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Parents sometimes tell me they NEED their child to behave right now. The school is threatening to expel, or the parent is on the verge of job loss from having to leave work so often to deal with a child's misbehavior, or they know they are going on an airplane or to a wedding.

They ask me how to discipline the child correctly so they will learn their lesson and stop the misbehavior.

Here's the thing. Punishment rarely, almost never, works with a DMDD/ADHD/ODD kid. It actually tends to make the behavior worse. Punishment can work with neurotypical kids, but the long-term cost isn't worth it. I recommend avoiding punishment altogether.


Consequences are totally different than punishments and can and should be used as teaching tools. Generally, natural consequences rather than parent-imposed consequences are best. Natural consequences are entirely outside the parent's control and can include getting a bad grade because of missed homework, a classmate telling a child they smell bad because they aren't showering frequently, or feeling cold because they won't wear a coat.

Often parents try so hard to help the child avoid natural consequences that we impose our own artificial consequences. These can erode the parent-child relationship and keep them from learning the required lesson: "Do your homework or no dessert tomorrow!"

It can be hard to watch your child suffer through natural consequences. Coach yourself through it. Allow the discomfort for you and your child. It's worth it.

Sometimes parent-imposed consequences that are closely connected to the behavior can be effectively used as a tool, but they should be used sparingly when natural consequences are so delayed they may not be as effective. Success with these will be greatly tied to the current state of your relationship. An example might be: "You need to be in your bed by 9:30, or I won't wake you up for the party in the morning."

If your relationship with your child is extremely poor and lacking in trust, it is especially important to never punish the child, and I recommend not imposing any parent-directed consequences at all. Your only work at this point is to make the child feel loved, valued, and important. Nothing else matters, I promise you. I know this seems counterintuitive, but dropping expectations, consequences, and punishments are an important first step to finding long-term better behavior through stronger connection.

In addition to dropping expectations, spend time with the child doing what HE wants to do. You may think you don't have time, but you don't have time NOT to make this a priority. It will save you from so much misbehavior in the long run.

Name this time so your child knows what it is and looks forward to it. Mommy time, play time, reading time -- whatever fits. When my kids were little we called it "minutes" because it was the 10 minutes before we tucked them into bed. It doesn't have to be long. If some nights you only have five minutes, then five it is. Just make it a habit. If you have a lot of children, then consider alternating children with a spouse. If you're a single parent, then rotate through the children. Each child might only get one or two nights a week, but that's infinitely better than nothing.

Cooperative problem solving is the best long-term method for improving behavior. I highly recommend Ross Greene's the Explosive Child as one of the best methods to use. You should read the whole book, or at least watch the videos on his web site. This method is amazing and worth it, but it takes quite a bit of time and practice to implement. A coach or therapist trained in the method can be invaluable support.


Going back to the original question, what do you do if you need the child to behave this week?


  • Threaten or punish

This will likely increase the bad behavior.

  • Bribe

If the child has ADHD or DMDD, they can't help much of their behavior. Bribes will only add to their frustration when they can't comply.


  • Control the environment

Do they HAVE to go to the wedding? Could you have them attend for 15 minutes and then pay a cousin to babysit them upstairs? Do they have to ride the bus? Could you pay a neighbor to bring them home from school? Do some creative brainstorming for options to remove the need for immediate good behavior altogether.

  • Avoid triggers

Does your child hate loud noises? Bring earplugs to the event. Does your child hate having their picture taken? Attend the wedding, but excuse him for photos. Is your child sleepy, coming off his meds, getting hungry, bored, introverted, overstimulated? Keep careful record of your child's triggers and find ways to work around them.

  • Try abbreviated cooperative problem solving. This is a super quick, watered-down version of the Ross Greene method.

First, FIND A GOOD TIME to bring up the problem with the child. I always take my kids out to lunch or for an ice cream so they are happy, and we can concentrate without many distractions.

Second, ASK THE CHILD WHAT'S GOING ON for them. It would sound something like this, "Hey, I noticed you are having trouble sitting in the dentist's chair. What's up?"

Third, LISTEN. Just be quiet and see what they say. Ask some clarifying questions, but withhold any judgment or lecturing. Make sure they don't feel like they are being "questioned." Demonstrate understanding. Keep it low key. If they say they really don't know or say nothing at all, try to make a guess and ask them if you're right. Take this slow. One guess at a time. "Do you dislike the sound of the dentist's tools?" They can even answer with a thumbs up or thumbs down if talking feels like too much for them.

Next, ASK THEM FOR A SOLUTION. "I wonder if there's a way that we could help you not be so bothered by the dentist's tools." They may offer impractical suggestions. That's ok. We're just brainstorming and trying to open up to possibilities.

Last, FIND A SOLUTION THAT WORKS FOR EVERYONE. If they're not coming up with anything workable, you can offer some ideas. This works best if you can take one of their solutions and modify it so it works. "I'm not sure that you can play video games in the dentist's chair, but what would you think about bringing your favorite movie on the ipad with some noise-cancelling earphones?"

Only do this with ONE problem at a time. Be specific. You can't solve for "misbehavior at school." Instead, solve for talking out of turn during science class, hitting your seatmate on the bus, or throwing pencils at your teacher during math.

This method is amazing, and you'll find that often the problem isn't what you think it is. I had a client whose child hated taking showers. The mother thought this was because she didn't want to stop playing to take the time to do it. When she asked the child using this method she found that actually, the child hated the feeling of water dripping down her back after the shower and didn't like having her hair up in a heavy towel. As they problem solved together they found a lightweight towel called a turbie twist to use that made everyone happy.

Just like that, this family had one fewer point of contention, and the child learned an imperative self-care tool. Further, as children become accustomed to this method they may begin to go to their parents proactively for help finding solutions and even start to look for solutions to triggers by themselves. One thought I offer my own children is, "There's nothing we can't solve together." It works beautifully.

If you need help with your exact situation, sign up for a mini session with me. It's totally free, and I'll help you right away on that zoom call. If I think we're a good fit, at the end of the call I'll tell you what it would be like to continue to work with me 1:1, but there's truly no pressure at all to do any additional sessions. I look forward to meeting you.

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