The most common childhood mental disorder in the U.S., attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), is characterized by difficulty focusing for any length of time, restlessness, emotional sensitivity, and outbursts that are disruptive to learning and interacting with peers or adults. About 8 percent of kids (some 5 million people) have been diagnosed with ADHD, which can be spotted in kids as young as age 4, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Because children with ADHD are often emotionally hypersensitive and prone to volatile reactions, it’s natural for parents to worry that the type of discipline they would use with another child will only escalate the problem with a neurodivergent kid. Perhaps surprisingly, most experts advise sticking to your guns when it comes to correcting inappropriate behavior, regardless of whether or not your child has ADHD. Because of their hypersensitivity, however, it’s paramount that any corrections you give be done in a soft but firm voice: Kids with ADHD may react to even the slightest sound of anger. And as you should with all kids, focus on conveying that a particular behavior is inappropriate, not that your child is bad for doing it.
Moreover, because kids with ADHD have especially short attention spans (not a strong suit for young children, regardless), you may find yourself repeating a particular correction three, four, even five times. No matter whether it’s the first or the twentieth instance, remember to keep your voice calm and your tone loving. “Children that seem to have ADHD need acceptance,” says parenting expert Tom Limbert, author of Dad’s Playbook: Wisdom for Fathers from the Greatest Coaches of All Time. “They need to feel that their emotions are okay. And they need guidance from adults to help them regulate those emotions and their behavior.”
Limbert also says to be patient, especially with younger children. “I’ve seen hundreds of children, mostly boys, have difficulty managing their emotions and behavior at age 4, and then gradually learn to do both by 6 with warm and confident support from loving adults,” he says. So rather than seeing your child’s diagnosis as a reason to treat them differently, continue to discipline as you would any child that age.
A great way to gently correct a child who is acting out is to ask how they’re feeling. “You can say, ‘It’s okay to feel _____, but it’s not okay to do _____,’” suggests Limbert. “Then follow-up with a discussion of other ways to manage the emotion. Does your child want a hug or time alone or just need a good cry?” Empower your child by giving them the chance to offer their point of view on what is troubling them. The idea is to get to the root of their issue and to give them the tools to think through the consequences of their actions.
Despite your best efforts to remain calm, hypersensitive kids are more apt to have an outburst when they feel themselves being criticized. Don’t try to stop a meltdown — you’ll likely only make matters worse. If your child’s emotions are spinning out of control, Limbert suggests saying, “It seems like you need to cry for a bit. When you are done let me know if you want a hug or want to talk. You will feel better.”
In short, kids with ADHD may be more sensitive than the average child, but rules are rules and still need to be respected. Speak to your child in gentle tones and let them know that you understand how they feel. Focusing on the behavior while acknowledging their emotions can help a child with ADHD — or any child — be more receptive to your correction.