Consistent Parenting in ADHD Families: A 5-step plan for improving cooperation and communication

mom laughing and hugging teen son and daughterMany parents who are frustrated with their ADHD children come into my office and complain that “No matter what we do, our child doesn’t change. Nothing works.” As I meet with these families, the heart of the problem usually lies with inconsistency. Sometimes parents can create a plan of action to deal with behaviors and stick with it. Other times, they are improvising moment by moment. Too often, they get stuck and feel defeated. With all of these different scenarios, the ADHD kids, who thrive on predictability, can end up feeling confused and unsure of what is expected of them. How can we change these patterns and create more success? Taking a more predictable, consistent approach to parenting will help improve cooperation and communication. 

The pitfalls of inconsistency

confused boy against background of question marksInconsistent parenting reflects mixed messages and unclear rules that evolve over time and unintentionally. It’s not something people decide to do: it frequently occurs because parents are tired, worn down and out of ideas. And for kids with ADHD, a lack of clarity can feel chaotic and stressful, pushing them to act out or melt down. They just don’t know what to do or how to get there. So, it’s up to the parent to provide a better roadmap.

Inconsistent parenting can look like this: 

– One school night, you let your 10 year old ADHD son stay up with you until 11 pm to watch the football play-off game. That way, you didn’t have to miss any of the action while putting him to bed. Yet, a few days later, when he wants to watch a basketball game with you past 10 pm, you refuse.

– You tell your teenage daughter that she will lose her phone for the evening when she doesn’t clean up her room, as you both agreed. But then, you let her keep her phone when she goes out so that you can reach her.

From your child’s point of view, if you can make one exception to a rule, why not another one next time?

Parenting consistency for your ADHD child

mother having conversation with teen son on couchConsistent parenting means having the same consequences for the same behaviors over time—again and again and again. They don’t change and can’t be negotiated. It means that you don’t give your ADHD children and teens consequences that you can’t enforce or remember or don’t want to deal with.

ADHD kids need to know what is coming so they can learn from their experiences and start to understand that their actions have effects. This is exactly where their executive functioning skills, like self-regulation, are weak and require additional support. These skills require time and repetition to develop. It’s up to you, the parent, to create the space and opportunity for your child to practice these skills.

You can help your ADHD child by setting appropriate limits and meaningful consequences. When your child pushes beyond these limits, the goal is to teach them to make better choices, and not simply dole out punishments. Consistent parenting will allow your child or teen to link their actions to consequences. When kids and teens know what to expect, they feel more secure and are more likely to be cooperative.

5 Steps toward more consistent parenting

parents and two kids jogging in the park

You have to lay the foundation for this consistency by establishing clear guidelines for behavior with your child or teen that mean something to them and to you.

For example, if they abuse screen time privileges, they lose screen time the following day. Or, if they break a sibling’s toy on purpose, they will need to fix or replace the toy with their allowance money.

The process to establish behavioral guidelines for your family is collaborative, but ultimately not democratic. You still have the final and most powerful vote because, after all, you are the responsible adult. How can you begin this process?

Step 1:

Get some paper and a pen, and sit down with your family. Start with a fair assessment of the basic rules. Ask your kids what they think the consequences should be for not following them. Sometimes they will come up with ideas that are far more impactful than you will. 

Step 2:

Pick the top 3 issues that need fixing and create a plan of action for not cooperating. Write everything down. Be clear and specific about what hasn’t been working. Explain that you’re looking to problem-solve, not blame or punish.

Step 3:

Meet alone with your parenting partner (if you have one) and go through this list. Ask yourselves if you can honestly follow through on the consequences and how you can support each other to do so. If you can’t do them, come up with other ideas that you can enact. When it comes to discipline, both you and your partner must be on the same page.

Step 4:

Meet again with the family to go over the plan. Ask your child to repeat it back to you to make sure they “get it.” Post the plan in a place where everyone can see it and refer to it when needed.

Step 5:

Meet once each week for 3 months to check in and see how things are going. Celebrate and continue to encourage any improvements. If no progress is being made, consider making some adjustments to the plan.

young boy taking selfie with sister and parents in the park

As with all parenting, consistency is a process–there are no quick fixes. When your child sees you holding firm and following through on set expectations, they will, in time, do the same. Greater parenting success comes from clear expectations and predictable consequences.

Read more blog posts:

Join Dr. Saline’s upcoming live webinar:

Live ADHD Webinar and Q&A with Dr. Sharon Saline: "Beyond High School Graduation: How to Help Neurodivergent Teens Prepare for Their Next Chapter" / Wednesday, May 11, 2022, 7:15-8:45pm EDT.

Watch on Dr. Saline’s YouTube Channel: