By Rebecca Tyler, Connections in Mind
Parenting a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) can be an extremely rewarding experience; their boundless energy, sense of humour, creativity and enthusiasm for life is unparalleled. However, it can also be extremely challenging and frustrating at times, both for you as a parent and for your child. By making a few adjustments to the parenting strategies you use to interact and react to your child, you can provide them with the tools they need to effectively manage their own behaviour, improve their social skills and increase the likelihood of success in education and throughout their adult life1.
One approach that has been successful in reducing the intensity of behavioural challenges in children with ADHD is using a positive parenting approach2. This approach aims to build self-esteem and improve behaviour using strategies such as giving detailed instructions, setting clear expectations and positive attention. However, understanding how ADHD affects your child and their executive functioning is a crucial first step in this approach that will enable you to identify their difficulties and recognise that your child really does have reduced control over their actions and their behaviour.
How does ADHD affect my child and their executive functioning?
Whilst the exact causes of ADHD are not yet fully understood, we do recognise a number of ways that ADHD affects the brain. ADHD has been linked to an underlying neurotransmitter deficiency, specifically a deficiency in norepinephrine3. As norepinephrine is a stress hormone that affects attention and also acts as a neurotransmitter that communicates with the brain, low levels of this neurotransmitter can result in inattention, poor focus and distractibility, common symptoms reported in children with ADHD4.
Additionally, children with ADHD often have impairments in several areas of executive functioning5. Residing in the prefrontal cortex of the brain, executive functions are higher-level mental processes that direct all behaviours, thoughts and emotions. Reduced levels of norepinephrine can impair the functioning of the prefrontal cortex which can present externally as symptoms of ADHD including impulsivity and locomotor hyperactivity6. This has a major impact on your child’s ability to perform tasks such as planning, organising, paying attention, remembering directions and in controlling their emotional reactions. Sound familiar?
The key point here is that your child may not be able to control their behaviour. Reacting in a negative and punitive way time after time will actually reduce the effectiveness of the punishment7. It can also confuse your child if you’ve accumulated a wide variety of different punitive measures (e.g. yelling, threatening, giving a time-out, taking away toys. etc). Although defiance is not a symptom of ADHD, it can occur as a result of ADHD symptoms.
Implementing positive parenting strategies into your family routine will have numerous benefits including increased confidence and knowledge as a parent, in addition to healthier relationships and more positive and consistent interactions with your family8.
What are the positive parenting strategies I should use to help my child?
Give effective instructions.
As children with ADHD struggle with executive functions such as attentional control and working memory they often have difficulty following and remembering instructions. When giving them instruction you need to make sure you have their full attention. Being physically close to your child, maintaining eye-contact and removing all immediate distractions can help you achieve this. You should also break down their instructions into small, direct steps and assign them one task at a time (e.g. “eat your breakfast”, “put your shoes on”, “get your bag”). This will make it easier for them to understand what you want them to do.
Another useful strategy is repeating your instructions only once. The long term benefit of this is that your child will learn to listen to the instruction the first time as they know it will not be repeated again. If you do need to repeat the instruction then use a calm tone and try not to get impatient if they are having difficulty following you. By using these positive parenting strategies to deliver instruction, you promote self-motivation in your child and facilitate the development of their executive function skills by allowing them to engage in problem-solving, goal-directed behaviour and self-regulation (i.e. their ability to monitor their own performance and reflect on it)9.
Give them positive attention.
On days where perhaps you’ve had a particularly stressful morning, it is not uncommon for parents to overlook their child’s positive behaviours. When you see your child behaving in a desirable way make sure you give them positive attention. Positive attention can be in the form of verbal praise, high-fives, hugs or other positive physical contact. Using positive attention will not only positively reinforce that behaviour, but will be more effective in changing other non-compliant behaviours than if you had used negative attention2. To facilitate a growth mindset in your child (i.e. the belief that they can improve their intelligence, ability and performance with effort and with the right strategies.), praise them for effort, progress, rising to challenges and for persevering.
Psychological research has shown that parental praise and displays of affection model good self-regulation for your child and will promote their core executive functions; working memory, inhibitory control and cognitive flexibility10. Strong executive function development in these areas will further support their ability to problem solve and make decisions, be organised and make plans to reach their goals. In turn, negative attention can have a negative impact on your child’s development10. As a parent, learning how to control negative outbursts and avert unrestrained conflict is essential. You also need to remember that praise is important for children with ADHD as they typically get so little of it, even when they have behaved well11.
Discipline using positive attention.
So how does this approach work in challenging situations? There will be times when your child does need to be held responsible for their behaviour. When it comes to discipline, there are a number of strategies you can use to discipline effectively and reduce the frequency of that non-compliant behaviour.
As children with ADHD are very routine-oriented, one way to reduce the frequency of non-compliant behaviour is to create a clear daily schedule that they can visualise. Setting expectations of what they need to do and when will create a warning system, making it easier for them to understand why they are being reprimanded if they are not compliant with instructions. Establishing a routine will support their executive function development including task initiation, sustained effort, goal-directed persistence, planning and prioritisation. These are essential life skills that are associated with academic success, happiness and wellbeing12.
If your child does misbehave then one of the most important things you need to do is stay calm. Demonstrating self-calming techniques (e.g. deep breaths, leaving the room) can help them learn how they should manage and control their own emotions. If you lose your temper then your child will not only learn that behaviour but will only respond to you once you have reacted in that same emotional state. In fact, this type of reaction is unlikely to prevent the behaviour from reoccurring as you are inadvertently reinforcing that behaviour by giving it attention.
Only address the event once everyone is calm. It is quite common for children with ADHD to develop cycles of negative behaviour patterns that escalate in severity. This is in response to years of negative parent-child interactions in which both the parent and child attempt to control one another’s behaviour through negative reinforcement13. Instead, use positive attention to acknowledge and validate their feelings. Reflecting back on their emotional experience with them whilst reaffirming your expectations as a parent will serve as reassuring but also remind them of your boundaries. Consistency in these approaches will be key to seeing concrete changes in their behaviour and will lay the foundations for strong executive function development that will help them learn, develop and flourish.
How can Connections in Mind help?
At Connections in Mind, we are a team dedicated and caring ADHD and executive function coaching experts. Through our Coaching for Independent Learning programme, our coaches combine their expertise and knowledge acquired through experience and education with strategies based on the latest empirical research to create bespoke coaching programmes tailored to individual client needs. Whether your child struggles with organisation, time-management or emotional control, they can work one to one with one of our amazing coaches to address their executive function challenges and develop new strategies so that they can flourish personally and academically. You can read testimonials from our clients here.
As our Coaching for Independent Learning programme is most effective when combined with our online Connected Minds Parenting course, when you enrol your child on our coaching programme by the 15th of May 2020, you will get access to our online Connected Minds Parenting course online for £50, that’s two thirds off the original price! Watch our Connected Minds Parenting course video here.
To gain access to this offer, or help you understand the coaching process and to find a bespoke programme that works for you or your child, book a free consultation call with Sarah, one of our executive function coaching experts today.
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