Self-Discipline and ADHD: Is it Possible?

Motivating Your ADHD Child to Control Himself

As we’ve discussed before on this site, the purpose of teaching discipline is so that your child will eventually learn how to govern his own actions. For the ADHD child and his parents, this can be a daunting task. It takes persistence and consistency. You have to be committed to your child and the methods you choose, but it can be done, and it can be done without medication. There are a few things that you must understand before you get started.

First, know who your ADHD child is. ADHD children are very active and they will fight until they wear their parents down. However, it is important to remember that with consistent guidance your child is capable of learning to control his behavior. Consistency isn’t easy with any child, and it is more difficult with an ADHD child because it takes these children longer to develop self-control. This means more work for the parent, and often the child wears the parent down before the victory of self-control is realized. Recognize that you are in for a long fight and dedicate yourself to it.

Finally, understand who you are as a parent. ADHD is not a result of bad parenting skills. It is a disorder. It is what you do from the time you understand your child’s diagnosis that counts. Let’s look at some tried and true methods that work well to teach ADHD children self-discipline.


The first method was developed by Lucy Jo Pallidino and is described in The Edison Trait. With this method, you offer your child two appropriate choices. When your child chooses you don’t react one way or another, but you allow him to live with that choice.

For instance, my son loves playing outdoors, but he hates cleaning his toys. If his playroom is a mess and he wants to play outside I tell him that he is welcome to go outside as soon as his playroom is clean. Sometimes he chooses not to clean his playroom and contents himself with playing indoors. I don’t react negatively, instead I go about my day, but that rule sticks.

If he chooses not to clean his playroom, we don’t play outside. If he wants to go outside the next day his choice remains the same: Clean playroom=outdoor time. The first time we did this it took a few days, but when he did clean his playroom he realized that he had the choice to go outside whenever he wanted, and he was proud of himself for his accomplishment. He has learned that he can choose to go outdoors whenever he wants, and he doesn’t get any extra attention over cleaning the playroom (just his own sense of accomplishment).

Abuse It and Lose It:

A second method was created by David Keirsey. It is called Abuse It and Lose It. With this method it is important not to give praise or punishment. The ADHD child thrives on arguing and can probably argue you into the ground, plus he receives attention when you’re engaged in arguing. ADHD children crave attention so this just adds fuel to the fire. It is important to remember not to engage in an argument. You are the parent.

With this method, you tell the child that he will lose his privilege if he doesn’t cooperate. Losing the privilege of being with classmates is a great way to teach an ADHD child appropriate behavior. My son is not yet school aged, but I was reminded of how I used this method a few months ago. He was three years-old and had realized that after lunch we went upstairs for naptime. Like most three-year old children he wasn’t a fan of naptime so he began nibbling at his lunch and our eating time went from 30 minutes to an hour or more. I found myself alternately begging and threatening him to get him to finish his lunch. Food is one area I try not to battle because I cannot win that battle. Ultimately my son decides what is swallowed and what isn’t.

So I quickly gave up battling and instead I began setting a timer for 30 minutes. When the timer went off lunch time was over whether he had taken one bite or cleaned his plate. He tested me the first day to see if I’d go by my word, and when I did I didn’t have that battle again.

Recently another parent confessed that she was facing a similar battle, only her battle is occurring because they have a new baby in their home and her 3 year-old daughter wants attention. One way to get it is to refuse to eat and watch mom beg and plead with her for the next hour or longer. When I shared this method with the mom, her answer was “but she’d love for the meal to be over—that’s exactly what she wants!” My answer was that after a number of consecutive meals where her daughter has only nibbled at the food, she would get hungry and eat. The key is to take the attention (positive and negative) away from the situation because what her daughter really wants is attention from mom.

Logical Consequences:

The final disciplinary technique that teaches self-discipline is the use of logical consequences. Allowing your ADHD child to fail at something teaches your child that his actions have consequences. For instance, my son tends to flail around in his bed at naptime when he’s wound up and not ready to settle. We’ll go through our naptime routine of songs, prayers, and hugs and kisses and I’ll see that wild look still in his eyes, and I have an idea of what will ensue. Sure enough not even a minute after I close his bedroom door I’ll hear a loud thump and he’ll begin to wail. I know exactly what has happened because he is still learning this lesson. When he disobeys my rules about lying calmly in bed, he throws himself backwards onto his pillow and hits his head on the chair rail that is on our wall. Each time I go in, I matter-of-factly check that he isn’t bleeding or getting a lump on his head and then ask him what happened. Since I already know what happened, this is just for his benefit to remind him of how his head was hurt. When he tells me, I ask him if he’s allowed to jump on his bed. He is forced to answer no, and I remind him that this is why we have that rule, then I say goodnight and leave the room.

By not giving him extra attention when he disobeys my rules and lightly injures himself, he learns that disobeying the rules actually hurts and he won’t get extra attention or a reprieve from his nap by doing this to himself.

Parenting a child with ADHD takes a tremendous amount of work, but by remaining calm and not giving undue attention (negative or positive) to your child you will cut down on a great deal of the motivation for poor behavior. Instead, your child will learn that he can successfully control himself and that he’s in charge of how he lives his life. This boosts his self-esteem and helps him realize this does not have to cripple him. By equipping him to live with his disorder, you are giving him his life back in a way medication can’t.