Father and son cooking outdoors
Father and son cooking outdoors

Traditional discipline doesn’t work for neurodivergent kids

When we were kids, parenting was based on the beliefs that children should be seen and not heard, and that they should just do as they are told without talking back.

Need to know

When we were kids, parenting was based on the beliefs that children should be seen and not heard, and that they should just do as they are told without talking back. For many families, hitting, yelling and shaming were acceptable disciplining strategies. Unfortunately, the children who received the most punishments were also more likely to have undiagnosed neurodivergence. 

For decades, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) only included the most stereotypical presentations of these neurodevelopmental differences, which explains why so many kids with non-stereotypical presentations went through life undiagnosed, and why we are now seeing a huge increase in adult diagnosis. 

Fast forward to today, we now have improved access to psychologists and other professionals who provide guidance on raising children who have been identified as having neurodevelopmental differences. Social media is brimming with free resources and with Autistic and ADHD advocates who share their personal experiences and perspectives. 

Why it’s important

Our generation is much better equipped to raise neurodivergent children. We know from research, and probably from experience using our own parent’s strategies, that traditional methods of discipline don’t work for our neurodivergent kids.

The old carrot (rewards) and stick (punishments) are often not effective for neurodivergent children because they do not take into account the unique ways in which they process and respond to information and the world around them. 

Autistic and ADHD children for example may, 

  1. have difficulty picking up and understanding social cues creating a mismatch in expectations;
  2. not be able to read subtleties and implied meaning in language causing misunderstandings;
  3. experience sensory processing issues that present as seeking and avoidant behaviours; 
  4. have executive dysfunction, which when broken down into specific issues looks like:
    1. difficulty self regulating behaviour and emotions e.g. interrupts when others are talking and gets extremely angry when frustrated;
    2. poor impulse control e.g. swears and reacts with physical aggression;
    3. missing inner voice that narrates situations predicting future outcomes and problem solving e.g. secretly takes food and sweets;
    4. inability to sustain attention on tasks of no interest e.g. gets distracted while getting ready for school;
    5. lack of time sense e.g. underestimates time needed to do assignments;
    6. issues transitioning from one task to another e.g. gets angry when it’s time to leave a friend’s house or turn off the iPad; 
    7. struggles with perspective taking e.g. doesn’t understand that standing too close to someone might make them uncomfortable;
    8. problems following multi-step instruction because of low working memory and processing speed e.g. finds it difficult to get through tests in allocated time;
    9. trouble getting started on tasks e.g. avoids doing their chores.

It’s important to remember that all kids have an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex and executive function, but according to Dr Russell Barkley, ADHD significantly impacts this development by approximately 30%. This means that a 5 year old will have the executive function ability of a child of 3 ½ years. Being conscious of this can help with right-sizing your expectations.

Punishing ADHD kids for things that they cannot control is damaging to their self-esteem and the parent-child relationship. As parents, we need to understand our child’s neurodivergence to be able to distinguish between what is purely a result of how their brain works versus purposeful defiance and breaking of rules.

There is extensive research that shows punishment-based discipline is ineffective. Instead, positive reinforcement and proactive strategies have been found to be more effective in supporting neurodivergent children in all aspects of life.

From a parent perspective, prioritise understanding your child’s unique strengths and challenges so that you can develop strategies tailored to their individual needs. This may involve seeking out additional support and resources, such as occupational therapy, to help your child learn to manage their emotions and succeed in different environments.

Tips & strategies

Incorporate mindfulness into your day – reducing your own personal stress will have a cascading effect on how you respond to your child. Find ten minutes in your day to do deep breathing. Check in with yourself and ask questions like “have I had enough sleep?”, “is work on my mind?”, “am I hungry?”, etc. Increasing self-awareness will help you attend to your own needs so that your child gets the best of you and not just the rest of you.

