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Training Lions & Tigers:
Discipline and Children with Disabilities
by Pete Wright, Esq.

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"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

Youngsters need consistency and structure.

Don't over-explain. Don't try to use
logic or reasoning to explain why the child needs to clean up his room before he can go out. It doesn't work. 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 just makes 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 and learning disabilities 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 in your and will persist longer the next time.

#2. Establish Clear Standards & Rules

Have clear 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, and "Yes" the next day.

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

#3. Have High Expectations

When a child has a disability, people tend to lower their expectations. Low expectations lead to low performance.

As a parent, you have to work harder and you have to teach your kids work harder to compensate for the disability. Teach them to work hard. Help them develop strategies to use in dealing with the negative characteristics of their disability. If you do this, the child can do better on a task or mission than a child who doesn't have a disability - because you had high expectations and helped them develop useful strategies. .

#4. Teach Your Child to Behave

If we do not expect children to control their behavior and impulses, they won't.

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: "Would you like to go to the waiting room now?"
"Will 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 disabilities 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 your children.

Discipline Techniques

You asked about discipline techniques
. (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.)

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 do work that contributes to the welfare of the family.

When the 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, the mandatory 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. Talking about WHY will not teach the child to take responsibility for his actions. When you ask a child "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. Never ask 'Why?' Instead, 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.

Your next question 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, you can ask questions - but never ask WHY?

Ask these 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 a neurobehavioral disability like ADHD or specific learning disabilities is hard. The child will try your patience. Sometimes, the child will cause you great heartache.

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

Both sons are attorneys.

My older son is an attorney with one of the top law firms in the country. He has won trials, dispositive motions, and appeals in dozens of federal and state cases throughout the country.

He commits time to pro bono matters, including representation of a young man on death row in Alabama. He and his wife have given us three beautiful grandchildren.

My younger son is a JAG officer in the Army and is Airborne qualified. He is currently serving as the aide-de-camp to a General. He was deployed to Iraq in September 2007 and returned in December 2008.Jason after completing airborne school

His interests are in the areas of human rights and constitutional law. He and his wife compete in marathons and triathlons and are martial arts experts.

When my younger son was in college, he got a job as a stevedore / waterman. He worked six days a week, about 70 hours a week. He shoveled, sorted, packed, and loaded several thousand of pounds of fish, crabs, seafood, and ice every day. It was hot, hard, back-breaking work and it paid well.

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, you will often find that the child had a disability.

Learn More

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

Be sure to read Reality Therapy by William Glasser. If your child has ADD/ADHD, read ADD: A Different Perception - A Hunter in a Farmer's World by Thom Hartmann. Have your child read this book too - it will change his or her perspective.

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

If your child has memory problems, there are strategies that can improve memory dramatically. Get a couple of books about how to improve 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: 01/02/09

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