My Child’s Behavior Is off the Charts – Is It Possible To Parent Him?

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Last month, we established that children who have ADHD or other behavioral difficulties present specific challenges in parenting. These children may seem manipulative, attention-seeking, stubborn, or defiant, but you know that they have a very caring and sensitive side to them as well. 

You can successfully parent these kids – without losing your mind or your relationship with them – by tweaking the general parenting advice that you’ve already learned to fit their characteristics. 

As we discussed in previous articles, one fundamental concept in parenting is setting very clear boundaries and sticking to them. This is especially important for kids who are natural black-and-white thinkers and thrive with (and even crave) consistency and structure. They may continuously attempt to negotiate – like all kids, but often more tenaciously – and that is why it is even more crucial to stand your ground, kindly but firmly. Wishy-washiness will be your ultimate undoing! 

To illustrate: an associate of mine once witnessed a clearly non-Jewish woman telling her young child that he couldn’t have the candy at the checkout “because it’s not kosher!” When she saw my associate watching bemusedly, she expressed that that line always worked when Jewish parents used it on their children, so she gave it a try. 

Our children know, from a young age, that we will not buy them non-kosher candy. Full stop. As a result, they won’t argue when we tell them they can’t have it because it’s not kosher. 

That’s how decisive and firm we must be in setting all boundaries. Effective parenting (yes, it needs to be both parents!) depends on the parents’ actions far more than the child’s personality or challenges. 

For the typical child with ADHD, that means working with their black-and-white tendencies by being extra clear and consistent. “Maybe” is not an option for these kids: yes is yes, no is no, and there should not be anything in between. When you make a decision, stick with it and be sure that you and your spouse are both going to be firm. No discussing, no debates, just a yes or no. Logical explanations and reasoning will not work on a child who gets stuck easily or has trouble processing. 

For example: 

You’re dreading your child’s upcoming vacation. She needs constant stimulation and every day off turns into a nightmare. It’s your responsibility to anticipate those difficulties and structure the day. Do not expect her to entertain herself like your other kids can. Plan out the day. It doesn’t have to be grand or exciting, but it must be structured. We’re eating lunch at 12 and going to the supermarket at 2. Let’s make ice cream sandwiches for our afternoon snack and have a Magna-Tiles-building competition in the morning.  

This particular daughter may be able to sit and build incredible castles for hours, but she needs you to facilitate it. Just be sure to stick with the structure and routine that you put in place, even if your nature is more laid-back. She needs to see that your word is your word. And if you are truly unable to provide the structure that she craves on her day off, expect there to be fighting, destructiveness, or other negative behaviors! Remember: this is “normal” for your child. Don’t expect her to be who she isn’t. Keeping your expectations realistic will prevent frustration. 

Those realistic expectations extend into your everyday parenting and discipline. Know what works for your child and work with that. For these kids, it’s fairly simple: motivating a behavior needs an incentive attached, and restricting a behavior needs consistent consequences that fit the behavior. Because effective incentives and consequences vary among cultures, homes, and children, it may be a good idea to consult with a professional to determine which incentives and consequences would be most effective. 

Children with ADHD thrive in environments with structure, stimulation, and rewards and consequences. You may need to work with your child’s school to ensure that he is placed in the appropriate class, with a structured and firm teacher who is willing to work with his needs. 

Contrary to popular belief, ADHD is one of the most underdiagnosed conditions in children, despite the fact that it’s often easily treatable with evidence-based methods. While proper parenting is critical, for most people with ADHD, medication is life changing. A child who spends all day unable to perform, behave appropriately, or get along with others will inevitably experience low self-esteem and negative behaviors, like addiction and other emotion-numbing tactics, remaining mired in a mindset of “I’m going to fail.” The right medication can completely alter his or her life – now and in the future.

Dr. Yossi Shafer, PhD is the Clinical Director and a clinical psychologist at Empower Health Center, a private practice of multispecialty psychotherapists. They have offices in Deal/Long Branch and Lakewood and can be reached at (732) 666-9898 or office@empowerhealthcenter.net.