps Margaret, who usually responds to disappointments with a tantrum, is unperturbed when told her favorite breakfast cereal is unavailable. Maybe Sam, who is typically selfish with his belongings, shares his toys with the neighbor’s child.

2. Some time later (anywhere from five minutes to five hours after the event), remind the child of the behavior you observed. You might say, “Do you remember when Harry’s bike fell over and he couldn’t straighten it because it was too heavy for him? You went over and helped him. Do you remember doing that?”

3. When you’re sure the child remembers the event in question, praise her for it. You might say, “It was very good of you to help Harry with his bike. I’m proud of you.” Often the highest praise you can offer children is to tell them they acted like an adult. You might say, “I know you were disappointed that you couldn’t go to the mall, but you were very grown up about it. I was impressed.”

4. Immediately after praising the child, spend some time with him in an activity he enjoys. Do this in a spontaneous way, without suggesting that it is payment for the grown-up behavior. You might play a favorite game, go for a walk, or read a story. Remember that nothing is more important to a child than the undivided attention of a parent, so give the child your full attention for these few minutes.

The nurture response is not a panacea, of course. Some dangerous or extremely annoying forms of behavior, such as knocking other children down or having screaming tantrums, may require additional measures, including punishment (see “Time Out the Right Way,” page 46). But it is amazing how much can be accomplished by simply ignoring the behavior you don’t want and noticing the behavior you do want.

For decades many child-rearing icons have urged parents to pay special attention to troublesome behavior, to offer sympathy, understanding and reassurance when children behave in outrageous ways. This view so pervades our society that scarcely anyone questions it. Both common sense and scientific evidence tell us, however, that this approach is bound to backfire, and it does.

Parents should think of themselves as gardeners. A good gardener encourages desirable plants and discourages undesirable ones. In the same way, a good parent encourages desirable acts and discourages undesirable ones.

Do you want your children to be well-behaved and happy? Then ignore experts who tell you to shower attention on children when they are badly behaved and miserable. Remember that gardeners must nurture the flowers, not the weeds.


Most of the annoying things children do can be dealt with very effectively by ignoring them and attending to children when they behave more maturely. However, when the behavior is particularly immature or poses a risk of injury to the child or others, it may be necessary to turn to punishment. In these instances, Time Out usually does the trick.

Time Out is probably the most widely researched technique for dealing with unwanted behavior in young children. Unfortunately, it is often used incorrectly. It is therefore worth noting that Time Out means removing the child from all rewarding activities for a short period. The common practice of sending a child to his room, where he can play computer games, watch TV or talk with friends on the telephone, is not Time Out, nor is sitting on the couch with the child and discussing the merits of his behavior. Time Out means exposing the child to a very boring, unrewarding environment. For the sake of illustration, let’s assume that your child has bitten someone. Here is a simple, highly effective way of discouraging this behavior:

1. Say to her: “We do not bite.” Say nothing more than this–give no further description of the behavior, no explanation of what you are doing. Say nothing except, “We do not bite.”

2. Take her by the hand and seat her in a small chair facing a blank wall. Stand close enough so that if she attempts to leave the chair you can immediately return her to it.

3. Keep her in the chair for three minutes. (Do not tell her how long she will be in the chair. Say nothing.) If she screams, kicks the wall, asks questions or says she has to go to the bathroom, ignore her. It is absolutely essential that you say nothing.

4. At the end of the three minutes, keep her in the chair until she has been quiet and well-behaved for five more seconds. When she does so, tell her she has been good and may now leave the chair. Never let her leave until she has been well-behaved for at least a few seconds.

5. Following Time Out, say nothing about it. Do not discuss the punished behavior or the fairness of the punishment. Say nothing except, “We do not bite.”

Once the child realizes that you mean business, that she cannot manipulate you into providing attention for bad behavior, Time Out will proceed more smoothly and quickly and there will be far fewer times when you need to use it.

Do you get frustrated when your kids talk back or flat-out refuse to do what you ask? These dos and don’ts for discipline from pediatrician Edward Gaydos, DO, may help you:

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1. Don’t view discipline as punishment

Look at discipline as a means of actively engaging with kids to help mold their moral character.

“With discipline, “We are teaching our children self-control and restraint,” explains Dr. Gaydos. “Punishment is a direct, pointed penalty or a loss of privilege that serves as retribution.”

Discipline is far more effective than punishment but does require a little more work.

2. Do find opportunities for praise

Pay attention to what your child is doing, Dr. Gaydos advises. “Make an effort to notice when your child is actively engaged in being good, and compliment him or her on the good behavior,” he says.

“Take the time to listen fully to what they have to say, and agree when appropriate. If we disagree, we say so — again, taking the time to let them know why.”

Parents who are available to, and show empathy toward, their children are serving as excellent role models, he notes.

3. Do set limits and keep them

Take the time to let youngsters and adolescents know the appropriate behaviors you expect from them.

“We set these limits, then we follow through with them,” says Dr. Gaydos. “If your child falters, he or she should know that there will be a consistent, expected consequence. There are no surprises, no new negotiations and no retractions.”

4. Don’t threaten or explode

“Warning children, ‘You better be good,’ is too broad and general a message,” says Dr. Gaydos.

Assuming a child should know what we want, not being clear about what we expect in advance, and setting unrealistic limits will lead to frustration.

That leaves the door open for reacting in anger or in an overly emotional way.

5. Do be a parent, not a buddy

Kids need you as a parent, not as a friend, to teach them as they grow. Disciplining your child and setting limits will instill confidence as they learn to navigate through life.

“With discipline, we’re not passive observers, we’re actively involved as teachers,” says Dr. Gaydos. “It’s an ongoing process and requires work.”

But disciplining will pay dividends as you watch your youngster grow, become more confident and develop a good moral compass.


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Inside: If you’re overwhelmed with an ADHD child you’re not alone. These foolproof steps from a Child Therapist will move you forward with clarity and confidence.

Can I be honest?

Some days I wonder what my life would be like if I wasn’t raising a child with ADHD.

I wonder if I’d have extra patience from not using every. last. drop. on emotional meltdowns and explosions.

I wonder if I’d actually be able to keep my house together from less impulsivity driven sneaking of ice cream and the leaving behind of sticky smelly messes everywhere.

I wonder if I’d be ‘fun mom’ more often not having to provide strict routine and predictability all the time.

Typically, this pondering occurs on the days I’m overwhelmed with my ADHD child and the role of raising an outside the box kid feels heavy. On these days it seems like other parents just have it easier and that the vision of what I thought family life would look like has been snatched right out of my hands.

Doors just opened for my new course, just for parents raising spirited strong-willed kids (3 days only!) Learn more…

I’m thankful that seven years down the road, these days occur much less often. Time helps. Time is full of hope and possibility. Time makes room for growth.

On the days you feel yourself lost in the stormy waters of overwhelm and exhaustion, keeping the following ideas in mind will help you stay anchored to what really counts, the well-being of both you and your child.

5 Steps to take When You’re Overwhelmed with ADHD Child

|Pause and let it be

Give yourself permission to press the pause button when your about to lose it. In most instances with your child, it’s not truly an emergency and both you and your child will benefit from putting the breaks on, and then following up when your ready with a more supportive and effective response.

When the world is spinning around you, pause and look within yourself taking note of your emotions and bodily sensations. What emotions are under the mask of anger and frustration? Are you frustrated and resentful that your child makes the same mistakes over and over? Terrified your child will never learn to clean up after themselves?

Whatever you are feeling is OK.

Accepting your feelings just as they are when overwhelmed with an ADHD child is step one. Emotions are temporary and when we honor them and work through them we allow them to pass. You are not a bad parent for having thoughts and emotions about your child’s challenges.

Being mindful of these thoughts and emotions and not reacting out of frustration and criticism will allow you to show up as the best parent for your child and keep your relationship intact.

Be Kind to Yourself

You weren’t planning on navigating a special needs journey when you set out to be a parent. Coming to terms with the unique challenges brought by ADHD in kids takes time, patience and self-compassion.

