Raising a Child with ADHD: How Constructive Praise Helps the ADHD Brain

“A little recognition for a job well done means a lot to children with ADHD."

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“Sit still.”

“Pay attention.”

“Stop doing that.”

These are some of the many phrases a child with ADHD, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, may hear throughout the day as they navigate school and home life. Due to the inattentiveness and lack of impulse control that ADHD causes, these children may hear nothing but corrections and complaints all day.

What’s often missing is constructive praise. The constant critiques on their behavior—which they often can’t fully control—can be very discouraging, and some may internalize these critiques and start to believe they are a “bad” kid.

Constructive praise, on the other hand, can help remind the child with ADHD of the things they are good at. It can help them feel less discouraged, and it can motivate them to keep working hard despite their challenging ADHD symptoms.

“A little recognition for a job well done means a lot to children with ADHD,” says Preeti Parikh, MD, chief medical officer at HealthiNation and pediatrician at Mount Sinai Hospital. 

Here are tips to incorporate constructive praise effectively for your child with ADHD:

  1. Don’t overdo it. Praising every little thing they do can cause the praise to lose its value, and your child might even start to sense that you’re not being sincere.

  2. Give praise immediately. Praise that’s given in the moment—or as soon as possible—tends to be more effective at encouraging the child to repeat the good behavior.  “You don’t wait 24 hours later and then say, ‘Oh, by the way, last night, you did a great job of putting the dishes away,’” says Dr. Parikh.

  3. Provide a variety of praise. Children notice more than you might give them credit for, and they’ll definitely notice if you repeat the same praise over and over again. It may start to feel insincere, or just lose its value. 

  4. Be specific with praise. While “good job” can be encouraging, include concrete details whenever possible. For example, praising your child for staying seated throughout all of dinner is more effective than just saying “you were good at dinner.” Specificity can also help you see the good aspects of your child’s behavior, as opposed to judging their total behavior as either “good” or “bad.”

  5. Consider a token system for younger children. Some kids with ADHD respond very well to things like star charts, stickers, beans in a jar, or token boards. To use a token system effectively, define with your child what types of things will earn them a star or sticker. You can also pick one specific activity (like finishing a homework assignment) if you’re working on one goal at a time. When your kid earns enough tokens, they get awarded a special privilege—for example, a trip to the movie theater.

Sincere and constructive praise can have a real impact on how your child with ADHD views themselves, which can in turn affect their behavior. Children with ADHD need positivity just as much—if not more—than kids without it. 

“As a parent myself, I know it’s always a little difficult to remember to praise your child, especially if you’re tired and frustrated,” says Dr. Parikh. “You’re not going to always be perfect, but just to keep it in the back of your mind and try to practice it as much as you can.”