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Training Lions & Tigers:
Discipline and the Child with ADHD
The Letter to Bobbie
by Pete Wright, Esq.

Bobbie asks: "My 11 year old son has ADHD. I am looking for parenting help. I don't know how to discipline him. I'm lost and looking for tips and suggestions."

Pete answers:

I can tell you how I raised my boys - both had ADHD and learning disabilities. I learned a lot about raising kids over the years. My experiences may be helpful to you. This article includes my own 4 Rules for Raising Children and a progress report on my boys.

#1. Provide Consistency & Structure

These youngsters need consistency and structure.

Don't over explain. Teach the child to "do it because I said so." Don't try to use
logic or reasoning to explain why the child needs to clean up his room before he can go out. The child will perseverate about the extreme injustice of being required to clean up his room. Discussing it and trying to reason with the child will just make things worse.

If you allow yourself to get into an argument with these children, they will become convinced that they are right.

You need to understand that most kids with ADD/ADHD love to argue - they find it stimulating. Arguments go on and on, ad nauseam, until they wear you down. Don't allow that to happen - they will view it as a sign of weakness and will persist longer the next time.

#2. Establish Clear Standards & Rules

Have clear black and white standards about right and wrong. Apply these standards consistently. When you are raising children, don't get into shades of gray.

You can't say "No" one day, then "Yes" the next day.

If you do, you will teach them to persist until you give up or give in. We often allow children with ADHD to misbehave and get away with bad behavior because we believe they cannot control their behavior. This is not true!

#3. Have High Expectations

Because a child has ADHD, we often lower our expectations. If we do not expect them to control their behavior and their impulses, they won't.

Low expectations lead to low performance. As a parent, you have to work harder and you have to make the kids work harder because of their ADHD. Teach them to work hard. Help them develop strategies to use in dealing with the negative characteristics of ADHD. If you do this, the child with ADD/ADHD can do better on a task or mission than a child who doesn't have ADHD - because your expectations are high.

#4. Teach Your Child to Behave

An old friend of ours was a pediatric neurologist from India who moved to the United States. When Dr. Hazra talked to parent groups, she shared her reactions to child-raising practices in the U.S. In her family, and with her children, her word was law. She never had to raise her voice.

She was astounded when she heard American parents ask their children questions like this: "Would you like to go to the waiting room now?" "Would you please finish your dinner now?"

When Dr. Hazra talked to parent groups, she told this story:

"Picture a big three-ring circus with thousands of screaming children, a blaring public address system, and flashing lights. Now, picture several huge elephants trotting around the ring. What are these elephants doing?

These huge animals are climbing onto small pedestals that may be two feet in diameter. While they stand on the pedestals, they perform a series of behaviors on cue - despite the chaos and distractions around them.

Visualize the circus ring again. Look at the lions and tigers - what are they doing? The lions and tigers have been taught to jump through hoops of flame."

Dr. Hazra said "If we can teach elephants, lions and tigers to behave in public, we can certainly teach our children with ADHD to behave in public too."

You need to reward positive behavior, use negative consequences for negative behavior, be consistent, be alert, use tough love, and have high expectations for these children.

Discipline Techniques

You asked about discipline techniques

When my children were young, I used isolation and spanking. (I have received a few angry emails about this over the years. I make no apologies about how I raised my boys, so please don't bother to scold me.)


Consider the toddler who is playing electrician and takes Daddy's screwdriver to fix the electrical outlets. The child is attempting to remove the plastic guards by sticking the screwdriver into the AC electrical socket.

Under these circumstances, the child needs a spanking. Why?

Children with ADD/ADHD are intensely curious - this is one reason they find themselves in dangerous situations so often. The children are also persistent so they repeat behavior. Eventually, this child will figure out how to remove the plastic guard you installed in the AC wall socket. After removing the plastic guard, the child will insert the screwdriver into the socket with tragic results.

You want the child's fear of another spanking to outweigh their curiosity. The alternative may be a dangerous shock or electrocution.

Isolation & Boredom

For short term or minor discipline, I used isolation and boredom. The child had to sit in the bathroom for 10, 15, or 30 minutes, depending on the seriousnesss of the offense. Usually, the child was allowed to take a book or magazine but nothing else.

I set the timer and said:

"If you stick your head out to ask if your time is up before it is up, I will reset the timer again. If I forget that you are in there and your time is up, and you stick your head out, the timer starts over again. Sorry. Life is not fair. It's better that you learn this now."

If the incident was more serious, I did not allow the child to take any reading material into the bathroom. Since they were curious and desired stimulation, sitting in a small empty bathroom was boring. From their perspective, boredom made isolation worse so it was an effective punishment.

Depending on the child's age and misbehavior, discipline also included no telephone calls, no going out with friends, no friends over, no car for the weekend ("Sorry you have to cancel your date with that gorgeous girl you've been chasing all year. You're right - life is unfair - unpredictable too. You'll live through it.")