Parenting a child with ADHD causes great parents to be really hard on themselves. When you give into the false notion that you’re responsible for your child’s ADHD behaviors it gives the impression that very real symptoms of a neurological condition are actually the result of poor parenting.

When these negative thought patterns creep in, call them out for what they are and squash them with a good dose of truthful and realistic thinking. “I’m doing the best that I can today and so is my child”, “It’s my job to recognize what ADHD symptoms in children are and to place my child’s behaviors in proper context, not the job of extended family or onlookers at the park.”

Find what works for you to work through these complicated emotions such as talking to another special needs parent, journaling, prayer, etc.

See your child through their behaviors

Knowing how to help a child with ADHD decrease negative behaviors means shining a huge spotlight on their innate gifts and strengths and not only focusing on and bringing attention to negative behaviors. Focusing on your child’s positive qualities will help when overwhelmed with ADHD behaviors during rough days, months or even years.

When loud, defiant and aggressive behaviors dominate your day during a rough patch, remember that your child is so much more than their behaviors. I love this quote from Fred Rogers that illustrates this so beautifully.

Getting to discover and draw out the amazing person your child is, is truly a gift, so don’t forget to enjoy it.

Zoom out to a bigger picture

When you’re dealing with overwhelming and challenging behaviors on a consistent basis, it’s easy to become physiologically overwhelmed yourself. When you’re living in a stressful environment your brain starts to function out of it’s emotion area (limbic system) out of survival, instead of using the logical rational thinking area of the brain (frontal lobe).

Yelling, defiance and aggression trigger you emotionally the same way your child is being triggered by their anxiety/ADHD/sensory symptoms and it can feel like you’re getting sucked into a vortex of disruptive behaviors.

Reminding yourself that this too shall pass and that behaviors are only temporary can get you through. Refusing to do homework and punching their brother after school today doesn’t equate to time in juvenile detention 10 years down the road.

Your ADHD child’s pre-frontal cortex which is responsible for planning, impulse control, and self-regulation will continue to develop each year (until age 25) giving them increased executive functioning skills. They will also continue gaining valuable skills from you on dealing with anger and learning how to better manage their emotions and behaviors through self-regulation.

With your support and encouragement your child is going to be ok (and so are you).

Enjoy your kid

You know the days it feels like you have no patience for your ADHD child or that you just can’t handle your ADHD child’s behaviors for one more second? Take those days as a sign some relationship repair is needed. A secure warm attachment to a caregiver is a basic need for every child, and especially vital for kids who face additional challenges in day to day life.

When it comes to kids, everything starts with the relationship.

Give yourself permission to step back from your parent ‘control center’ and let the little things go for the day. Do nothing but find a few easy ways to create some fun and laughter with your amazing kid. Connection and laughter are both therapeutic and work wonders when we’re stuck in a relationship or behavioral rut.

When Overwhelmed with a ADHD Child always remember…

Always remember, the greatest lessons come from the greatest challenges.

The gift of time has allowed me to realize that my child’s challenging behaviors have in fact grown my patience by leaps and bounds, that a clean house isn’t what matters most and as it turns out, I really benefit from routine and predictability these days (read- I’m getting old).

Pause, breathe and remind yourself that your child’s going to be just fine. After all, they have the most important thing going for them, a loving, concerned and dedicated parent in their corner.

If you’re raising an emotionally intense spirited child, check out my new first-of-it’s kind online course with coaching from a child therapist (that’s me!)

P.S. More support for your ADHD parenting journey…

Mother’s honest post on parenting a child with ADHD goes viral

A mum’s Facebook post about the reality of bringing up a child with ADHD has gone viral, and for all the right reasons.

A moment that all parents know well, children’s tantrums are a force unto their own. There’s screaming, floods of tears, and worst of all, the glaring stares of strangers who feel the need to comment on your abilities as a parent.

This is a situation that Taylor Myers knows all too well.

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“I’ve walked out of stores hundreds of times because of her,” the mother wrote in the now viral post. “She’s relentless.”

Talking about her 4-year-old daughter Sophie who has ADHD – a chronic condition that can lead to attention difficulty, hyperactivity, and impulsiveness – Myers took to Facebook to explain how one woman managed to transform a gruelling shopping trip into something beautiful.

“As I stood in the customer service line of Walmart to cash my paycheck with a cart of groceries(and some wine), Sophie sat/stood/did heads stands in the cart, whining over a bag of chips I took away and because she called me a butthole in line,” Myers wrote.

“Her ADHD and obsessive little heart gets on these subjects of things she finds unjust and wrong and it doesn’t stop until she eventually falls asleep or something very dramatic happens to snatch the attention off the obsessed about subject.”

After asking her daughter to sit down so that she doesn’t fall for what felt like the hundredth time, a woman behind scowled, “’Oh, for Christ’s sake give her a cookie so she’ll shut up.”

“I could’ve responded in a nicer way. I could’ve explained to her that my four year old has pretty severe ADHD, I raise both my children alone, I’m doing my best, and had no choice but to wait it out for the groceries,” Myers writes.

“Instead, I heard ‘she’s four years old and you need to mind your own f***ing business’ come out of my mouth.“

As tears strolled down her face, the distressed mother walked over to the self-checkout to avoid further confrontation when she was approached by another woman.

But this time she engaged with Sophie, asking her questions and backing up Myers’ decision to take away the bag of chips.

“Honestly, this woman could’ve been the antichrist and I would’ve had more appreciation for her kindness and compassion than I have for anyone else I’ve encountered,“ she wrote.

“It only takes one comment to break someone down. You never know what someone’s going through. You never know the problems a child has that causes them to misbehave unless you know the struggle of being a parent to a child like mine, you cannot judge. But it also takes one small act of kindness to make a mama feel comfort and validation.”

Myers ended the post by thanking the anonymous woman for her kindness, adding, “Mamas have to stick together.”

Ever since the second day her son went to kindergarten, Penny Williams has worried about him. That’s the day Williams, a real estate broker in Asheville, N.C., got her first call from her child’s teacher. Luke wasn’t ready for school, the teacher told Williams. He couldn’t sit still and didn’t want to participate. The insinuation, Williams said, was that she had failed as a parent.

Luke, now 8, would later be diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), a neurological disorder marked by distraction, disorganization, impulsivity and, as the name suggests, hyperactivity. About 3 percent to 5 percent of school-age children in the U.S. have ADHD.

Since the diagnosis, Williams has immersed herself in those children’s worlds. She edits a group blog of parents with ADHD kids at and devours books about ADHD, trying to understand her child’s mind.

“He has a really high IQ and he’s really gifted, and he comes home from school and says how stupid he is,” Williams told LiveScience, referring to Luke. “It’s hard to watch your kid struggle … It adds stress and anxiety.”

A new study finds that Williams is far from alone in her sensitivity to her son’s moods and needs. Parents of children with ADHD are more in tune to their child’s behavior than parents with neurotypical children, according to research published in June in the Journal of Family Psychology. All parents’ moods ebb and flow based on how their children are behaving, said study researcher Candice Odgers, a psychologist at the University of California, Irvine. But the link between a mother’s mood and her child’s behavior is stronger when the kid has ADHD.

The problem is that those ups and downs can take a toll on parents.

“If you think about what it’s like to parent a child with ADHD, it requires a kind of constant vigilance, a high level of energy,” Odgers told LiveScience. “This is important, because we know that stress and the burden of caregiving in general are associated with a whole host of problems, mental health and physical problems.”

The stress rollercoaster

Penny Williams and her son, Luke, 8. (Image credit: Penny Williams)

The emotional cost of parenting a child with ADHD may be getting steeper thanks to widespread budget cuts that are limiting school resources in several states. There are not yet any studies on the effect of state budget cuts on special needs children, but California psychologist Lara Honos-Webb, author of “The Gift of ADHD: How to Transform Your Child’s Problems Into Strengths” (New Harbinger Publications, 2005), said families are feeling the pinch.

