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Why Punishments Don’t Work for ADHD Kids (But What Works Better!)

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Kids do well if they can, but lacking skills to better, they have meltdowns. Why punishments don’t work (hint: they don't teach problem-solving skills!)  www.thedistractedmom.com/why-punishments-dont-work/

Anyone with an ADHD child can relate to this story:


Last weekend, I took the kids (I’ll call them Mimi and Man Cub) to the local bookshop in town. It’s a nice place for a hot cocoa, where you can look at robot kits and roam around for awhile. It makes for a nice morning out. I told the kids that we’d just look around.  (dun dun duuuuun!)

But then my son saw a first aid kit that he just had to have. It had tweezers and band aids and a mini-scissors in a small red tin with a white cross on it. I quietly reminded him of what I’d said about not buying anything, but I could see it was futile. Anticipating his reaction, his sister and I began heading for the exit as he started yelling.

“It’s not fair!”

“This is the WORST!”


These are the moments that are the most trying as a parent. They test your patience, they challenge your confidence, and they make you wonder if you’re possibly a total failure.

What kind of a kid hates their parent?!

Man Cub followed me into the street, screaming. He cried all the way to the car, and he stood outside the car for a few seconds, stomping his feet and repeating himself.

“It’s not fair! It’s not fair!”

His sister and I sat waiting for him to get inside the car. People on the street stared at the scene. It was awful. 

Internally, I was stomping my own feet, screaming, “What’s not fair is that I can’t even go to thebookstore on a Saturday morning without having to take part in terrorist negotiations with aspoiled seven-year-old! Get in the effing car you brat!”

 Externally, I sat stony-faced.


I reminded his sister to do the same.

 After a minute, he got in the car. He continued grumbling and whining while I drove home, which was thankfully only a few minutes away. When we got home, I told him he had to go to his room.

 “After you chill out, we can talk about it.”

 He refused, which is typical. I told him that he could sit in the car alone until he was ready to go to his room (which is upstairs in the house), but he would not be allowed to be downstairs with us until he did as he was asked. His sister and I went in.



My first job out of nursing school was at a psychiatric hospital.  I worked with an acute inpatient population, so I learned a lot about working with people in crisis.  A few things that I took away:

1. When people are really upset, they aren’t rational. This is not the time to lecture. You are wasting your time trying to teach a child a lesson or negotiate with them when they’re in a rage or in the middle of a crying jag.

2. An angry person is a force to be reckoned with. You will never convince someone not to be angry, and efforts to overpower them will make them far angrier.  Methods to physically restrain a child are only appropriate if they are  a real, physical danger to themselves or others.

3. To de-escalate, try removing the audience. People will calm down a lot quicker with no one to witness the drama because it’s both less embarrassing for them and it eliminates the positive feedback from the attention factor (if that is what they are after).


After 10 minutes, Man Cub came in the house a bit calmer and said we could talk. Doubting this, I asked if he was ready to discuss what happened at the store and why it was a problem. This renewed his anger and he started yelling again. I walked him up to his room as he reminded me how awful I am.

Deep breaths.-

I reminded myself that I always wanted to be a mother. I told him he needed to stay in his room for awhile until he could talk to me calmly and respectfully.

In our house, we have a rule.

We all have feelings and we can talk about our feelings openly, but we cannot scream at people or cry loudly downstairs in the living area. Our bedrooms are where we go if we are not in control. This goes for all of us, me included. So if I find myself losing my patience with the kids, I tell them that I need some time-out, and I go to my room. Sometimes parents need a time-out, too! This makes it less of a punishment and more of a reminder that we need to give ourselves time to calm down. It also creates boundaries.

The whole household should not be held hostage because of one person’s meltdown.2

Man Cub called down to me three times over the course of an hour and a half, and the first two times he lost his temper when he tried to talk. That was my cue to tell him that I’d be back soon. I said it calmly and rubbed his back. This was not a punishment. I was waiting to process this with him when he was ready. The third time, he was.

Man Cub: “This is hard, Mama.”

Me: “I know, Baby.”

Many people consider the job done when their child has regained control, but I think that what follows is the most important part. This is when we can actually learn something.  Both of us.

The whole household should not be held hostage because of one person’s meltdown.

Why ADHD Kids Have Meltdowns


Children with ADHD have a hard time sorting through their thoughts. The impulsivity that is a hallmark symptom  of ADHD means that they frequently act on their thoughts before they process them. Even afterward, it can be difficult for them to identify the feelings or put into words what was frustrating them, making problem-solving challenging.

Dr. Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child: A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children, created a method called collaborative and proactive solutions, based on the idea “kids do well if they can.” This is the common-sense but almost revolutionary concept that children want to do well, get along, and be loved. They are social beings, and if they have the skills necessary, they do not choose to be unhappy, angry, and to disappoint their parents!

Dr. Greene asserts that challenging behaviors occur when the demands being placed on a child exceed his capacity to respond adaptively due to lagging skills.

This means that Man Cub would maintain control of his temper if he was able, but he lacks the skills to identify his frustrations and problem solve quickly, so he gets overwhelmed and has a meltdown instead.

