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You’re Going to Need Bigger Carrots: Middle-School Discipline Truths - #ADHD

When your child gets to middle school — notoriously tough years as kids figure out who they are outside of their parents’ influence while managing ADHD — you may need to tweak your behavior management plan to focus more on independence and age-appropriate rewards.


Middle school students with ADHD are creative, funny, and delightful. They are also oversensitive, overdramatic, often hyperactive and fidgety, forgetful, messy, and impulsive. All that spells trouble. All that requires discipline — not just rewards and punishments, but a learning process that leads to self-discipline.

Guide your child to recognize that good behavior and wise choices have natural rewards, while bad behavior and poor choices have undesirable consequences. Then let him choose.

1. Ask more, tell less. When your exuberant middle-schooler begins to tell you something hilarious that happened at school, you’re delighted because lately she’s been sharing less with you. She’s punctuating her story by dribbling a basketball in place. Then, at the punch line, she fakes a jump shot that gets away from her, and the ball crashes into a stack of dishes. “Sorry, Mom. I forgot,” she says. The rule is well known: no playing ball in the house.

In addition to deliberate misbehavior, kids with ADHD often do things they don’t even realize they are doing, like touching things they aren’t supposed to touch or bouncing balls. They forget a lot. You understand that. The consequences you established still stand.

You might ask the ball bouncer, “What’s the rule?” or point to the door. If something has been broken, you ask, “What are you going to do about this?” When she sheepishly says, “Clean up the pieces.” You say, “What else?” The rule may be that she pays for the damage. Telling you the consequence makes a stronger impression than your reminding her.

2. Permit your child to be all-in. You see that your son wants more freedom. What you may not recognize is that he hopes to see a demonstration of your confidence in him. Giving him options, instead of making demands, shows your confidence. Accepting his choices shows your confidence, too.

You may ask if he wants to propose an additional, better consequence of his own that you can accept or reject. He may surprise you with something acceptable that you can both live with. “Try it and see if it works,” you say, ending with a decision in which he has had some freedom of choice and input.

3. Choose your battles. Let your kid wear (almost) whatever she wants, however outlandish the combinations are, to any but the most formal occasions. Let her experiment with her own body no matter how neon green her hair may be; “experiment” means doing nothing permanent without your permission. While your positive form of discipline does not mean no rules, reasonable freedom to choose their own styles now helps stave off rebellion later.

Sean had been begging his father to take him to a gaming arcade one weekend. In fact, his dad worried about how much time his son spent playing computer games. He wished Sean would spend more time being physically active. So he offered the boy a choice: one afternoon at the arcade or a season of martial arts lessons, of whichever type he liked. Sean checked out several types and places for lessons on the computer and chose the lessons over the arcade.

4. Show that you expect the best. Consider starting the middle school years or a new year by offering the child a freedom she has not had before but will likely handle well.

Thirteen-year-old Keisha was allowed to fly by herself for the first time to visit her grandparents. Letting her travel on her own demonstrated her parents’ confidence in her. Her parents sent Keisha off with adequate instructions, and let her know that the safety net they had always provided was now available from the airline staff. Kids often rise to their parents’ positive expectations.

Afterward, both parents complimented Keisha on how she handled the new experience, but didn’t overdo it. Let the experience of a new freedom, and the successful handling of new responsibilities, reinforce the desire to make wise decisions.


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