“Due to cuts in the schools, parents are desperately trying to get resources that are not there,” Honos-Webb told LiveScience.

Those sorts of barriers add to the challenges that ADHD already brings to parents: A higher-than-usual risk of divorce, increased stress levels and a decreased sense of their own competence.

In order to develop better support for these parents, Odgers and her colleagues wanted to understand how parental stress rises and falls in real time. Led by UC Irvine psychologist Carol Whalen, the researchers asked 51 moms of kids with ADHD and a control group of moms with kids without special needs to answer surveys about their child’s behaviors and their own moods every 30 minutes while their kids were at home for a week. Using PDAs with built-in reminder alarms, the children also filled out surveys about their own moods and behaviors.

Parental stress did indeed fluctuate with the child’s self-reported bad behavior, the researchers found. This was especially true when parents of ADHD kids had mental health problems of their own or more family burdens in general.

Mother’s ratings of their child’s behaviors coincided with the child’s own ratings, so when a mom reported that her child was angry or restless, disobedient (“my child argued”) or hyperactive (“my child talked too much”), the child’s diary usually agreed. The child behaviors most likely to cause distress in mom were hyperactivity, lack of concentration, or anger and disobedience.

Optimistic ADHD

The results emphasize the need to consider the whole family dynamic when treating an ADHD child, Odgers said. Doing so is necessary both for the child’s sake and for the parents’, as stressed parents aren’t as supportive of their children.

“There are these really important links between children’s behavior and mom’s mood and levels of stress,” Odgers said. “We know from a lot of other research that mom’s mental health is a very, very strong predictor of her parenting style.”

Honos-Webb recommends that families with ADHD children work hard to see the positive strides that their children are making. That involves focusing on what can be done to help rather than what a child is doing wrong. It’s also important to encourage the child’s hobbies and strengths, Honos-Webb said. She also recommends “high-octane connection time” between parents and children to break cycles of frustration and punishment.

For Williams, finding Luke’s strengths is no problem at all. He’s a smart, inquisitive and open-hearted child, she said. If he sees another kid crying on the playground, he’ll often go over to comfort them, she said: “He really has this need to fix things and make it better.”

But the stress is still there as she watches her son struggle academically. He will try out a new school next year, moving from a public school that Williams said wasn’t working out to a private one that is better-focused on the requirements of special needs kids. The decision has caused her lots of anxiety. She also finds herself facing scorn from strangers when Luke has temper tantrums in public places.

For her, the best coping mechanism has been finding support among other parents who understand the challenges of an ADHD child. But she’s also found that parenting Luke has shifted something in her.

“When I used to see a kid acting out in a restaurant, I used to think the same thing most people think, ‘Why can’t their parents control them?'” Williams said. “And then I had a kid who did that, and I realized there’s a reason. … It makes you a much more understanding person.”

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

6 Tips for When Your ADHD Child Is Out of Control

Sometimes I feel guilty when I hear stories of wildly out-of-control ADHDers. It’s not that my kids don’t have their moments. They do. But meltdowns, bad behavior, lashing out in anger, and frustration are not things we regularly deal with anymore. It’s also not that our kids are only mildly ADHD — to the contrary, our psychiatrist consistently reminds me that their ADHD and co-occurring conditions are severe, the most severe in his practice. And it’s not that they are immune to bad behavior or just naturally good-natured and subservient. Trust me — they aren’t. So why is it that I don’t still constantly battle the problems I hear about from other parents? There was a time when we went from one ADHD crisis to another, when I felt constantly overwhelmed and lived in fear of what was coming next. So what changed?

I credit practices my husband and I put into place years ago and have continued to maintain. And the biggest change was in me. Once I changed, my children followed.

1. Learn, Listen, and Understand

The first thing I did was intentional: I sought out information about ADHD so I could understand what was going on with my kids. I read about it, talked about it, and asked about it. I have to admit — I have a secret weapon in my husband, who also has ADHD. I often go to him and ask why I am seeing certain behaviors in our kids. It’s incredible to get that insider view. He knows because he experiences it himself. I also started asking my kids what they were experiencing. And then I listened. What I learned changed how I approached everything.

The fights our daughter would pick every night with her big sister suddenly became understandable. She needed a spurt of dopamine to level out her brain. Fighting gave her that spurt. Her sister would react, they would engage, and you could watch the calm wash over our younger daughter’s face.

2. No Fuel, No Fire

As a parent, when your child is yelling, challenging, or insulting you, it’s hard to react calmly. But adding anger and frustration just makes things worse. I have never seen it defuse a situation. Containing our own reactions, however, isn’t easy. When my perspective changed, so did the way we disciplined our children.

Standing in the corner or putting a nose on the wall was what we used for punishment. We kept that, but not in the same way. We put them on the wall until they could calm down and we could talk. It put control squarely in their court. If it took a minute, great. If it took 30 minutes, great. As soon as they could calm down and control their emotions, they could get off the wall.

Sometimes they thought they had it together and got off only to fall apart again. It happens. No big deal. We’d just put them back on the wall until they could get control. Other times, they didn’t want to stand by the wall. Tears, screams, hitting, kicking — we just marched them back to the wall and stood calmly behind them until they got it out of their system.

People often ask: “Why a wall?” It’s blank, nothing to look at, nothing to entertain, no stimuli. It’s boring, and just about anything is better than being bored for an ADHDer.

3. Keep It Simple

My husband used to tell me: “You’re using too many words.” I’d go on and on about a request or point, all the while losing my short-attention-spanned children in the process. Short and simple is key. Give your ADHDer a bit more time to process what you’re saying. Ask them to reiterate what you’ve told them in their own words so you know they’ve understood.

In addition to keeping directions simple, we keep choices simple. So I say things like, “You can do your homework or you can put your nose on the wall until you are ready to do your homework.” You can replace homework with just about anything: do your chores, get dressed, be nice, share with your sister, put on deodorant. We have pretty much said them all in the process of raising six children (five are ADHDers).

4. Teach

This is a principle I’ve talked a lot about. I believe many kids want to be good. They want to please their parents. When there are problems, when they have a meltdown, throw a fit, or lash out, it is usually because they are overwhelmed and lack the skills necessary to handle the situation they got themselves into. What they need is to learn the techniques to handle those situations. Punishment alone will never teach them what to do. Instilling these practices will lead to a much better home life.

In our family, we use social stories to teach missing skills. We talk about what happened. We break down the situation and figure out why it happened and what we could do differently in the future, and then we consider the situation again with those new options.

5. Be Consistent

While being consistent as a parent is important in raising any child, it is crucial for raising ADHDers. They don’t learn or understand social skills innately like their peers. It takes work for them to learn, understand, and apply those skills. If we’re changing the rules all of the time, they don’t know how or when to apply them. They need consistency.

6. Change Your Expectations

We all have preconceived notions of what parenthood is going to be like. Dreamy aspirations of family life. Real-life parenting is harder than anyone ever expects and real-life parenting of a child with special needs is completely different. That’s OK. We can adjust. The moment I stopped expecting I could get my family ready and out the door to go anywhere in less than two hours was the day my life became infinitely better. They didn’t change. For the most part, the change was in me.

I was at a school play this last week waiting to watch my son when one of the teachers and I started talking. She has my daughter in art classes. She told me how much she and the other teachers love my kids, how they love to talk about how different and amazing each of them are. It’s true: They are wildly different but equally amazing in their own right. As she lamented how sad it would be when the last one graduated, I couldn’t help but reflect on the adventure of parenting them.

Of course they’re not perfect. I repeat myself too many times to count, reminding and refocusing. They still have meltdowns, and we spend hours trying to help them make sense of a world that is wired differently than them. They struggle to fight their ADHD and co-occurring conditions everyday. But ever since I stopped trying to fit my uniquely shaped family into society’s little square hole, our lives have been workable, and we truly enjoy our family.

Why Children Aren’t Behaving, And What You Can Do About It

Michelle Kondrich for NPR Michelle Kondrich for NPR

Childhood — and parenting — have radically changed in the past few decades, to the point where far more children today struggle to manage their behavior.

That’s the argument Katherine Reynolds Lewis makes in her new parenting book, The Good News About Bad Behavior.

The Good News About Bad Behavior

Why Kids Are Less Disciplined Than Ever – and What to Do About It

by Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Hardcover, 265 pages |

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“We face a crisis of self-regulation,” Lewis writes. And by “we,” she means parents and teachers who struggle daily with difficult behavior from the children in their lives.

Lewis, a journalist, certified parent educator and mother of three, asks why so many kids today are having trouble managing their behavior and emotions.

Three factors, she says, have contributed mightily to this crisis.

First: Where, how and how much kids are allowed to play has changed. Second, their access to technology and social media has exploded.

Finally, Lewis suggests, children today are too “unemployed.” She doesn’t simply mean the occasional summer job for a high school teen. The term is a big tent, and she uses it to include household jobs that can help even toddlers build confidence and a sense of community.

“They’re not asked to do anything to contribute to a neighborhood or family or community,” Lewis tells NPR in a recent interview. “And that really erodes their sense of self-worth — just as it would with an adult being unemployed.”

Below is more of that interview, edited for length and clarity.

What sorts of tasks are children and parents prioritizing instead of household responsibilities?

To be straight-A students and athletic superstars, gifted musicians and artists — which are all wonderful goals, but they are long-term and pretty narcissistic. They don’t have that sense of contribution and belonging in a family the way that a simple household chore does, like helping a parent prepare a meal. Anyone who loves to cook knows it’s so satisfying to feed someone you love and to see that gratitude and enjoyment on their faces. And kids today are robbed of that.

It’s part of the work of the family. We all do it, and when it’s more of a social compact than an adult in charge of doling out a reward, that’s much more powerful. They can see that everyone around them is doing jobs. So it seems only fair that they should also.

Kids are so driven by what’s fair and what’s unfair. And that’s why the more power you give kids, the more control you give them, the more they will step up.

You also argue that play has changed dramatically. How so?

Two or three decades ago, children were roaming neighborhoods in mixed-age groups, playing pretty unsupervised or lightly supervised. They were able to resolve disputes, which they had a strong motivation to because they wanted to keep playing. They also planned their time and managed their games. They had a lot of autonomy, which also feeds self-esteem and mental health.

Nowadays, kids, including my own, are in child care pretty much from morning until they fall into bed — or they’re under the supervision of their parents. So they aren’t taking small risks. They aren’t managing their time. They aren’t making decisions and resolving disputes with their playmates the way that kids were 20 or 30 years ago. And those are really important social and emotional skills for kids to learn, and play is how all young mammals learn them.

While we’re on the subject of play and the importance of letting kids take risks, even physical risks, you mention a remarkable study out of New Zealand — about phobias. Can you tell us about it?

This study dates back to when psychologists believed that if you had a phobia as an adult, you must have had some traumatic experience as a child. So they started looking at people who had phobias and what their childhood experiences were like. In fact, they found the opposite relationship.

People who had a fall from heights were less likely to have an adult phobia of heights. People who had an early experience with near-drowning had zero correlation with a phobia of water, and children who were separated from their parents briefly at an early age actually had less separation anxiety later in life.

We need to help kids to develop tolerance against anxiety, and the best way to do that, this research suggests, is to take small risks — to have falls and scrapes and tumbles and discover that they’re capable and that they can survive being hurt. Let them play with sticks or fall off a tree. And yeah, maybe they break their arm, but that’s how they learn how high they can climb.

You say in the book that “we face a crisis of self-regulation.” What does that look like at home and in the classroom?

It’s the behavior in our homes that keeps us from getting out the door in the morning and keeps us from getting our kids to sleep at night.

In schools, it’s kids jumping out of seats because they can’t control their behavior or their impulses, getting into shoving matches on the playground, being frozen during tests because they have such high rates of anxiety.

Really, I lump under this umbrella of self-regulation the increase in anxiety, depression, ADHD, substance addiction and all of these really big challenges that are ways kids are trying to manage their thoughts, behavior and emotions because they don’t have the other skills to do it in healthy ways.

You write a lot about the importance of giving kids a sense of control. My 6-year-old resists our morning schedule, from waking up to putting on his shoes. Where is the middle ground between giving him control over his choices and making sure he’s ready when it’s time to go?

It’s a really tough balance. We start off, when our kids are babies, being in charge of everything. And our goal by the time they’re 18 is to be in charge of nothing — to work ourselves out of the job of being that controlling parent. So we have to constantly be widening the circle of things that they’re in charge of, and shrinking our own responsibility.

It’s a bit of a dance for a 6-year-old, really. They love power. So give him as much power as you can stand and really try to save your direction for the things that you don’t think he can do.

He knows how to put on his shoes. So if you walk out the door, he will put on his shoes and follow you. It may not feel like it, but eventually he will. And if you spend five or 10 minutes outside that door waiting for him — not threatening or nagging — he’ll be more likely to do it quickly. It’s one of these things that takes a leap of faith, but it really works.

Kids also love to be part of that discussion of, what does the morning look like. Does he want to draw a visual calendar of the things that he wants to get done in the morning? Does he want to set times, or, if he’s done by a certain time, does he get to do something fun before you leave the house? All those things that are his ideas will pull him into the routine and make him more willing to cooperate.

Whether you’re trying to get your child to dress, do homework or practice piano, it’s tempting to use rewards that we know our kids love, especially sweets and screen time. You argue in the book: Be careful. Why?

Yes. The research on rewards is pretty powerful, and it suggests that the more we reward behavior, the less desirable that behavior becomes to children and adults alike. If the child is coming up with, “Oh, I’d really like to do this,” and it stems from his intrinsic interests and he’s more in charge of it, then it becomes less of a bribe and more of a way that he’s structuring his own morning.

The adult doling out rewards is really counterproductive in the long term — even though they may seem to work in the short term. The way parents or teachers discover this is that they stop working. At some point, the kid says, “I don’t really care about your reward. I’m going to do what I want.” And then we have no tools. Instead, we use strategies that are built on mutual respect and a mutual desire to get through the day smoothly.

You offer pretty simple guidance for parents when they’re confronted with misbehavior and feel they need to dole out consequences. You call them the four R’s. Can you walk me through them?

The four R’s will keep a consequence from becoming a punishment. So it’s important to avoid power struggles and to win the kid’s cooperation. They are: Any consequence should be revealed in advance, respectful, related to the decision the child made, and reasonable in scope.

Generally, by the time they’re 6 or 7 years old, kids know the rules of society and politeness, and we don’t need to give them a lecture in that moment of misbehavior to drill it into their heads. In fact, acting in that moment can sometimes be counterproductive if they are amped up, their amygdala’s activated, they’re in a tantrum or excited state, and they can’t really learn very well because they can’t access the problem-solving part of their brain, the prefrontal cortex, where they’re really making decisions and thinking rationally. So every misbehavior doesn’t need an immediate consequence.

You even tell parents, in the heat of the moment, it’s OK to just mumble and walk away. What do you mean?

That’s when you are looking at your child, they are not doing what you want, and you cannot think of what to do. Instead of jumping in with a bribe or a punishment or yelling, you give yourself some space. Pretend you had something on the stove you need to grab or that you hear something ringing in the other room and walk away. That gives you just a little space to gather your thoughts and maybe calm down a little bit so you can respond to their behavior from the best place in you — from your best intentions as a parent.

I can imagine skeptics out there, who say, “But kids need to figure out how to live in a world that really doesn’t care what they want. You’re pampering them!” In fact, you admit your own mother sometimes feels this way. What do you say to that?

I would never tell someone who’s using a discipline strategy that they feel really works that they’re wrong. What I say to my mom is, “The tools and strategies that you used and our grandparents used weren’t wrong, they just don’t work with modern kids.” Ultimately, we want to instill self-discipline in our children, which will never happen if we’re always controlling them.