Four Rules for Raising Children

Here are the four rules I used when raising my children.

1. The child had to work.

Children need to learn that their work contributes to the welfare of the family.

When a child was young and we went to the store, the child had to carry a
bag or two into the house. When they were a little older, they didn't ask - they just picked up bags and helped.

When they grew tall enough to reach the sink, they had to help wash the dishes.

When they were teenagers, they had to earn their spending money. They cut grass, did odd jobs in the neighborhood, delivered pizza, you name it.

2. No television or telephone in a child's room, ever.

In addition to a bed, each child's room had a desk, bookcases, and lots of books.

3. The child learned to touch-type at home.

Each child learned to touch-type at home. We used a typing software program like Mavis Beacon for 15-30 minutes a day. It took about three months for the child to learn to type 30 words per minute. This is an excellent activity for the summer.

Use a chart to graph the child's progress in typing. Charts make progress real.

When the child reached intermediate goals, they received small rewards. After they could type 30 wpm consistently, typing lessons ended. Eight years of age is not too young to start. Do not expect that the child will learn to touch type at school. Schools are not consistent. Teach this skill at home.

4. Never ask"WHY?"

When my children misbehaved or messed up, I never asked them "WHY did you . . . ?" 

Why did you come home an hour late? Why did you come home with alcohol on your breath? Why didn't you clean up your room? Why did you leave a mess in the kitchen? Why didn't you finish your homework? Why did you finger-paint on the walls?

When the parent asks a child WHY?, the child learns to create good excuses, shifts blame onto others, views himself or herself as a "victim of circumstances" -- and not does not learn to take responsibility for his or her behavior.

Talking about WHY the child misbehaved will not teach the child that he has control over himself, his environment and his future. This will not teach him to take responsibility for his actions. When you ask "Why," it's easy to slip in some guilt - "Why did you do this? You upset me so much. You made me feel terrible."

Stay away from guilt.

Before my first child was born, I worked in juvenile training schools. I read a book called Reality Therapy by psychologist William Glasser. This book changed the way I dealt with the kids I worked with and it changed how I viewed my job as a parent.

Dr. Glasser wrote:

"Eliminate the word 'why' from your vocabulary in dealing with child behavior. So often, children don't know 'why.' They acted because 'I felt like doing it' and they don't really know why. You should never ask 'Why?' Instead, you should ask 'What did you do?'"

Have the child explain what he or she did. Have him describe his behaviors, starting at the beginning, through the sobs, the tears, and the temper when sobs and tears don't work. Break the incident down into small steps. Do not focus on "why."

As a parent, you want to know why. Don't give into your curiosity.

Go over the incident until it is very clear what happened, when, etc.

The next questions is "What are you going to do about it?"

What are you going to do about your misbehavior, or your impulses, or your anger so this does not happen again?

The third question is: How can we make sure this will not happen again?

What checks and balances will you put in place to ensure that it will not happen again?

What punishment should we use now?

What should we do if this happens again?

Will we have a battle about it? If we do, what additional punishment shall we initiate if we have to fight with you about doing this again, and not following through as you said you would?

When the child misbehaves, ask questions - but never ask WHY?

Ask these four questions instead:

  • What did you do?
  • What are you going to do about it?
  • To ensure that this does not happen again, what should we do to you now?
  • If this does happen again, despite your good intentions now, how much more severe shall the punishment be next time?

In Summation

Raising a child with ADD and/or LD is hard. They try your patience. Sometimes, they cause you great heartache.

When I was raising my children, many people said I was too hard on them. Was I? How did they turn out?

Today, both sons are attorneys.

I am very proud of my sons. They both have strong work ethics. They are responsible and have empathy for others, including people with disabilities. Neither views himself as having any adverse traits from ADD or LD.

I know I am a successful attorney because of my ADHD and LD. Without these "problems" to overcome, I would not have the obsessive compulsive, perseverative, highly creative mind that enables me to be a successful trial lawyer. In our training programs, I describe my personal experiences - and the difficulties my parents had in raising me.

If you teach your children good habits and self discipline, they will be successful and may change the world in positive ways. When you look at the early childhood histories of people who changed the world in positive ways, you will often discover that the child had ADD/ADHD and/or LD.

Learn More

I highly recommend parenting books by Tom Phelan, especially 1-2-3 Magic.

Be sure to read Reality Therapy by William Glasser and ADD: A Different Perception - A Hunter in a Farmer's World by Thom Hartmann.

Teachers should read 1-2-3 Magic for Teachers: Effective Classroom Discipline Pre-K through Grade 8.

If your child has memory problems (and most people with ADD/ADHD do) get a couple of books about how to improve your memory by Harry Lorayne.

Start with The Memory Book: The Classic Guide to Improving Your Memory at Work, at School, and at Play and Super Memory - Super Student: How to Raise Your Grades in 30 Days.

I've used Harry Lorayne's memory techniques and they work.

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Created: 05/08/98
Last revised: 02/11/19

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