Interview: Merriam Saunders On The Importance Of Praising Your Children
It’s no secret that children with ADHD have trouble behaving. They yell when they need to be quiet, run around when they should be doing homework, and play video games when they’re supposed to be doing their chores.
It’s only natural that many parents try to counter this tendency by being stricter with their children. But trying to be a “tough” parent can only backfire, according to ADHD parenting coach Merriam Saunders.
That’s because children with ADHD aren’t necessarily misbehaving, and don’t respond to discipline in the way that you might expect. In this interview, Merriam explains why strict discipline isn’t the best parenting style with ADHD children, and what approach you should take instead.
What are the biggest mistakes you see parents making with ADHD children?
The biggest mistake is not understanding that this is a neurological disorder. So many parents will act as if the maladaptive behavior is intentional and the defiance is willful. They’ll think the misbehavior can be disciplined away, or the child is lazy or defiant by nature.
Parents who do this will end up parenting in a frustrated and authoritarian way. And that type of parenting style usually elicits the opposite of the behavior that they’re going for. It causes the child to act more defiant rather than behave well.
The first thing to understand is that the child’s brain is typically about three years behind developmentally, so expectations should be lowered accordingly. The child is operating with a lesser amount of neurotransmitters – specifically dopamine and norepinephrine – to help them accomplish the very behavior you’re expecting of them. It’s like asking a blind child to see, simply because you want them to.
So what should they do instead of that authoritarian parenting style?
It seems counterintuitive, but praise is very helpful. Dopamine is the pleasure-seeking neurotransmitter. Your brain creates it when you’re seeking pleasure or anticipating a reward, such as praise. If the child is anticipating a reward instead of a punishment, their brain will create more dopamine which will help their frontal lobe engage in executive functioning. It’s like putting fuel in a gas tank.
Another thing that’s important is understanding that ADHD children have difficulty transitioning from one thing to another, so make sure you’re giving them a lot of time to shift tasks. So for example, to go from eating breakfast to getting dressed.
Also, break tasks into smaller chunks, because they have difficulty sustaining their attention for a long period of time. Breaks between tasks allow them to re-energize. So like if they have an hour’s worth of homework, don’t expect them them to work for an hour straight. Instead, something like three twenty-minute work periods with five-minute breaks in between is a lot more tenable.
Do you find a lot of the parents have ADHD themselves?
Yes, it’s very common. ADHD has a genetic component. In many cases one or both parents might have it, and it might be undiagnosed. Often it’s only when the child gets diagnosed that they might realize the parent also has it.
And it can be an added complication because sometimes the parent already struggles themselves with organization and sustained attention. And that happens because ADHD was not as well-diagnosed when the parents were kids; we just didn’t know as much about it.
What other issues do you find that a lot of children with ADHD also have?
The most common are learning disabilities – dyslexia, auditory processing, working memory. ASD and anxiety are common too.
What can parents do to help children sleep better?
As with most things, routine is your friend. And the routine of course should be altered depending on the child’s age. But whatever helps – like it could be first take a calming bath, then put their pajamas on, or it could be play with stuffed animals for a few minutes before bed.
But whatever it is, make it the same every night, because that conditions the brain to understand that it’s time to slow down and transition to bed. And make sure it’s the same time every night. So this could mean passing up invitations for evening activities, which might cause you to miss your child’s bedtime.
If you do, say, go to an evening basketball game and miss your child’s bedtime, understand that that might cause your child’s sleep to be disrupted for not just that night, but several nights after.
Another thing is a lot of parents will put their children to bed later because they’re afraid if they try to do it early, their child won’t go to bed and they need to tire the child out. Often the opposite happens – you miss a sleep window and the child gets a second wind after.
So be mindful of their circadian rhythms and watch for signs of tiredness, like yawning or crankiness. If your child seems tired early in the evening, it might be that that’s when they need to go to sleep.
Why is reading with children so important, and how can parents do that with children who struggle to pay attention or stay still?
Reading to your children is important for language development. So the more they listen to the structure of language, it helps build vocabulary, and it also fosters imagination. Children mirror the skill, so they learn to read by watching their parents do it early on.
It’s important to start reading early, and for children with ADHD you may need to keep doing it well into middle school or even into high school, especially if they also have something like dyslexia.
Or if you don’t do that, you may want to have your child listen to audiobooks, if they have difficulty reading or just don’t enjoy it. Some kids just don’t like reading, especially if they have dyslexia. So there’s nothing wrong with letting them listen to an audiobook or read a graphic novel.
Allowing the child to pick the book, and letting them put it down when they’re bored with it, is fine too. And you can even let them do something else while you read in the background, that’s still helpful.
A lot of authors also read their books aloud on YouTube, although YouTube is kind of a scary place to send a child if you’re not monitoring them.
For parents who are trying to work, another great resource is the Facebook channel Operation Read Aloud, where authors post videos of them reading their books out loud. I’ve read one of my books on there.
How can parents, who are working from home while homeschooling their children, ensure that they’re able to work productively while still giving their children the attention they need?
Yeah, these poor parents are being put in an almost impossible situation. First, being very kind to themselves and being honest with their boss about their limitations, because it’s just not going to be possible to be as productive now.
The second would be, similar to how we ask children to work in short bursts rather than long sustained periods, the parent’s work might have to be broken into shorter chunks so they can take breaks to deal with their child and give them something to distract them. And that might be TV or video games. And they need to be okay with that even if it’s something they wouldn’t normally allow.
However it’s also important for the child to understand that when life goes back to normal, then things will go back to normal at home. If you let them have extra screen time for now, they do need to understand it’s not permanent, so you need to set expectations up front.
For parents, particularly of younger children, who don’t want their kid having too much screen time, another thing you can do is to have a special box of toys that can only be played with when the parent is working. So it gets the child to associate that fun with letting the parent work.
Merriam Sarcia Saunders, LMFT, is a Family Therapist and ADHD Certified Clinical Services Provider. She is the author of the children’s books, My Whirling, Twirling Motor and My Wandering, Dreaming Mind (Magination Press/APA), and the middle-grade novel Trouble with a Tiny t (Capstone, 2021), all realistic yet positive stories of children with ADHD.
She is Adjunct Professor in the Counseling Psychology graduate program at Dominican University and the co-founder of www.ANovelMind.com, a database of children’s literature featuring mental health issues. She is a regular contributor to ADDitude Magazine. Find her at www.merriamsaunders.com and on Facebook/Instagram at How to Parent ADHD