If we respond to our kids’ misbehavior instead of reacting, we’ll get the results we want. I want to take a little of the pressure off of parenting; each instance is not life or death. We can let our kids struggle a little bit. We can let them fail. In fact, that is the process of childhood when children misbehave. It’s not a sign of our failure as parents. It’s normal.

Ten Things To Remember If You Have A Child With ADHD

There is no such thing as a perfect parent. Parenting is hard. It takes a great deal of effort to be even a decent parent. My husband and I are raising our three children ages 6, 6, and 7.

Yes, I have my hands full. Twin six-year-old boys and a seven-year-old girl keep me on my parenting toes, so to speak. It is not easy, but I do my best to be a good parent. Having a PhD in psychology is helpful, but I still devour plenty of parenting books and research articles to continually try to do better. I am still a work in progress just like all parents.

It would be great if we knew exactly what to do and how to do it with our kids. But not all kids are the same and they are not born with a manual that provides us with instructions on how to raise them right. However, we do have research on parenting and psychology that can help us out and point us in the right direction.

Below I have five tips on how to improve your parenting skills starting today! These tips are backed by research. The first step toward being a great parent is knowing how. It is difficult to be a good parent without knowing first and foremost the how and why.

1. Practice Loving without Conditions

Loving unconditionally seems like a given that we all assume we are doing as a parent. However, we may have behaviors or words spoken that undermine our ability for our children to feel unconditionally loved.

For example, asking our child if he wants another mom when he is acting out is not practicing unconditional love. The message that is being sent to the child is that if they act out or misbehave, they are at risk of losing you as a mother, since you ask “do you want another mom” or “do you want to live somewhere else?”

If you have ever made these statements, it doesn’t mean you are a terrible parent. However, if we want our child to feel loved unconditionally, then we need to stop saying things that make the child feel like the relationship could ever be severed because of their behavior.

Another way to look at these threats is comparing them to threatening divorce. If you have ever been married, or lived in a home with married parents, then you know that when one person threatens divorce, it cuts to the core.

Threatening divorce damages the relationship, because trust is lost. The other person begins to feel that that their relationship may not be forever, and that the relationship can be ended because their spouse is threatening divorce. Even if the person threatening doesn’t really mean what they are saying and they truly love their spouse, the words are damaging none the less.


The same principles go for parent and child relationships. If a child has been threatened with loss of their current home life, the parent leaving them, or being placed in foster care, then that child does not feel loved unconditionally. They will believe that love from their parent is contingent on their behavior. It is conditional love which means that they are only loved under certain conditions.

My son Charlie has recently gotten into the habit of saying “I love you Mom” every time that he gets in trouble. He kicked the dog the other day. Not hard, but nevertheless he kicked our family dog. I was fuming. I yelled at him and he was sent to his room for a long time out (I know the yelling was not a good thing to do). I couldn’t even think of a consequence in the heat of the moment so I said “go to your room, I don’t want to see you right now, I will think about your consequence later.”

He cried, and as he was running up the stairs and he was saying “I love you Mommy, I love you Mommy, I love you Mommy.” Why was he saying that? Because in his six-year-old mind, he is worried that I will stop loving him if he has bad behavior.

Kids don’t know that we love them unconditionally. They are learning though and we must teach them that we do. My response in this situation and always is to say “I love you too.” I then usually follow it up with “I don’t like your behavior right now, but I will always love you.”

Kids need to be told that they are loved regardless of their behavior. It needs to be ingrained that they are loved even if they act out, break the rules, or misbehave.

An article by Elite Daily examined several research studies on unconditional love. The findings from these studies showed that children become more well-adjusted, emotionally healthy, and physically healthy adults when they experience unconditional love in childhood. When children are exposed to conditional love in their parent-child relationship, the research showed that, children have higher levels of anxiety which in turn negatively affects their long-range health, such as heart health.

Loving unconditionally means loving without conditions. Unconditional love is loving someone just the way that they are, flaws and all. Tell your children that you love them, even when they break the rules, misbehave, or they tell you that they hate you (most kids say this to their parents at some point in time).

You must always respond with “I love you regardless of your behavior.” It doesn’t mean that you are accepting or allowing the bad behavior. There should always be reasonable consequences to match the behavior. However, they shouldn’t ever be made to feel that the love of their parent can be revoked because of bad behaviors.

2. Develop a Bond That Will Last a Lifetime by Creating Memories

You need to spend time with your kids in order to create a bond. Quality time matters, but so does quantity time.

Kids want to be with their parents. Spend time together as a family. For example, make it a point to have dinner at the kitchen or dining room table at least a few nights a week. Make a rule that no technology is allowed at the table during that time, so that you can talk and spend time together.


Before you know it, that child will be grown and out of your home. Take the time to spend meal times together, talking and truly getting to know your child before they leave your home as an adult.

Barking Up the Wrong Tree looked at research on how to create happy memories that last a lifetime. Some of the things discovered in the research included:

  • Memories are made when our senses and emotions are elevated.
  • If we are pulling out the camera phone, it is likely an elevated experience that you want to remember.
  • Celebrating milestones and praiseworthy moments (graduations, winning seasons, etc.) helps to create positive lasting memories.
  • Struggling together creates a bond. If you have worked through conflict in your relationship and made it better in the process then you have created a bond. Fraternities haze, soldier fight together, and families overcome struggles together. These all make for lasting bonds. When you struggle together as a family, celebrate the success at the end of your victory, once you have overcome the challenge together.

Take the time to make memories with your children. They are only little once. Go on those vacations, hike to the top of a mountain together, sail across an ocean, go camping, or teach them to ice-skate.

Do anything and everything that will help create memories, bonds, and experiences that will last a lifetime in their memory. Those memories are what will carry them into old age with happiness in their heart.

3. Stop the Yelling

Yelling at our kids is not good parenting. Yet it is still happening on regular basis in most homes. I admit, I am still continually working on this one. I think this quote summarizes the situation.

However, I know I need to continually work to not yell or raise my voice, as I would prefer a household with zero voices ever raised.

Yelling causes our children to become anxious. It also affects them emotionally and mentally in a negative manner. If you have ever been yelled at by a boss or superior, you probably remember it and it is not a fond memory. It made you feel bad. It is hard enough to be reprimanded in a calm voice.

When someone, whether adult or child, is yelled at while being reprimanded it causes anxiety, stress, and negative emotions to abound. When the yelling involves name calling or insults it becomes emotional abuse.

Heathline Parenthood examined research on the topic of yelling and found that parents who yell at their kids end up with children who are more aggressive verbally and physically. Children learn from their parents’ example. If yelling is a regular occurrence in your household, then your child is learning that when dealing with behavior or situations that they don’t like, it is appropriate to yell. None of us want to teach that to our children, so we must take action to stop the yelling.


Healthline provides some tips on how to stop yelling:

  • Know what triggers the yelling. What are the behaviors occurring or situations where you find yourself yelling at your children?
  • When you feel that you are going to yell, give yourself a time out or count to ten.
  • Practice responding in a calm, even tone. Practice makes the action a habit.
  • If you do yell, then admit the mistake and apologize to your child. They will then learn that it is not an acceptable behavior and that they too should apologize if they make a mistake and end up yelling. (Yes, I apologized to Charlie for yelling and he had to apologize to our dog Max.)

My article about yelling less at your kids less is also helpful: The Only Effective Way to Talk With Children When They Are Acting Out. This article outlines the steps to use the “one-ask” parenting approach. This approach is used to help parents follow up with consequences more quickly so that situations don’t escalate to worse behavior by the children and yelling from the parents. Some tips from this article on talking to your children without yelling include the following.

  • Get on their level, talking face to face in a calm voice.
  • Don’t make repeated threats about a consequence that is coming to them and wait for the situation to become more heated.
  • Follow through with the consequence (i.e. loss of playtime or time-out) immediately after they violate your warning. Don’t wait for them to repeat the bad behavior several more times. One warning is all that is needed. Then, if they break the rule or don’t obey, the consequence should be immediately implemented.

If you find that your yelling is so entrenched in your daily behaviors that you have a hard time kicking the habit and you need more support, then buy, or find at your local library, the book Triggers by Amber Lia and Wendy Speake. Their tips were even featured on the Focus on the Family national radio program and were rated as a number one show for 2019. Their gentle parenting methods simply work.

A quote from the book:

“Peacemaking moms produce peacemaking kids.”

Wendy and Amber also have a Facebook group that is free to join. It is Gentle Parenting with Amber and Wendy. In this group, you will find thousands of other parents looking for support to yell less in their homes. Check out the group if you want more connected support to stop yelling at your kids. I am a member of this group too. Nobody is perfect, but we can do better as parents by yelling less starting today.

4. Provide Experiences Over Toys

Toys are fun. But our kids don’t need an excess of overcomplicated, electronic, and expensive toys in order to be happy or develop in a healthy manner. Focusing on experiences over toys is a way to improve as a parent now.

The next holiday or birthday that comes up, think about gifting your child an experience, for example, a year membership to the children’s museum or zoo. Another experience is a trip to someplace interesting such as a National Park. These experiences help to create memories. They also help to make your child a more well rounded individual as they are out in the world experiencing activities rather than sitting in their room playing the newest video game.

Motherly posted a recent article that delved into the science that experiences are better for our kids than toys. Here is a quote from that article that is worth noting.

And if we need one more reason to cool it on the toy giving, researchers have discovered that gratitude and generosity increase when experiences are given instead of objects. Thomas Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University, conducted many studies over many decades and found that happiness is derived from experiences, not things. Bottom line: The happiness derived from a childhood experience is far more significant than the fleeting excitement of toys under the Christmas tree. Giving experiences that involve spending time together instead of gifting toys brings greater and longer-lasting joy. Don’t stress about the number of toys, mama. Focus on making memories.

Creating family experiences and making memories go hand-in-hand. Our money and resources get more bang for their buck when they are used on experiences for the family instead of things. The research from the Motherly article shows that families are happier overall when they have more experiences together and less toys.

5. Let Them Play and Be a Child

Play and childhood development go hand-in-hand. However, the amount of playtime our children are getting has been diminishing in recent decades.

We are so intent on our children learning, that we take away from their playtime. Play is learning. We need to get our children back to basic playtime so they can develop and learn in a natural way.

Increase their playtime and limit the electronics. Research by Very Well Family found that too much technology is damaging to our children. When children get too much time on electronic devices, their research found that children have sleep issues, obesity, behavior problems, academic problems, and emotional issues. Limit your children’s time on technology.

According to We Can, we need to aim for less than two of screen time per day for our school aged children. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends far less time for children under the age of five. We Can offers a free screen time chart so you can track your child’s time on digital devices.

The goal is to get children playing and off the technology. Playing will help them developmentally. In my book Let Them Play, I explain the importance of play and provide 100 child developmental play activities. Some great play activities that promote development and learning that are listed in the book including Play Doh, magnet blocks, Legos, puppet shows, and hopscotch.

Parents can teach their children different play activities while they actively play with their children. Fifteen or twenty minutes of playtime together can help to create bonding time between parent and child. Then the parent can allow their children to continue playing the activity on their own. This play time is crucial to the child’s healthy social, emotional, physical, and cognitive development.

They are only little once. Let them be a child when they are little. Two-year-old children aren’t meant to sit at desks for hours completing school work. They were made to play, explore, and be active physically. This is how they learn and develop best.

Final Thoughts

These are not the only ways to improve as a parent. However, these are five ways that you can begin improving as a parent starting today.

Nobody is a perfect parent, which means we all have room for improvement. Look at your own parenting methods objectively and decide where you can improve. Then do something about it.


Featured photo credit: Jonathan Daniels via


^ Elite Daily: The Psychology Behind Unconditional Love, According To Science
^ Barking Up the Wrong Tree: This Is How To Create Happy Memories That Will Last A Lifetime: 3 Secrets From Research
^ Healthline: The Long-Lasting Effects of Yelling at Your Kids
^ Motherly: It’s science: Giving experiences instead of toys boosts your kid’s intelligence + happiness
^ Very Well Family: The Harmful Effects of Too Much Screen Time for Kids

Image via Flickr by Toby Charlton-Taylor

Five Tips for Parents of a Child with ADHD

Being the parent of a child with ADHD can sometimes be overwhelming, especially since there’s no universal how-to guide on navigating the challenges. While there are certain battles your son or daughter will have to face alone, there are still ways for you to make his or her life a little less stressful. Here are a few tips for parents of children living with ADHD:

Ensure your child’s bedroom creates a soothing atmosphere. Paint the walls a calming, serene color and eliminate distractions like too many posters and/or toys. My son was recently diagnosed with ADHD, and one of the first things we did was organize his bedroom and paint it a relaxing blue color. The bedroom should be a place for your child to unwind and relax, so limit the presence of electronics like televisions and video games, both of which can impede sleep quality. If possible, avoid keeping a desk in the bedroom as messy desks can cause anxiety in those with ADHD.

Provide structure, but don’t be overbearing. Reward charts and chore wheels are a great way to keep younger kids on top of their responsibilities while still keeping it positive, and as they get older, this can evolve into keeping a planner or calendar. Set a standard for homework, both when it should be done and which activities can and can’t be done until then. For example, my son knows he has 30 minutes when he gets home from school to do whatever he wants. And then he has to work on homework for at least 45 minutes. Make expectations reasonable, and never use threats or fear to entice your child to keep up. The goal is to keep your child responsible and organized, but not overwhelmed.

Take time to point out your child’s “wins” each day. Set a goal to acknowledge at least three positive behaviors your child has exhibited every single day. Tell him or her specifically what was done well and why it’s important. It becomes habitual to spot and correct negative behaviors, but avoid making those moments a focus. Celebrate behavioral wins as they happen so that your child knows that not only do you recognize their progress, you also appreciate it.

Make homework time fun. As I touched on above, kids with ADHD have to spend a lot of time hearing about what they’ve done wrong and being told “no.” So, I try to make my son’s time at home as fun as possible, especially the time he’s meant to be doing homework. I realized when I took time to find ways to make his work more engaging he’d tackle his assignments more quickly and with a lot more enthusiasm.

He loves Star Wars so lately making homework time fun has meant doing his homework in the Jedi costume I recently got him. We created a chart where he could mark a month’s worth of homework assignments. Each assignment completed during his allotted homework time got him one step closer to defeating Darth Vader and “winning” tickets to see the new Star Wars movie. He’s had a lot of fun wearing the costume, and I think it makes him feel like he’s really on an important mission when he’s working on his homework.

Get active. Exercise helps children with ADHD expend excess energy or simply burn off the stress of the day. The result is that they’re able to concentrate and control impulses better. Find something your child loves to do—be it swimming, karate, basketball, etc—and make sure they’re able to take part in that physical exercise as often as possible. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be overly strenuous. cites a study that found that “a 20-minute walk in the park helped kids with ADHD concentrate better.”

There are many paths to follow when deciding what’s best for your child with ADHD. Reach out to others and explore different approaches, keeping in mind that not every method is right for everyone. Creating a structured, calm living space with a positive focus and strong support system is a fantastic road on which your child can begin a happy, healthy journey.

Vee Cecil is a personal trainer and wellness coach. She is passionate about keeping others informed on all things health-related on her blog. She lives in Kentucky with her husband and two children.

Ms. Vee Cecil can be reached at [email protected]

Caring for a child with ADHD: 21 tips

An ADHD therapist can help with parental stress in addition to a child’s behaviors. As well as professional help, there are also many local and national support groups. Input from other parents in a similar situation can be invaluable.

18. Take breaks

Spending the entire day focusing on any child can be exhausting. Take breaks where possible, either by arranging a babysitter or trading off responsibilities with a partner. The more energy a parent has, the better they can cope with stress.

