Parenting a Child With ADHD

By Dr. Michael Oberschneider, Ashburn Psychological & Psychiatric Services

Dear Dr. Mike,

My husband thinks I’m harming our son for life because of how I parent. Our son is 12 years old and 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 is, “How will he ever learn to do things for himself if you are always doing everything for him?” Our son isn’t doing great at school these days, so I’m afraid I have to disagree with the hard-knock approach to parenting my husband believes in. Can you advise me 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 the brain’s main area associated with executive functioning and ADHD.

So, if your son has ADHD, he likely has executive functioning struggles and a weak frontal lobe. To that point, you are correct that the parents of a child with ADHD must be more proactive and hands-on. But being aggressive with your son doesn’t mean overmanaging him.

By managing and supporting reasonable expectations consistently and calmly, breaking things down, keeping (and sticking to) a schedule, reinforcing behaviors with rewards and consequences, modeling, 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 do it, right? Wrong. A child with ADHD will often require more structure in these moments. That’s why the parent or parents of a child with ADHD must be reasonable regarding expectations. A child with ADHD may need the expectation or responsibility overly defined initially.

Based on your description, your son likely can do more, but his ADHD interferes. As a loving mother, it seems your solution is to jump in at times to ensure 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 something 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 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 authentic 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 too much information is 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, afternoon, 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 program (e.g., Google Calendar or Apple Calendar) is an excellent way to introduce scheduling to a child. If your son has his 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 essential for children with ADHD. Whether your son uses a paper schedule or an online one, it will work best if he uses it repeatedly and in the same way. Research on forming habits has shown that we can learn a new tradition within a few weeks when consistently practicing the new behavior.

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

In general, children want to do well, and they also want to make their parent or parents proud, so praise is an essential reinforcement tool for parents. So, remember to praise your son generously for reasonable attempts and a job well done. While I disagree entirely with your husband’s position, as you’ve described it, I think children need to learn from their mistakes to learn and grow. Natural consequences are part of life; 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 where he is expected to identify more with his same-sex parent. For preadolescent boys, these are “the shaving cream years” and “the fishing trip years.” This is the time in your son’s life when he will take in his father’s values, beliefs, and views on life in his process toward manhood. Based on what you’ve written, you and your husband don’t see eye to eye on your son’s ADHD. My concern is that your son, at 12 years of age, is aware of this, which could upset him. I recommend that you and your husband discuss how you would like to model your expectations for your son better; your son will do best when he sees his parents being more united in their support of his struggles and well-being.

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