Raising kids is never easy. Whether you have one child or four, no one really goes into parenting knowing how to handle everything life throws at them. And this is especially true when you have a child with ADHD.
For many parents, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), makes it almost impossible to employ traditional parenting methods. Depending on the type and severity of your child’s ADHD, it can be hard — and sometimes incredibly frustrating — to find useful ways to help them cope with their symptoms, encourage good behavior, and manage frequent outbursts.
But don’t be discouraged. The first step in parenting a child with ADHD is to accept that you, as a parent, are not perfect. And neither is your beautiful, loving, energetic little one. When you shift your expectations (keyword shift, not lower!) of how your child should or shouldn’t behave and match them to their developmental stage, you’ll be showing up for them in the ways they really need you to. Also, you’ll be setting them up for success as they discover their unique abilities, instead of trying and failing to achieve some social standard that they may never fulfill.
In other words, it’s important to stop expecting your child to “behave their age.” Remember that the ADHD brain is wired a bit differently, which makes it harder (but not impossible) for kids to develop skills like self-control, time management, and attention. Children with ADHD tend to have developmental delays of up to 2 or 3 years, so when you set your expectations to where they are today, they’ll have a better chance of actually achieving them, which in turn will make them feel happy, successful, and confident.
Fortunately, fostering positive behaviors and managing symptoms of ADHD is not as hard as you may think. All it takes are a few small modifications to your parenting strategies, including how you communicate and connect with your little one.
Here are some tips that can help:
Parenting a child with ADHD
Just like realizing that your child — like all kids — is not perfect, it’s also important to understand that you can’t do it all. Yes, your little one needs your undivided support and encouragement, but they also need help from a professional that knows and understands how to treat ADHD.
Don’t be afraid to seek assistance, both for your child or for any member of the family that may need it — including yourself. Or better yet, form a support network with your child’s pediatrician, therapist, school psychologist or guidance counselor, and teacher.
Encourage good behavior with positive reinforcement
Positive reinforcement is a concept in behavioral psychology that has been shown to help teach and promote positive behaviors in kids with ADHD. The goal is to help your child easily identify “good” behaviors and discourage destructive ones.
Managing behavior with positive reinforcement is really simple. You just need to identify the behaviors that should be changed and create a reward system for reinforcing good behavior. Positive reinforcement can be as simple as verbal praises, such as “good job” or “nicely done,” or can take the form of an opportunity to do something they wish, like more minutes watching TV or playing on their tablet. It can also be something more concrete, like a toy or a sticker.
Consistency is key for behavioral management techniques to work, so once you start reinforcing your child’s behavior, you have to stick with it. Rewarding for a behavior one day and doing the opposite the next can be pretty detrimental for kids with ADHD.
Also, it’s important to keep in mind that odd or quirky behaviors like rocking, fidgeting, or doing hand movements that aren’t harmful to your child or anyone else should be accepted as part of who they are. Punishing or discouraging “odd” behaviors just because they’re unusual is ultimately damaging to their self-esteem.
On that note… don’t punish your child for behaviors they can’t control
It’s easy to get distracted by disruptive or “negative” behaviors associated with ADHD. Your child may have a hard time following instructions, or it can feel like he’s flat out ignoring everything you say, which can be understandingly aggravating. But in many cases, kids with ADHD fail to pay attention or comply not out of defiance, but because they may become distracted with another task, or maybe you didn’t have their attention, to begin with.
Inattention is one of the most common symptoms of ADHD, which means that it’s not something they can control. And when you continuously punish or scold a kid for behavior they can’t control, both their self-esteem and their relationship with you suffer. Instead, try to remind them of what you want them to do and practice positive reinforcement when they do so.
Disciplining or punishing should only be appropriate in instances of evident aggression or defiance, and even then, experts recommend resisting the urge to yell or spank, which rarely gets the message across and may even encourage negative behaviors.
Encourage healthy sleep
Sleep problems and ADHD often go hand in hand. Studies show that kids with ADHD tend to sleep fewer hours, have trouble staying asleep at night, and have a higher risk of developing a sleep disorder. And poor sleep also seems to worsen symptoms of ADHD.
In fact, a study in the Journal of Sleep Research looking at the sleep habits of more than 2,000 school-aged children, showed that disorders like dyssomnia (difficulty falling asleep), parasomnias (night terrors, sleep-waking, bedwetting, etc.), and sleep-related breathing problems were all associated with ADHD-like symptoms (hyperactivity, inattention, restlessness) even in children without the condition.
Here are some easy tips you can try to help your child sleep better:
- Cut out all sugar and caffeine at least 3 hours before bedtime
- Avoid screen time (phone, tablet, computer) for an hour before bed
- Steer clear of stimulating activities like running or jumping at night
- Make sure your child gets plenty of exercise throughout the day
- Keep the bedroom dark, cool, and quiet
- Encourage going to bed and waking up at the same time every day
- Develop a nighttime routine that your child enjoys, like reading their favorite book, singing bedtime songs, or taking a warm bath before bed
Don’t rule out medication
Medication can make a huge improvement in ADHD symptoms, especially in disruptive behaviors. But finding the right medication can be a lengthy, uphill journey.
While most ADHD medications are safe and effective for children, some can cause undesirable side effects and worsen sleep problems. It’s also worth noting that medications don’t cure ADHD; the symptoms always come back when the medication wears off. That’s why these treatments should always be used in combination with other ADHD-friendly strategies, like:
- Behavior medicine
- Spending time outside
- Dietary changes
But consider natural supplements as well
Some vitamins, minerals, and herbs can enhance ADHD medications to help improve symptoms of inattention, mood, and support mental health:
- Iron: iron deficiency has been observed to increase the risk of psychiatric disorders, including ADHD. Iron-deficient children and adults who suffer from ADHD may benefit from supplementing with iron to help control their symptoms.
- Magnesium: kids with ADHD tend to have lower levels of magnesium, which is an essential mineral for brain health. In a study evaluating 50 children diagnosed with ADHD, researchers found that those who received a magnesium supplement for six months showed a significant decrease in hyperactive behaviors. Other studies have shown that magnesium can improve insomnia and reduce sleep onset latency.
- Melatonin: while melatonin has not been shown to have any effects on ADHD, this naturally-occurring hormone is a popular ingredient in sleeping aids because it can shorten the time needed to fall asleep and can help regulate the body’s internal clock.
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids: omega-3 fatty acids have been shown to help reduce inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity in children with ADHD. Researchers have also observed that children with ADHD appear to have lower omega-3 levels than their peers.
- Zinc: decreased zinc levels in children have been linked to trouble concentrating, reduced learning abilities, and ADHD. Research suggests that used in combination with amphetamines, zinc may help reduce the dosage needed to treat kids with ADHD.
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