19. Stay calm

Remaining calm allows the brain to problem-solve and communicate better. There are many ways for a parent to stay calm in challenging situations. These strategies include:

  • meditating regularly
  • practicing yoga
  • sticking to a routine to eliminate the stress of “what next?”
  • walking in nature or other calming outdoor space
  • reducing caffeine and alcohol consumption

20. Remember that all children misbehave

It can be easy to think that all challenging behavior is caused by ADHD, but all children misbehave sometimes. Learn which behaviors need managing, and which ones are normal parts of growing up.

21. Be kind to yourself

It can be tempting to imagine that everyone else is coping better, but if a person speaks to other parents of children with ADHD, they will likely be feeling the same way.

Parents of children with ADHD should try to appreciate the challenges they have overcome and take pride in what they have achieved.

Why Is My Child So Angry and Defiant? An Overview of Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Every parent of a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD or ADD) knows what it’s like to deal with severe ADHD behavior problems — sometimes even the most well-behaved child lashes out, or refuses to comply with even the most benign request. But almost half of all parents who have kids with ADHD live with severe behavior problems and discipline challenges on an almost daily basis. For them, parenting a defiant child is a daily strain.

Severe ADHD Behavior and Oppositional Defiant Disorder Symptoms

40 percent of children with ADHD also develop oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), a condition marked by chronic aggression, frequent outbursts, and a tendency to argue, ignore requests, and engage in intentionally annoying behavior.1

How bad can it get? Consider these real-life children diagnosed with both ADHD and ODD:

  • A 4-year-old who gleefully annoys her parents by blasting the TV at top volume as soon as she wakes up.
  • A 7-year-old who shouts “No” to every request and who showers his parents with verbal abuse.
  • An 11-year-old who punches a hole in the wall and then physically assaults his mother.

“These children are most comfortable when they’re in the middle of a conflict,” says Douglas Riley, Ph.D., author of The Defiant Child: A Parent’s Guide to Oppositional Defiant Disorder and a child psychologist in Newport News, Virginia. “As soon as you begin arguing with them, you’re on their turf. They keep throwing out the bait, and their parents keep taking it — until finally the parents end up with the kid in family therapy, wondering where they’ve gone wrong.”

The strain of dealing with an oppositional child affects the entire family. The toll on the marital relationship can be especially severe. In part, this is because friends and relatives tend to blame the behavior on ‘bad parenting.’ Inconsistent discipline may play a role in the development of ODD, but is rarely the sole cause. The unfortunate reality is that discipline strategies that work with neurotypical children simply don’t work with kids with ODD.

Fortunately, psychologists have developed effective behavior therapy for reining in even the most defiant child. It’s not always easy, but it can be done — typically with the help of specialized psychotherapy.

What Is the Link Between ADHD and ODD?

No one knows why so many kids with ADHD exhibit oppositional behavior. In many cases, however, oppositional behavior seems to be a manifestation of ADHD-related impulsivity.

“Many kids with ADHD who are diagnosed with ODD are really showing oppositional characteristics by default,” says Houston-based child psychologist Carol Brady, Ph.D. “They misbehave not because they’re intentionally oppositional, but because they can’t control their impulses.”

Another view is that oppositional behavior is simply a way for kids to cope with the frustration and emotional pain associated with having ADHD.

“When under stress — whether it’s because they have ADHD or their parents are getting divorced — a certain percentage of kids externalize their anxiety,” says Larry Silver, M.D., a psychiatrist at Georgetown University Medical School in Washington, D.C. “Everything becomes everyone else’s fault, and the child doesn’t take responsibility for anything that goes wrong.”

Riley agrees. “Children with ADHD know from a young age that they’re different from other kids,” he says. “They see themselves as getting in more trouble, and in some cases may have more difficulty mastering academic work — often despite an above-average intellect. So instead of feeling stupid, their defense is to feel cool. They hone their oppositional attitude.”

About half of all preschoolers diagnosed with ODD outgrow the problem by age 8. Older kids with ODD are less likely to outgrow it. And left untreated, oppositional behavior can evolve into conduct disorder, an even more serious behavioral problem marked by physical violence, stealing, running away from home, fire-setting, and other highly destructive and often illegal behaviors.

What Treatment Is Available to Manage My Defiant Child’s ODD & Severe ADHD Behavior?

Any child with ADHD who exhibits signs of oppositional behavior needs appropriate treatment that usually includes a combination of medication and family therapy. The first step is to make sure that the child’s ADHD is under control. “Since oppositional behavior is often related to stress,” says Silver, “you have to address the source of the stress — the ADHD symptoms — before turning to behavioral issues.”

Says Riley, “If a kid is so impulsive or distracted that he can’t focus on the therapies we use to treat oppositional behavior,” he says, “he isn’t going to get very far. And for many kids with ADHD and oppositional behavior, the stimulant medications are a kind of miracle. A lot of the bad behavior simply drops off.”

But ADHD medication is seldom all that’s needed to control oppositional behavior. If a child exhibits only mild or infrequent oppositional behavior, do-it-yourself behavior-modification techniques may well do the trick. But if the oppositional behavior is severe enough to disrupt life at home or school, it’s best to consult a family therapist trained in childhood behavioral problems.

The therapist should screen your child for anxiety and mood disorders. Each can cause oppositional behavior, and each calls for its own form of treatment. The therapist may also recommend cognitive therapy for the child, to help him cope effectively with difficult situations.

How Parent Training Can Help Kids with ODD Improve Their Behavior

In most cases, however, the treatment of choice for ODD is parent management training, in which the family therapist teaches the parents to change the ways they react to their child’s behavior — both good and bad. Between weekly sessions, the parents practice what they’ve learned, and report to the therapist on their progress.

“Basically, parent training is about carrots and sticks,” says Brady. “On the carrot end, you work on giving your child praise and rewards for cooperating. On the stick end, you lay out clear consequences for misbehavior, usually involving a time-out or the removal of a reward.”

Parent management training is often highly effective, with the child’s behavior improving dramatically in four out of five cases. Parents who undergo the training typically report greater marital satisfaction, as well as improved behavior from their other children.

While some parents balk at the notion that they are the ones in need of training, “they have to learn how to stop getting into the arena with the child and descending to the level of squabbling,” says Silver. Parents often feed the problem by delivering overly harsh or inconsistent discipline. Instead, parents must reassert their authority by setting up well-defined rewards and punishments, and then implementing them consistently and dispassionately.

“My most important rule is that parents should not take ODD behavior personally,” says Riley. “Remain calm and friendly whenever you intervene. Oppositional kids have radar for adult hostility. If they pick up your anger, they’re going to match it.”

Riley recommends a “two free requests” approach: “The first time you ask your child to do something, give him two minutes to respond. If he doesn’t obey, calmly tell him, ‘I’m now asking you a second time to pick up your coat. Do you understand what I’m asking you to do, and what the consequences are if you don’t? Please make a smart decision.’ If you have to ask a third time, the prearranged consequence kicks in — the TV goes off for an hour, or the video game is taken away.”

How Can Parents Focus On Good Behaviors?

Rewarding good behavior or punishing bad behavior isn’t a revolutionary concept, but with oppositional kids, it’s easier said than done. Parents must rein in their impulse to yell or spank. At the same time, they must learn how to substitute “non-aversive punishments” such as time-outs or the loss of privileges.

Many parents of oppositional children are so focused on bad behaviors that they’ve stopped reinforcing positive ones. Yet positive reinforcement is the heart and soul of parent management training.

“Invariably, parents come to treatment with the idea of suppressing, eliminating, or reducing problem behavior,” writes Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., in Parent Management Training, a manual for therapists. But according to Kazdin, director of Yale University’s Child Study Center in New Haven, Connecticut, parent training emphasizes the concept of “positive opposites” instead. “For example,” says Kazdin, “parents are asked what to do if they want their child to stop screaming, slamming the door, or throwing breakable objects. The answers involve reinforcing talking quietly, closing the door gently, and handling objects with care and not throwing them.”

