Old School Discipline Doesn't Work For Kids With ADHD

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
Rachel Garlinghouse/Instagram

I grew up in the 1980s and 90s. I owned a Caboodle, scrunchies, My Little Ponies, and Lip Smackers. My siblings and I enjoyed watching Family Matters, listening to NKOTB, and playing Barbies. Because we spent so much time together, we argued—a lot. We would frequently wind up standing in the corners of the dining room, waiting for the oven timer to go off. On rare occasions, our infraction would equate getting a spanking. When we got older, my parents would ground us from calling friends on our landline or meeting up with them at the mall on Friday nights.

When my husband and I discussed starting a family, we decided that we weren’t going to spank our kids. However, when our first child arrived and hit the dreaded threenager years, we did resort to the ever-popular time-out. We added a second child to our family and continued using time-outs, as well as firm talking-tos. Two years later, our son was born—meaning we had three kids under the age of five.

Four years later, we adopted a fourth child, completing our family. Around this same time, one of our older kids was officially diagnosed with ADHD. I already knew something was up before the doctor rendered her verdict. My child had struggled for several years with hyperactivity, sensory meltdowns, and a serious lack of focus.

We quickly learned that the old school parenting we grew up with–nor the contemporary go-to of issuing time outs–were going to cut it. It seemed like every bit of discipline and redirection we tried with our child with ADHD was ineffective. Whether we raised our voices, lowered our voices, instituted rest time, mandated more outdoor play, offered rewards, or rendered punishments, we were met with resistance, tears, yelling, and anger.

Those early years felt like an endless game of cat and mouse—and I don’t know who was the cat and who was the mouse. Occasionally, we’d have a victory, but when we tried the same technique the next day, or even the next hour, it wouldn’t work. My husband and I couldn’t seem to get on the same page, each blaming the other when yet another epic ADHD meltdown happened. We felt trapped in an endless cycle of frustration.

Our child’s doctor suggested occupational therapy. We were all for giving it a whirl, until our insurance company rejected coverage. There were medication options, but our doctor felt it wasn’t time to try those quite yet. Most ADHD medications have two main side effects: decreased appetite and disrupted sleep. Both of which sounded brutal. We were in a wait-and-see season.

As we began researching ADHD and how we could help our child, we received plenty of unsolicited, misguided advice. Just give our kid a good spanking, many said. Some natural-minded parents suggested CBD oil, caffeine, chiropractic care, and a gluten-free diet could all replace ADHD medications. Several MLM ambassadors attempted to sell us their sworn cure—essential oils.

I didn’t want to simply improve my child’s ADHD struggles. I wanted to make sure we could create and sustain a healthy and trusting parent-child relationship. In that moment, we were far from that. As parents, we felt like everything was out of our control and our entire family was suffering. We realized our child couldn’t help that they had ADHD—and we weren’t blaming them or ourselves. What was most upsetting? We were supposed to be the adults, and we had no clue what to do next. How could we restore peace in our family and raise a confident, empowered, happy child?

The more I researched—while ignoring all the bad advice—I began to arrive at the answer we’d been yearning for. There was something within our parental control—how we responded to our child. The reality is, ADHD isn’t going away. Therefore, we needed to stop taking the child’s refusals, like putting on their shoes or picking up their room, personally. Taking struggles to heart was only hampering our success. It was time to simultaneously toughen up and soften up, but in ways we weren’t accustomed to.

The first time we dug into connective parenting, I was skeptical. To be honest, the idea of ditching reward charts, time-outs, threats, and groundings from-technology felt “hippie-ish” to me. How in the world would a time-in—where we stayed by the child until they were regulated—help? Connective parenting emphasizes finding the “why” behind the behavior rather than simply reacting to the behavior. I had to become a detective—an empathetic investigator—instead of simply being a reactor.

There are a lot of perks to connective parenting, one of which is that there are no more delayed punishments. This doesn’t mean there aren’t natural consequences. Instead of taking my child’s tablet away for three days as a punishment for throwing and breaking a toy, the natural consequence is that the toy is broken. We also work to be proactive, identifying feelings before they get to the dreaded point-of-no-return and coming alongside our child to problem solve.

Understanding the importance of connective parenting has also helped me have much more empathy for my child. Many friends of kids with ADHD, as well as professionals, have told me that children who struggle to focus and are overly active have to work much harder to stay emotionally and physically regulated than a typically developing child. Essentially, living with ADHD is incredibly difficult and exhausting. Kids with ADHD often feel like they are bad kids—because adults and peers often react so negatively to the behaviors the child cannot help.

Spanking a child with ADHD will only heighten their already on-edge anger. Plus, it makes zero sense to swat an angry child out of parental anger. Anger plus anger just equals more anger. Delayed punishments only increase the child’s drive to perseverate–that is, to fixate on a single topic or object. Yelling creates a more volatile atmosphere, making the already sensory-overloaded child more overloaded. The old school parenting methods simply do not work.

Connective parenting isn’t a cure or magical solution for ADHD or any other special need. However, connective parenting is a way to create some consistency and predictability that wouldn’t exist otherwise. Yes, we still have difficult days. The difference is that now, we’re a team instead of adversaries.

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