Parenting Children with ADHD: Can Behavior Therapy Help?

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The fundamentals of ADHD behavior therapy are easy to understand and implement, even without the help of a therapist.

Have you ever given your child a time-out for talking back — or a heads-up before taking him someplace that is likely to challenge his self-control? Then you already have a sense of how behavior therapy works in parenting ADHD children.

“A lot of behavior modification is just common-sense parenting,” says William Pelham, Jr., Ph.D., director of theCenter for Children and Families at the State University of New York at Buffalo. “The problem is that none of us were trained how to be good parents, and none of us expected to have children who needed parents with great parenting skills and patience.”

The basic idea is to set specific rules governing your child’s behavior (nothing vague or too broad), and to enforce your rules consistently, with positive consequences for following them and negative consequences for infractions. Dr. Pelham suggests these seven strategies for better ADHD behavior:

1. Make sure your child understands the rules.

Telling a child to “do this” or to “avoid doing that” is not enough. To ensure that your child knows the rules cold, create lists and post them around the house. For example, you might draw up a list detailing the specific things your child must do to get ready for school.

Make sure the rules are worded clearly. Go over the rules to make sure he understands, and review them as necessary. Stick with the routines until your child has them down.

2. Give clear commands.

First, say your child’s name to make sure you have his attention. Then tell him exactly what you want him to do. If you’re in the checkout line at the grocery store, for instance, you might say, “Steve, stand next to me and do not touch anything.” It’s not enough to tell your child to “be good,” because he may not know what that entails. Finally, state the consequences for disobeying the command—and always follow through.

3. Don’t expect perfection.

Strike a balance between praising your child and offering criticism. A good rule of thumb is to praise your child for doing something well at least five times as often as you criticize bad behavior.

You’ll only set your child up for failure if you expect immediate and perfect results. Instead, focus on rewarding small steps—and gradually work your way toward the desired outcome.

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