Spending time with family around the holidays can be wonderful, but for parents of kids with ADHD, it also can be stressful. When visiting family and friends, you want things to go smoothly. It’s a tall order when your child’s routine is disrupted, and when he or she is so excited about the holidays! When you are stressed, minor misbehaviors – the ones you would typically let slide – may get under your skin. You’re more likely to notice the things your child is doing wrong and overlook the things that he or she is doing right. As a result, your child receives even more attention for misbehavior, and this attention – although negative – often leads to an increase in challenging behaviors.
Noticing positive behavior and praising your child when he or she is doing something right can help break this cycle. When you “catch your child being good,” you set him or her up for success. You start to lay the foundation for positive family interactions, you build his or her self-esteem, and you increase the chance of seeing more positive behavior. For praise to be most effective, be strategic about how and when you deliver the praise. The following guidelines will help you get off to a good start:
1. Be specific. Let your child know exactly what he or she did well. For example, “You did a great job helping your sister find her toy” rather than “Good job!” When you’re specific, your child knows exactly what it is that he or she did well and will be more likely to do it again in the future.
2. Be genuine. Kids respond well to praise when it’s heartfelt and genuine, and when your level of enthusiasm matches their behavior. For example, let’s say your child does something that isn’t very hard for him or her, like tying his or her shoes. You respond with over-the-top enthusiasm, “Wow! You tied your shoes, amazing.” Your child isn’t going to find you believable and might even think that you’re acting strange. Instead, say something more genuine, like, “I noticed that you tied your shoes the first time I asked. Thank you.” He or she will be much more likely to accept your praise.
3. Praise effort. Studies show that kids who are praised for their hard work and effort, rather than for their intelligence or abilities, are more likely to approach new challenges with a positive attitude and to keep trying when things are hard. If your child gets a good grade on a math assignment, don’t say, “Nice job! You’re so smart at math.” Focus on what he or she did to earn the grade, like, “You worked really hard on that assignment and double checked all of your answers before your turned it in. Your hard work really paid off. Nicely done!”
4. Remember 5:1. It takes quite a few positive statements to offset the effects of negative feedback and criticism. So as a rule of thumb, aim for five positive comments for every negative statement. If this seems like a tall order, start with a smaller ratio, like 3:1 and work your way up.
Shift the balance in your home, from commenting only on the negative to praising the positive. Noticing your child’s good behavior and following these praise guidelines will go a long way in helping things go more smoothly this holiday season and throughout the year. Over time you’ll see even more good behavior and improved family relationships as your child continues to seek and receive more positive attention from you.
Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist and a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Center.
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