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  • Jamie Racine

Positive Reinforcement for ADHD and Planning for Difficult Situations

Ok..hang on with the first two paragraphs! They are a little formal and bookish--but it's important you have a basis for what this article is about.


So, positive reinforcement is a very basic concept in the field of psychology. According to verywellmind.com positive reinforcement involves the addition of a reinforcing stimulus following a behavior that makes it more likely that the behavior will occur again in the future. In other words, you put the dishes away without being asked you get to watch a show. When a favorable outcome, event, or reward occurs after an action, that particular response or behavior will be strengthened. The idea behind positive reinforcement is to draw attention to the positive behavior by rewarding it.


A study in 2016 at Ohio State University published in the Journal of Clinical Psychological Science found that when parents reduced harsh parenting approaches, (i.e criticism, yelling, physical punishment, etc.) it had a powerful calming effect on children with ADHD. By using positive reinforcement, kids were more responsive and cooperative.


This all sounds just perfect doesn’t it? It’s just what you have the energy to do...especially after you get home from a long day at work with your 7 year old who just had a long day at school. The day where it was all he could do to even minimally contain himself: sit still, not speak out of turn, raise his hand, stop fidgeting, just be quiet Johnny, not fall out of his chair. That was a long day of a lot of hard work--no wonder he has no idea how to do his math homework--which you are currently fighting with him over because you know darn well the teacher went over it today!


Then it happens, your frustration rubs off on him and cue mega meltdown. He just simply cannot contain himself anymore. It’s loud, it’s physical, and it disrupts the entire house. And this is just what you need. You still need to fix dinner, your three year old feels the stress and starts his meltdown too. You’re stressed because you missed your work deadline today and your husband amid all of this has the AUDACITY to ask you what’s for dinner. And, then thats when you lose it.



Forget positivity. Forget redirection. No, instead--you yell. You scream. Louder than you mean to. The words that come out of your mouth are harsh and you immediately regret it, but realize it can’t be undone. You feel ashamed, like a failure. Now the entire rest of the night is ruined. You and your husband will argue--he will say your son just needs more discipline, punish him, take away his video games, send him to his room, make him clean the shoe closet. Seems logical right? But you know deep in your mama heart that that is NOT the solution--but you have no idea how to communicate that, and you have no idea what the solution IS.


You’re so tired--how can you stay positive, give rewards, praise, when there are days you feel like your child barely deserves what he has? Oh mama, I get it. Boy do I. This was not an unfamiliar scene in my own home several years ago. But I had to figure out what would shift that. It was getting out of control. I dreaded coming home, any excuse to work late was welcome, or pulling into the driveway gave me pangs of intense anxiety I feared I would lose the little lunch I had time to eat. But worse? There were even days when I resented my son. But, I knew he was struggling, I knew he wasn't trying to create so much chaos so those feelings of resentment also made me feel substantial guilt. Goodness, just sitting here writing about how I felt makes me feel guilty again...***sigh***parenting...


But you know what mama? You are really the leader of your tribe. Everyone takes their cues from you and can feel all of your emotions. But, you too are so unbelievably in sync with what your child needs that you have all the answers inside of you. It may not feel like that some days I know, but you do. I had to figure that out, and once I did I was able to put a system in place to help during those predictably difficult times of day.


Kids with ADHD need structure, predictability, and consistency. So what could you do to help during these times? Develop a routine. Make a visible reference for the routine--pictures if reading is a struggle, and words if they are older. Does having your child do homework right when they come home create a struggle? Don’t do it when you get home--wait. Does doing homework in general create chaos at any time? Talk with your child’s school about eliminating the homework expectation. Do you have physical activities your child can do when you return home to help with some of that energy? Trampoline, swing? You can get these for inside too. What about filling a bath with some Lavender Essential Oil, which is calming and helps with all the sensory needs.


Allow for preferred activities. Your child has been working so hard to keep it together all day and even a marginally successful day with ADHD, takes a ton of work. They don’t have much if any bandwidth left for expectations. Think about it--the last thing you want to do when you get home from work is more work--your child with very little ability to regulate his emotions feels the same way too--just has a very different way of letting you know. If your child needs to watch television or ride his bike, or whatever he likes when you get home to get himself back together, allow it. Have a visual night time routine, and as your child succeeds in meeting these routines give rewards and positive reinforcement. That can look different for different ages--for younger kids it might be Pokemon cards, for older kids it might be more phone time, or an extra show. Maybe they will get to do a special activity with you the next day or on the weekend (but now matter where they fail later in the week they don't lose the pending reward, ever). When you first start implementing a reward system you need to reward well and reward often. As they begin to be more successful in managing their behaviors during difficult times you start to spread out the rewards, then make them random.


Rewards can look many different ways. My son was motivated by little handheld toys--loved tops, action figures, matchbox cars, etc. But, your child may love earning stickers, or stamps on their hand. Maybe over time you can help them track their good behavior over time and after so many successes a larger reward may be allowed. Get creative with it--the point is, try it...and try it consistently for more than a week. Make it simple and tangible--focus on one behavior you want to change at a time. Do not overwhelm them with expectations they simply cannot achieve. The last thing they need is continued failure.


I laugh now because when my son was around 3 we could not take him anywhere without a major, massively embarrassing, over the top meltdown. The kid seriously acted like he was a demon straight out of the Exorcist--I hate to use such an extreme example, but it was bad...I mean BAD. The very last thing I wanted to do was buy him a toy--but, that's exactly what I ended up doing. It’s SO COUNTERINTUITIVE! At first it was every trip to the store he got a reward for good behavior, then every other. It would have to be broken down behavior to behavior to be able to extinguish the behaviors that were not desirable. For example, we would work on no shrieking during a shopping trip and he could get a little toy. Once he seemed to have control of that it was not shrieking AND not running away, and so on and forth until he could manage it all. And as he understood more, as he matured, and it solidified in his brain (because kids with ADHD need TONS OF REPETITION --that’s a whole other article), I was able to make it random. Now, he’s 12 and well, he remembers this part of his life and sometimes will say, “mom, if I’m good in the store can I get something?” I look at him and laugh and say, “ha! No dude--you already figured that out and now it’s just an expectation.” He chuckles because he gets it, and now I NEVER have an issue with his behavior in public. As a matter of fact--he’s probably the best behaved out of all my children in public!! And let me tell you--it went against everything I was ever taught with education, practical parenting advice, and more. But this is what he needed. He is not selfish, he does not demand things, he is not entitled, it didn’t wreck him, in fact it helped him.


Put it this way--if you knew that you had a random chance to get a check for $50 anytime you got “caught” going the speed limit would you be more likely to go the speed limit? You might end up getting “caught” twice in a row, but not again for another several months--but it would keep you going the speed limit because you knew it was possible that at anytime you could get pulled over and given a check for $50 for abiding by the rules. Instead now you know your chances of getting “caught” speeding are like 1 in 200, so you take your chances and get places faster. Really, what’s in it for you other than keeping yourself safer? You get me?



Now think about different ways you implement positive reinforcement during difficult situations with your precious ADHD’er. Remember, behavioral change does not happen overnight--for you or your kiddo for that matter! You will have days when this seems like a joke--but keep at it. That next time might be the moment when everything shifts!


For more support and ideas, please join my private Facebook Group at www.facebook.com/embracetheextra.


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