Many parents of ADHD children and teens come into my office and report that nothing really works in terms of discipline and consequences. “My son just
doesn’t care what we take away” or “my daughter laughs when we ground her.” While all kids balk at rules sometimes, those with ADHD, because of their ADHD, seem to do this more often and louder. To be successful at reining in and re-directing undesirable behaviors in ADHD kids, parents not only have to be incredibly patient but also consistent, clear and calm. From this firm ground, you can then make well-considered decisions about the rapidly changing emotional meltdowns and behavioral infractions you encounter with your child.
Today’s parents have, in general, moved away from physical punishment such as spanking to using Time Outs. But Time Outs still focus on the “wrong-ness” of the action. Time Outs seem to give parents and children a break when they most need it and emotions are running high. But, most kids experience them as punishment which makes them feel worse about themselves. They frequently feel like they are bad people who are engaging in bad behaviors that, because of their ADHD, they often can’t control. In addition, Time Outs usually don’t teach emotional regulation because learning this key executive functioning skill requires interaction not isolation. Kids benefit from discussing ways of managing big feelings and getting help using these techniques at times when they are the hardest to implement. Of course, a child in Time Out will eventually calm down but they usually don’t come away from the experience with the necessary skills they will need the next time they get triggered and have a meltdown.
I believe that people need some separation from each other when emotions get high but this separation has to be negotiated and agreed upon before it is implemented. This means making a plan together for those times when things get heated or out of control that works well for everyone. Imposing a physical separation such as sending your son to his room when he is in a meltdown may not be the most effective solution for him even though it would give you some relief. He may need a quiet few moments with you on the couch rubbing his head and reading a book. You may need 20 minutes alone in your room with some deep breathing or mindless television. So, I like to advocate for Time Apart Together: a pre-negotiated break from the problematic interactions that doesn’t banishment your ornery teen to his room out of mutual anger and frustration.
The Time Apart Together System (TATS) is based on creating an environment that teaches self-management through collaboration when people are not upset. This technique relies on the parent-child bond that is the main incentive for cooperation in the first place. I am certain that neither you, your ADHD child or teen or anyone else who is resides with you likes the meltdowns, yelling and emotional escalation that often precede a standard Time Out.
Here’s how to use Together Time Apart:
- Identify together what contributes to meltdowns and what types of ‘breaks’ would help everyone slow down and calm down. When you see your child heading towards an eruption, try one: You can even give it a special name. I have worked with people who call them anything from “Pink Elephant”, “Take Ten” to “That Dr. Sharon Thing.” You too can ask for a break when you feel as if you are losing it. In a few weeks, once you have tried out the interventions several times, discuss how your new plan is working.
- Sometimes a time in—the opposite of what you, as a parent feels like doing when you are in a dither, can be most helpful. Try taking a deep breath, counting to ten and giving a hug, starting an activity like reading a book or having a game of catch. Comfort and distraction can be great antidotes for anger and emotional eruptions.
- Once the meltdown has started is not the time for any negotiation or teaching. Your ADHD child’s thinking brain has been kidnapped by her emotion brain—it’s fight or flight mode. Stay nearby and stay calm but don’t give in to her demands. Take some mental notes and use them when you re-evaluate the TATS that you have devised.
Good luck on embarking on your family’s TATS today!