Why Punishments Don’t Work


In Lost at School, Ross Green says, “Imposed, logical consequences don’t teach lagging skills or help kids solve problems any better than natural consequences do.” That’s why the answer isn’tarbitrarily-imposed consequences like restrictions or corporal punishment. The solution isn’t to impose dominance over your child.

The key is to recognize your child’s unique set of lagging skills and to develop these skills… because punishing him doesn’t teach him those skills!


“Recognize your child’s lagging skills and develop them, because punishing doesn’t teach skills!”


When a child has a problematic behavior, you have three options with which to respond.

You can: A. force him to do what you want, B. work on a solution together, or C. ignore the behavior. There are times when each of these options may be appropriate. You may choose to force a child to comply when you tell them to quit playing in the road, or you may ignore a low-priority behavior for the sake of ‘choosing your battles.’

Dr. Greene’s method outlines a way to work through Option B. It is useful in a variety of situations, from processing meltdowns to working through other problem areas like homework conflicts or if you identify a particular behavior you want to address (lying, stealing, hitting, etc).

Let’s see plan B, the method for solving problems collaboratively, in action.

Collaborative & Proactive Solutions



Here we gather information about how the child sees the problem and show that we are invested in figuring it out together.

Me: “Hey Baby. I’m glad you’re calmer. Let’s talk about what happened earlier. You seemed really upset. Tell me what you were thinking and feeling at the store just before we had to leave.” (Be careful not to assume you know what the child was thinking or feeling, and don’t skip this step. Also, don’t use language that shames the child, because it makes them defensive.)

 Man Cub: “I wanted that first aid kit. I thought it would be really helpful if we were out hiking or something. I didn’t know why you wouldn’t just buy it for me. It wasn’t that much.”

Me: “Did you remember that I said we wouldn’t buy anything in the store?” 

Man Cub: “Yeah, but it seemed like a dumb rule and I just wanted it and I got really upset.”


Identify the concern or problem.

Me: “How did it make you feel when you were outside and people noticed your tantrum?” (In this case, I wanted Man Cub to identify the problematic behavior  himself.)

Man Cub: “Embarrassed.”

Me: “When you were a baby, people expected you to act like that, but now that you’re seven, they expect you to act differently. How do you think they expect you to act?”

Man Cub: (groaning)  “They think I should be more grown up. I wish I didn’t act like that.” (He looked really sad now.)

Me: “Honey, I know you don’t want to act like that. I felt badly for you even when it was happening, even though I was angry. I knew you must be upset with yourself, too. I’m sorry.” (I gave him a hug.)


Solving problems collaboratively and brainstorming ideas together.

Me: “I wonder how we can help you to feel more in control of yourself next time we’re in a situation like that so you don’t feel embarrassed when you lose it.”

 Man Cub: “I wish I didn’t see that stupid first aid kit!”

Me: “Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to go to the bookstore if I knew I didn’t have money to spend. Or maybe I should have been clearer about why we couldn’t spend money today. It wasn’t just a rule I made up to be mean, Sweetie. I need to be careful with money right now because of my job change, and I’m trying to be responsible. Maybe if I explained that, you would have understood the rule more?”

Man Cub: “Maybe.” 

Me: “What about using the deep breathing and counting technique you learned with the therapist?”

Man Cub: “I always forget about that when I’m upset.”

Me: “Is there something that could help when you lose your cool, to remind you to try that? Like a secret signal? I could give you a code word!”

Man Cub: “That might work…”

Me: “How about ‘Check yo’ self?’”

Man Cub: (giggles) “I’ll try the breathing next time if you remind me.”

Me: “We can try that code word next time. And I’ll explain the rule better next time so you know it’s a firm rule with a good reason. If you feel better now, we can go down and make lunch now. Want some tuna?”

After that, Man Cub moved on with his day with a clean slate and the event was forgotten. The point was not to punish him, but to give him time to exercise self-soothing and calm down in private until he was ready process what happened, and then to work together on identifying what the problem was and how to avoid it in the future. The focus was on strengthening our relationship, not on asserting my dominance.

And I learned something, too, which was that next time, a better understanding of the reason for the rule would help him accept it. I don’t ascribe to the notion that children should always go along “because I said so.” I think children learn so much by asking the reasons for things, and I’m not above explaining why so they can understand how the world works.

Note that I still held firm to the expectation that I set. I did not give in and buy him anything when he begged at the store, and I did not go back later and get it, either. I stood by my rule, but I was kind and reasonable in discussing it and problem-solving with him once he was able to do so calmly and respectfully. I also modeled respectful behavior by maintaining my cool during and after his meltdown.

I encourage you to give collaborative and proactive solutions withyour child.

Dr Greene’s book The Explosive Child is a very thorough resource on the subject, providing “specific, practical ways [parents] can recognize the signs of an impending explosion, defuse tension, and reduce frustration levels for the entire family.”

Dr. Greene’s nonprofit, Lives in the Balance, has a website with a lot of resources, including aone-page overview of this method. There is also information on identifying lagging skills and unsolved problems through use of an instrument called the Assessment of Lagging Skills and Unsolved Problems (ALSUP), and a guide for using the assessment can be found here.

A Plan B Cheatsheet can also be found on the site, outlining in more detail the steps of the collaborative problem-solving method I outlined in this post.

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