Take a moment to pause before reacting – it’s hard to keep calm in the moment, but taking a few seconds to breathe and to tell yourself to remain calm can change your interaction for the better. Start with the mantra “my child is having a hard time not giving me a hard time”. Reactive parenting only adds fuel to situations where a child’s state is already heightened.

Prioritise your relationship – your connection to your child is a crucial aspect of all your interactions together. Where possible, prioritise your relationship above all else. Safety and connection changes a child’s nervous system and in turn their behaviour.

Use positive reinforcement – instead of relying on punishment to shape behaviour, use positive reinforcement to encourage your child. This can include praising your child for effort, and providing opportunities for them to experience success and build self-esteem.

Use redirection and positive attention – instead of reacting with anger or frustration when your child exhibits unwanted behaviours, try to redirect their attention to a different activity and offer positive attention.

Consequences not punishments – in many cases parents give out punishments that are unrelated to the offence or too far in the future for the child to connect with. A consequence relates to the event or action, doesn’t shame the child and should be fairly immediate. For example: 

  • siblings are fighting over a toy, the consequence is that the toy gets put away; 
  • siblings are arguing because they can’t agree on what they watch on TV, the consequence is that the parent chooses something for everyone to watch; 
  • your child smashes the iPad, the consequence is their pocket money is used to fix the damage.

Establish clear rules and expectations – pick a few non-negotiables to enforce rather than making every expectation equally important. Neurodivergent children often have difficulty understanding rules that are vague, imply meaning, make assumptions or use metaphors. Avoid frustration by making sure the rules are clear and expectations are achievable for your child.

Create a structured environment –  Children benefit from a predictable and structured environment, with routines and schedules to help them know what to expect. Use visual schedules and calendars to help your child and family stay on track.

Adopt a collaborative approach to problem solving – when your child behaves in an unexpected way, be curious and ask them what was going on for them when it happened. Their insight and experience might surprise you. Lay out your concerns along their perspective, and engage them in finding an approach for future situations that takes into consideration their feelings and your worries.

Pivot your parenting when it’s necessary – if your child doesn’t respond to how you motivate, teach and discipline them, then it’s time to reassess your approach. You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results.

Work with the teacher – children with ADHD often need additional support in the classroom to succeed academically. Empower educators with knowledge and equip them with strategies for helping your child succeed in the classroom by downloading and sharing the booklet “Supporting Students with ADHD”

Seek out additional support – parenting a child a neurodivergent child can be overwhelming at times. Reach out for additional support, if you need help to manage stress and find strategies that work for your child.

Lastly, if you are finding it difficult to manage your emotions, you might want to look into your own neurodivergence. Neurodevelopmental differences are highly heritable.

References

  1. Examining Relations Between Parent and Child Psychopathology in Children with ADHD: Do Parent Cognitions Matter?
  2. Effect of a Positive Discipline Parent Education Program on Executive Functions of Children With Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
  3. Mindfulness-Enhanced Behavioral Parent Training for Clinic-Referred Families of Children With ADHD: A Randomized Controlled Trial
  4. Identifying early pathways of risk and resilience: The codevelopment of internalizing and externalizing symptoms and the role of harsh parenting
  5. Children’s Reward and Punishment Sensitivity Moderates the Association of Negative and Positive Parenting Behaviors in Child ADHD Symptoms
  6. Bidirectional and transactional relationships between parenting styles and child symptoms of ADHD, ODD, depression, and anxiety over 6 years
  7. Comorbid Internalizing and Externalizing Symptoms Among Children with ADHD: The Influence of Parental Distress, Parenting Practices, and Child Routines
  8. Parenting styles, parenting stress, and behavioral outcomes in children with autism
  9. Maternal parenting styles and its relationship with emotional-behavioral problems in children with autism spectrum disorder referred to the autism center of Tabriz university of medical sciences
  10. Parenting behavior and the development of children with autism spectrum disorder
  11. The extended nervous system: affect regulation, somatic and social change processes associated with mindful parenting

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