The Secret to Better Behavior? No Punishment at All

You’re not alone if you’re exhausted and running out of ideas to correct your child’s problematic behaviours. As I’ve learned, disciplining children with ADHD often means trying a few critical strategies with one significant twist – there’s no punishment!

As a paediatrician specialising in ADHD and related conditions, I work with parents who feel frazzled and confused about how to best help their neurodivergent children with behavioural challenges. It is a thing I see every day in my practice, witnessing frazzled parents with not-quite-neurotypical children.

Over the years, I have understood something that completely changed how I approached parenting: ADHD is not a behaviour disorder! It is a neurological difference. Kids’ challenging behaviours were not happening by choice. This realisation allowed me to find and exhibit genuine compassion for my children — a game-changer.

You’re not alone if you’re exhausted and running out of ideas to correct your child’s challenging behaviours. Improving behaviours in children with ADHD often means trying a few key strategies and one great twist – there’s no punishment!

Children with ADHD largely struggle with executive functioning – the brain skills we all need to function in our daily lives. They include sustaining attention, organising and planning, recalling information, and controlling emotions, among other skills. The prefrontal cortex – where attention, emotions, and behaviours intersect – is also implicated in ADHD.

Children with ADHD are also about three years behind their neurotypical peers in terms of brain development, meaning that they are often asked to function at higher levels than their brains can manage.

These circumstances bring about tricky behaviours that are often out of a child’s control. These behaviours will still appear no matter how well-versed a child is in the consequences. Harsher punishments will not make a dent.

Punishing a child with ADHD for challenging behaviours is ineffective and counterproductive because they don’t have the same ability to regulate their emotions and behaviours as a neurotypical child would. Punishment only results in them feeling guilty and ashamed for what they couldn’t control. The guilt and shame can turn into frustration, defiance, and emotional outbursts — and they often do.

The true meaning of the word “discipline” is to teach, not to punish. Teaching helps shape behaviour positively so that problematic and impairing behaviours are more minor issues.

So how do we change problem behaviours and teach better ones without punishment?

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