How to Help Kids With ADHD: 3 Parenting Tips

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Scattered Minds" by Gabor Maté. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Have you been researching non-stop about ADHD? What can you do as a parent to help your child cope with ADHD?

Scattered Minds by Gabor Maté’s advice for helping a child with ADHD heal is to not force them to take medicine if it does more harm than good, and to do your best to provide the psychological and physical nourishment they need. However, children with ADHD—and their parents—face some unique challenges as well.

Let’s explore how to help kids with ADHD by providing a nurturing and supportive environment.

Repairing the Parent-Child Bond

Maté believes the fundamental cause of ADHD is the rupture of the parent-child bond. Since your child is still developing, you have the opportunity to repair that rupture and strengthen the bond. The best way to help kids with ADHD is by cultivating and communicating an attitude of perfect acceptance of your child. If you’re perfectly accepting of your child, you feel that you love, respect, and appreciate your child no matter what—and more importantly, you make sure that your child feels secure in that fact.

(Shortform note: Like many parents, you may struggle to accept your child’s ADHD diagnosis—perhaps you feel anxious about their future, blame yourself for their struggles, or are even in denial about their diagnosis. To move toward acceptance, experts recommend that you reflect on your feelings so you can understand them, give yourself time to grieve, and focus on your child’s strengths.)

To show your child that you accept them perfectly, Maté recommends the following steps:

Take a loving interest in your child’s inner world. Try to understand what it’s like to be them without trying to “fix” them. If your child senses that you’re judgmental, anxious, or angry about what’s going on with them, it can make them feel ashamed and want to pull away from you.

(Shortform note: One concrete way to take a loving interest in your child is to focus on the meaning behind their behavior instead of the behavior itself. For example, if your teenager with ADHD has been skipping school, you might ask them why instead of immediately punishing them for it. Perhaps they’re skipping school because they feel anxious about their ability to get good grades—once you know this, you can proactively address that anxiety, which could resolve the misbehavior.)

Initiate quality time with your child. This demonstrates that you value their presence in your life.

(Shortform note: In The 5 Love Languages, Gary Chapman explains that there are two kinds of quality time—a meaningful conversation about what’s going on in your lives and time spent focusing on the same activity. You may not be interested in the same activities your child is, but engaging in those activities with them anyway shows that you care more about spending time with them than your own enjoyment.)

Avoid reactionary parenting. Maté says that your greatest priority as a parent is fulfilling your child’s needs—not acting on your own emotional impulses. For example, this could mean taking time to gather yourself before you launch into a difficult discussion with your child about their school performance. If you can’t regulate your emotions while you’re parenting, your child may feel anxious and alienated from you. 

(Shortform note: In No-Drama Discipline, parenting experts Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson recommend three strategies to help you avoid reactionary parenting. First, keep in mind that your child’s developing brain doesn’t support adult-like behavior yet, so you shouldn’t expect them to act like adults or understand your adult point of view. Second, ask yourself about the meaning behind your child’s behavior, what you want them to learn from this experience, and how to best deliver that message. Third, wait to discipline your child until you’re both calm enough to have a productive discussion.)

Dealing With Defiance

Many children with ADHD exhibit defiance—an automatic reflex where the child rejects the parent’s demands, expectations, or instructions—and parents struggle to deal with that defiance without escalating the conflict. Maté explains that defiance is healthy to some extent—by defying you, your child sets herself apart as an individual, which is an important part of her development. Defiance is especially common in teenagers because it’s developmentally important for them to begin feeling more independent. 

(Shortform note: If you’re struggling with your child’s defiance, you’re not alone: Psychologists note that more than half of children with ADHD are also diagnosed with Oppositional Defiance Disorder, or ODD, which is characterized by a pattern of hostile behavior toward authorities. This behavior includes throwing temper tantrums, refusing to follow rules, and being argumentative. ODD is a controversial diagnosis for two reasons: It’s based on how hard it is for parents and teachers to get a child to conform rather than the child’s internal experience, and it seems to pathologize normal childhood behavior.)

Maté suggests taking the following steps whenever your child is defiant: First, encourage your child to express their feelings, and validate those feelings even if your child isn’t going to get their way. Second, decide whether it’s worth enforcing your rules in this case—is it something trivial or a matter of their safety or well-being? Third, refuse to engage in a power struggle—it’s not about overpowering or imposing your will on them but getting your child to cooperate with you. Finally—and most importantly—after a disagreement, take the initiative to reconnect with your child as soon as possible. This reaffirms your perfect acceptance of your child: They know that no matter what they do, your relationship can’t be damaged beyond repair.

(Shortform note: In addition to Maté’s tips, other experts recommend using positive reinforcement to decrease defiant behavior. This includes praising your child for good behavior, offering lots of positive attention during daily life, and creating a reward system—for example, if your child completes their chores every day for a week, they could earn extra time on the computer.)

Promoting Achievement

Maté emphasizes that promoting achievement shouldn’t be your first priority—it’s not as important as the parent-child bond, and if you put achievement first, your child will internalize your anxiety/anger about their performance as shame. However, Maté also says that children with ADHD need to feel empowered to achieve whatever they want to achieve

(Shortform note: One way you can empower your child with ADHD to achieve is by teaching them self-advocacy skills. Self-advocacy in the context of ADHD means knowing how your ADHD impacts you, knowing what you need to overcome your ADHD symptoms, and working to meet those needs (for example, by asking for accommodations). When you teach your child to self-advocate, they learn that they’re capable of independently overcoming barriers to their achievement—and studies show that they’re more likely to succeed. Additionally, some experts argue that developing self-advocacy skills also improves kids’ self-esteem and teamwork skills, which provides benefits outside of academic achievement—like strengthening their bond with you.)

He makes a couple of concrete suggestions to promote your child’s empowerment:

Develop your child’s capacity for intrinsic motivation by giving them the opportunity to make their own choices (within reason) and letting them know that it’s okay if they don’t meet others’ expectations for their achievement. Maté says this is better than relying on extrinsic motivation—like punishments and rewards—to encourage your child to achieve for three reasons: it gives the child anxiety about measuring up to your standards, increases defiance, and incentivizes the child to take the easiest route possible to achieve a desired reward (rather than incentivizing them to become genuinely invested in the task itself).

(Shortform note: Experts note that for people without ADHD, the capacity for intrinsic motivation doesn’t fully mature until your mid-20s—and that comes even later for people with ADHD. So even as you encourage your child to develop intrinsic motivation, you may still have to rely on extrinsic motivators—like rewards for good grades—to help them achieve.)

Maté suggests that when it comes to school-related achievement, you work together with your child’s teachers to ensure that your child’s ADHD-related needs are being accommodated. For example, if your child’s teacher says they have difficulty staying still during class, you can collaborate to incorporate appropriate movement into their day—for example, maybe a fidget spinner. You can also collaborate with your child himself by helping him strategize about how to meet his own educational goals without pushing your own goals onto him.

(Shortform note: If you live in the United States and have evidence that your child’s ADHD interferes with their ability to achieve in school, your child may be legally entitled to receive accommodations at school. Common accommodations for schoolchildren with ADHD include extra time on exams, tailored assignments, extra breaks for physical activity, and the elimination of environmental distractions.)

How to Help Kids With ADHD: 3 Parenting Tips

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  • How ADHD is caused by early childhood stress that hinders development
  • Why medication isn't the best way to treat ADHD
  • How society can prevent ADHD in future generations

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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