Parenting a Child With ADHD

By Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Ashburn Psychological & Psychiatric Services

Dear Dr. Mike,

My husband thinks that I’m harming our son for life because of the way I parent. Our son is 12-years-old, and he was diagnosed with ADHD in the 1st grade. My husband calls me “the enabler” because I admittedly double or triple check things for our son, give him constant reminders, and stay up late with him to get homework and projects done.

My husband’s approach to parenting our son is to leave him alone to fail. My husband’s favorite line to me these days is “how will he ever learn how to do things for himself if you are always doing everything for him?” Our son isn’t doing great at school these days already so I cannot agree with the hard knocks approach to parenting my husband believes in so much. Can you give me some advice on how to get through to my husband that being hands-on is a must when parenting a child with ADHD? Your input is appreciated.

Dear Concerned Parent,

All children with ADHD, to varying degrees, struggle with mastering executive functioning skills and abilities — attention/concentration, organizing, initiating tasks, working memory, impulsivity, planning and prioritizing, self-monitoring, reasoning, and exercising good judgment. The prefrontal cortex is considered to be the main area of the brain associated with executive functioning and ADHD.

So, if your son has ADHD, he likely has executive functioning struggles and a weak frontal lobe, so to speak. To that point, you are right that the parents of a child with ADHD need to be more proactive and more hands-on. But being proactive with your son doesn’t mean over managing him.

By managing and supporting reasonable expectations consistently and calmly, by breaking things down, by keeping (and sticking to) a schedule, by reinforcing behaviors with rewards and consequences, by modeling, by being supportive and loving, and by repeating, repeating, repeating, you can do a lot as parents to bring about change for your child.

Manage & Support Reasonable Expectations Consistently
It’s not uncommon for a parent of a child with ADHD to have disagreements with their child. That’s because the parent (who most often does not have ADHD) may not always appreciate what it’s like to have executive functioning struggles. If you ask your son to do his homework, for example, he should just do it, right? Wrong. A child with ADHD will often require more structure in these sorts of moments. That’s why it’s important for the parent or parents of a child with ADHD to be reasonable when it comes to expectations. And a child with ADHD may need the said expectation or responsibility overly defined initially.

Based on what you’ve described, your son likely has the capacity to do more, but his ADHD is interfering. As a loving mother, it seems that your solution is to jump in at times to make sure things get done. But this approach is upsetting your husband, and to his point, you may be doing more for your son than you should be. Here’s a thought — instead of doing things for your son, do things with your son. So, when it comes to homework, you could sit with your son while he does it and assist only when necessary. If he has chores, you can do your own household tasks alongside your son while he completes his own. By managing and supporting your son consistently in this way, he will internalize the success he experienced in these moments, and over time, this will allow for real learning and change to occur.

Break Things Down
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental condition that impacts information processing, and children with ADHD tend to get overwhelmed when there is too much information coming in at one time. Thus, keeping things simple for your son should also lead to good results. One way to do this would be to break things down for your son across his day where he would have a well-defined morning, after school, and evening plan or routine.

Keep & Stick to a Schedule
Children with ADHD typically benefit from having a schedule to stay on top of things. In today’s technology-driven world, having an online schedule (e.g., Google Calendar or Apple Calendar), is a good way to introduce scheduling to a child. If your son has his own phone, for instance, you and your son could color-code his activities and responsibilities into his day on the phone, and you and your son could even program reminders or alarms. If your son doesn’t yet have a smartphone at 12, you could use a computer or a laptop to help him with organization, time management, and task completion.

Sticking to a schedule can be difficult when life gets busy, but it’s very important for children with ADHD. Whether your son uses a paper schedule or an online one, it will work best if he uses it over and over and over again and in the same way. Research on forming habits has shown that we can learn a new habit within just a few weeks when we practice the new behavior consistently.

Reinforce Behaviors with Praise, Rewards, & Consequences
It’s human nature to want new things, and it’s also human nature to want to keep the things that we have and like. Rewarding your son for a job well done will get him some of the things that he wants, and over time, it will also help him to feel better about himself. Thus, rewarding good behavior creates a win: win dynamic; there’s both an external positive (good behavior = getting things or keeping things) and there’s an internal positive (getting things = feeling good about oneself and oneself in relation to important others).

In general, children want to do well, and they also want to make their parent or parents proud, so praise is a very important reinforcement tool for parents. So, remember to praise your son generously for good attempts and a job well done. While I don’t agree entirely with your husband’s position as you’ve described it, I think children do need to learn from their mistakes in order to learn and grow. Natural consequences are part of life, and protecting your son from them is not good.

There’s an old saying, “Do as I say, and not as I do,” and even the best parents fall prey to this sort of moment with their children from time to time. But as a general rule, this is a horrible way to parent since children learn, in large part, from watching their parents.

At 12, your son is developmentally at an age and period in his life where he is expected to identify more with his same-sex parent. For preadolescent boys, these are what I call, “the shaving cream years” and, “the fishing trip years.” This is the time in your son’s life where he will be taking in his father’s values, beliefs, and views on life in his own process toward manhood. Based on what you’ve written, it seems that you and your husband don’t see eye to eye on your son’s ADHD. My concern then is that your son, at 12 years of age, is aware of this, which could be upsetting to him. I recommend that your husband and you discuss the ways you would like to better model your expectations for your son; your son will do best when he sees his parents being more united in their support of his struggles and wellbeing.

Be Supportive & Loving
As you likely know, ADHD strategies are typically behavioral, but encouraging your son to express his thoughts and feelings is also important. At 12, your son needs to understand what it means for him to have ADHD, and behavior strategies alone will not lead to increased self-awareness or insight. He needs to be able to talk about the negative feelings he might be experiencing that are associated with his struggles, and he needs your support, guidance, and loving feedback as parents to do (and feel) better. Sharing some of your own struggles from childhood with your son can also be a supportive and loving parent intervention.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat
When it comes to changing or improving behaviors, children with ADHD benefit from lots of practice and repetition. Whatever agreed-upon expectations you and your husband end up putting in place for your son, there will likely be plenty of trial and error, so remember to be patient. Just like we might do push-ups to make our chest and arm muscles stronger, children with ADHD need to do frontal lobe push-ups, so to speak, to strengthen their executive functioning skills and abilities.

I hope that my suggestions here help you and your husband to move from a place of disagreement to a place of agreement regarding your son’s ADHD. If things don’t improve for your son within a reasonable period of time, I recommend that you seek out the assistance of a child psychologist who specializes in ADHD. That professional can work closely with your son (and you as parents) to address your concerns and your son’s needs.