Kazdin maintains that helping parents learn to praise good behavior is one of the toughest challenges therapists face. He says parents are often “hesitant to praise a behavior or to use reinforcers in general because they feel the behavior ought not require any intervention. ‘My child knows how to clean up his room, he just refuses to do it,’ is a typical parental comment.”

How Parents Can Offer More Effective Praise for a Defiant Child

When parents do offer praise, they should be enthusiastic. “An unenthusiastic statement of ‘Good’ is not likely to change child behavior,” says Kazdin. Praise should specify the praiseworthy behavior and, ideally, include some non-verbal gesture. For example, you might say, “It was wonderful the way you played so quietly while I was on the phone!” and then give your child a kiss.

Appropriate rewards and punishments vary from child to child. The more creatively you tailor your program to your child’s specific abilities and needs, the better. But as Russell Barkley, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, writes in Your Defiant Child, “Creativity is always an asset to child-rearing, but it can’t hold a candle to consistency. Consistency in the way you treat your child — the way you set rules, convey expectations, pay attention, encourage good behavior, and impose consequences for bad behavior — is the key to cleaning up your child’s act.”

Never lose sight of the fact that oppositional kids usually have a great deal to offer, once their behavior is under control. “Oppositional kids are also often quite engaging and bright,” says Riley. “They tend to be optimistic and very much their own person, with their own way of looking at the world. Once you work through their defiance, there’s a lot there to like.”



Updated on January 14, 2020

Managing Problem Behavior at Home

One of the biggest challenges parents face is managing difficult or defiant behavior on the part of children. Whether they’re refusing to put on their shoes, or throwing full-blown tantrums, you can find yourself at a loss for an effective way to respond.

For parents at their wits end, behavioral therapy techniques can provide a roadmap to calmer, more consistent ways to manage problem behaviors problems and offers a chance to help children develop gain the developmental skills they need to regulate their own behaviors.

Relate: How Anxiety Leads to Disruptive Behavior

ABC’s of behavior management at home

To understand and respond effectively to problematic behavior, you have to think about what came before it, as well as what comes after it. There are three important aspects to any given behavior:

  • Antecedents: Preceding factors that make a behavior more or less likely to occur. Another, more familiar term for this is triggers. Learning and anticipating antecedents is an extremely helpful tool in preventing misbehavior.
  • Behaviors: The specific actions you are trying to encourage or discourage.
  • Consequences: The results that naturally or logically follow a behavior. Consequences — positive or negative — affect the likelihood of a behavior recurring. And the more immediate the consequence, the more powerful it is.

Define behaviors

The first step in a good behavior management plan is to identify target behaviors. These behaviors should be specific (so everyone is clear on what is expected), observable, and measurable (so everyone can agree whether or not the behavior happened).

An example of poorly defined behavior is “acting up,” or “being good.” A well-defined behavior would be running around the room (bad) or starting homework on time (good).

Antecedents, the good and the bad

Antecedents come in many forms. Some prop up bad behavior, others are helpful tools that help parents manage potentially problematic behaviors before they begin and bolster good behavior.

Antecedents to AVOID:

  • Assuming expectations are understood: Don’t assume kids know what is expected of them — spell it out! Demands change from situation to situation and when children are unsure of what they are supposed to be doing, they’re more likely to misbehave.
  • Calling things out from a distance: Be sure to tell children important instructions face-to-face. Things yelled from a distance are less likely to be remembered and understood.
  • Transitioning without warning: Transitions can be hard for kids, especially in the middle of something they are enjoying. Having warning gives children the chance to find a good stopping place for an activity and makes the transition less fraught.
  • Asking rapid-fire questions, or giving a series of instructions: Delivering a series of questions or instructions at children limits the likelihood that they will hear, answer questions, remember the tasks, and do what they’ve been instructed to do.

Antecedents to EMBRACE:

Here are some antecedents that can bolster good behavior:

  • Be aware of the situation: Consider and manage environmental and emotional factors — hunger, fatigue, anxiety or distractions can all make it much more difficult for children to rein in their behavior.
  • Adjust the environment: When it’s homework time, for instance, remove distractions like video screens and toys, provide a snacks, establish an organized place for kids to work and make sure to schedule some breaks — attention isn’t infinite.
  • Make expectations clear: You’ll get better cooperation if both you and your child are clear on what’s expected. Sit down with him and present the information verbally. Even if he “should” know what is expected, clarifying expectations at the outset of a task helps head off misunderstandings down the line.
  • Provide countdowns for transitions: Whenever possible, prepare children for an upcoming transition. Let them know when there are, say, 10 minutes remaining before they must come to dinner or start their homework. Then, remind them, when there are say, 2 minutes, left. Just as important as issuing the countdown is actually making the transition at the stated time.
  • Let kids have a choice: As kids grow up, it’s important they have a say in their own scheduling. Giving a structured choice — “Do you want to take a shower after dinner or before?” — can help them feel empowered and encourage them to become more self-regulating.

Creating effective consequences

Not all consequences are created equal. Some are an excellent way to create structure and help kids understand the difference between acceptable behaviors and unacceptable behaviors while others have the potential to do more harm than good. As a parent having a strong understanding of how to intelligently and consistently use consequences can make all the difference.

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Consequences to AVOID

  • Giving negative attention: Children value attention from the important adults in their life so much that any attention — positive or negative — is better than none. Negative attention, such as raising your voice or spanking — actually increases bad behavior over time. Also, responding to behaviors with criticism or yelling adversely affects children’s self-esteem.
  • Delayed consequences: The most effective consequences are immediate. Every moment that passes after a behavior, your child is less likely to link her behavior to the consequence. It becomes punishing for the sake of punishing, and it’s much less likely to actually change the behavior.
  • Disproportionate consequences: Parents understandably get very frustrated. At times, they may be so frustrated that they overreact. A huge consequence can be demoralizing for children and they may give up even trying to behave.
  • Positive consequences: When a child dawdles instead of putting on his shoes or picking up his blocks and, in frustration, you do it for him, you’re increasing the likelihood that he will dawdle again next time.

EFFECTIVE consequences:

Consequences that are more effective begin with generous attention to the behaviors you want to encourage.

  • Positive attention for positive behaviors: Giving your child positive reinforcement for being good helps maintain the ongoing good behavior. Positive attention enhances the quality of the relationship, improves self-esteem, and feels good for everyone involved. Positive attention to brave behavior can also help attenuate anxiety, and help kids become more receptive to instructions and limit-setting.
  • Ignoring actively: This should used ONLY with minor misbehaviors — NOT aggression and NOT very destructive behavior. Active ignoring involves the deliberate withdrawal of attention when a child starts to misbehave — as you ignore, you wait for positive behavior to resume. You want to give positive attention as soon as the desired behavior starts. By withholding your attention until you get positive behavior you are teaching your child what behavior gets you to engage.
  • Reward menus: Rewards are a tangible way to give children positive feedback for desired behaviors. A reward is something a child earns, an acknowledgement that she’s doing something that’s difficult for her. Rewards are most effective as motivators when the child can choose from a variety of things: extra time on the iPad, a special treat, etc. This offers the child agency and reduces the possibility of a reward losing its appeal over time. Rewards should be linked to specific behaviors and always delivered consistently.
  • Time outs: Time outs are one of the most effective consequences parents can use but also one of the hardest to do correctly. Here’s a quick guide to effective time out strategies.
  • Be clear: Establish which behaviors will result in time outs. When a child exhibits that behavior, make sure the corresponding time out is relatively brief and immediately follows a negative behavior.
  • Be consistent: Randomly administering time outs when you’re feeling frustrated undermines the system and makes it harder for the child to connect behaviors with consequences.
  • Set rules and follow them: During a time out, there should be no talking to the child until you are ending the time out. Time out should end only once the child has been calm and quiet briefly so they learn to associate the end of time out with this desired behavior.
  • Return to the task: If time out was issued for not complying with a task, once it ends the child should be instructed to complete the original task. This way, kids won’t begin to see time outs as an escape strategy.

By bringing practicing behavioral tools management at home, parents can make it a much more peaceful place to be.

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