Most ADHD therapies recommend that you change your child’s behavior by imposing a strict system of controls. The thought is that only this kind of stringent parenting will keep your child from the chaos that ADHD generates.
No doubt, disciplining in that fashion works quickly. It’s easy to do, and all parents know that stringency is sometimes necessary to protect a child. Yes, coercion—disciplining with rewards and punishments—has a significant role in child rearing, but it has some downsides worth considering.
Problems and Concerns
When you manage your child’s behavior, using special incentives and penalties, things will seem fine as long as there is no controversy and your child keeps earning the rewards you control. He may even be happy that he is getting something extra for showing the behaviors that you expect. But this kind of coercion can be problematic when it’s the primary way to socialize within a family.
For example, research shows that connecting a bribe to an activity will reduce a child’s interest in doing the activity when the bribe is removed. This means that once you introduce a reward system, you must keep doing it, to avoid a significant drop in performance. Your discipline increases your child’s desire to obtain the reward and makes the work seem less enjoyable.
Any reward system that you control is also limited by the extent of your personal involvement. You want your child to be successful without you, but an invented system of rewards and punishments trains compliance only under supervision. You will not be able to monitor every action that your child takes, and so you will not have influence over him sometimes. Sadly, this will increasingly be the case as your child grows older and spends more time away from you.
But that’s not all. What happens when your consequence is not strong enough to outweigh the hassle of meeting the expectation? For example, it’s just not worth it to lug the trash outside when it’s snowing just to get another star on the chart. Many children recognize this problem, and it’s common for them to resist until the bribe or threat is increased. Your relationship spirals into a power struggle.
There are other problems as well. Some children may stop liking a reward so that you cannot pressure them. Some may become overly concerned about unwanted consequences and develop anxiety. Some may stop telling you what they like so that you cannot use it to “pull their strings”. Some may lie or sneak to beat the system. And sometimes failure to obtain a privilege makes little difference to children as long as they remain in the center of your concerns.
As you can see, when your purpose is to create discomfort or give something extra to get your child to obey, you are teaching your child to overpower rather than to cooperate. He sees you trying to force submission, and he duplicates the same behavior to gain authority over you. You take away what he wants, so he takes away what you want.
Even if it means putting himself in jeopardy, he may find a way to gain the upper hand. You pressure him to be more productive, and he learns ways to get you to reduce your expectations. He tries to outmaneuver you, and you work to close the loopholes. You end up struggling for dominance, and your child is not learning to self-manage. Empathy, attending to each other’s perspective, scratching each other’s back, and finding a middle ground are often set aside when you get into this arrangement.
So ask yourself, does my child really need extra payment or the threat of a “time out” to achieve or to be kind and honest? Do you want him to agree to cooperate and help out only if he gets something extra in the deal, or do you want him to derive pleasure from building a caring relationship with you? Even if the reward is spending time together, do you really want to turn your time with each other into a business deal or make it an obligation? Of course not.
With all of these potential side effects, let’s take a different approach. You can focus your child on the ultimate reason to cooperate and develop himself: he will have happier, more fruitful experiences if he is kind and skillful. There is no reason to distract him from this powerful motive. Your child needs no other incentive. Lack of connection with others and lack of competence are the most potent negative consequences, and inclusion and knowledge are the most wanted treasures. The key is to learn how to nurture those behaviors for your child with ADHD.
Craig B. Wiener, EdD, is the author of Parenting Your Child with ADHD
and a licensed psychologist and faculty member in the department of family medicine and community health at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. For almost thirty years, he has been working with many individuals diagnosed with ADHD in his private practice.