ADHD in Kids: Top 5 Most Effective Parenting Strategies for Kids with ADHD or HFA

Throw Out the Rulebook

Let’s face it, raising kids with ADHD and/or “high-functioning” autism is extra tough (Can I get an “amen?”). It takes more time, energy, tears, and resilience than parenting healthy, neurotypical kids. It just does. In fact, it really necessitates that you throw out society’s parenting rulebook altogether and write your own, which is exactly what I teach the parents I work with. Deep dive into your child’s needs — weaknesses and strengths — and create a new, customized parenting roadmap that is effective for your child. You’ll know you’re on the right track and your strategies are truly effective when your child (and you) are surviving, and beginning to thrive.

Let’s talk about the 5 parenting strategies that absolutely, positively must be part of your custom parenting roadmap for every child with ADHD and/or “high-functioning” autism.


Top 5 Most Effective Parenting Strategies for Kids with ADHD or HFA

#1 Validate Emotions and Show Empathy

The single most helpful strategy for parents of kids with ADHD and/or “high-functioning” autism is validating your child’s thoughts and feelings by showing interest and empathy. Sometimes, their emotional intensity is fueled by talk of “overreacting,” “acting like a baby,” or “stretching the truth.” Kids are people, too. Their feelings matter, even if they react in a manner out of scale for the situation and/or their age. Minimizing or dismissing their thoughts and feelings makes them feel like their ideas and problems don’t matter — like they don’t matter. Validating their thoughts and feelings, in turn, makes them feel understood and loved — isn’t that the goal?

Jeffery Bernstein, PhD, author of 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child, says, “understanding your child is just as important, if not more important, than loving them.” It’s that powerful. “Contrary to what many frustrated parents may think, particularly during those stressful times of conflicts,” writes Bernstein, “validating feelings is not condoning bad choices or giving in to defiant behavior. Validating your child conveys deep empathy.”

While our kids’ responses may seem out of scale for the situation or not age-appropriate, validating their feelings acknowledges that their emotions are understandable within their viewpoint, through the lens of ADHD/ASD. You’re acknowledging that their feelings are real and true to them.

There are many ways to validate a child’s feelings. Useful validating phrases include:

“I know it’s hard to wait…”

“That must have hurt…”

“It’s hard when you don’t do as well as you wanted to…”

mom and daughter talking and validating emotions

“It feels bad to lose…”

“We all get angry when…”

“I can see you are feeling…”

“That can be really annoying…”

“I feel the same way when…”

“I bet you are sad because…”

“I know what you mean…”

Besides making your child feel understood, you are teaching emotional awareness and regulation strategies by talking through their feelings. Emotional validation fosters appropriate emotional development and regulation, skills kids with ADHD/ASD certainly need help with.

It’s not just up to parents to validate their kids’ thoughts and feelings. Teachers can make an important impact in this area, as well.  Acknowledging a student’s struggles can be validating also, when done in a positive manner.

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#2 Ask, “How Can I Help You?”

While there is no magic bullet cure for ADHD or autism (you know that’s right!), there is one phrase you can say to your child that validates feelings and, very often, improves an unwanted situation. It’s so powerful, I call it the “magic phrase.”

“How can I help you?”

Is your child frustrated? Say, “How can I help you?”

Is your child down or sad? Say, “How can I help you?”

Is your child angry? Say, “How can I help you?”

Is your child anxious? Say, “How can I help you?”

Is your child struggling with homework? Say, “How can I help you?”

Yep. That’s it. That’s the magic. It seems simple and intuitive but we rarely think about it in the middle of the struggles.

Saying, “How can I help you?” dovetails with tip #1: validate your child’s emotions and offer empathy, because it acknowledges and validates your child’s feelings in that moment. Validation and empathy are, by far, the most powerful parenting tools, but we don’t use them enough. This magic phrase shows that you believe your child is struggling. It also shows your child that you care about their struggle and what they are going through. And it subtlety conveys that you are there for them when they need you (a great message for when your kids are teens and you want them to talk to you).

During a homework struggle, instead of saying, “Just get it done already. I don’t understand why you can’t just get it done,” say, “How can I help you?” Take a minute to imagine the resulting reaction you’d get from each of these two responses. Quite different, right? See! This phrase can be magic.

If your child is having an angry outburst, your first thought might be to say, “Get over it and act your age.” Or, instead, you could say, “How can I help you?” We all know the reactions to each would be far, far different. The first points out their weaknesses and will only add fuel to the smoldering fire. The later conveys caring and compassion and is likely to diffuse their anger.

Will the magic phrase work in every situation? No, of course not. The struggle is real.

Will the magic phrase solve the underlying problem (having to do homework or the reason they got angry)? Nope. Won’t do that either. That problem is still there. But now, you have calmed the tone of your interaction so you can address that underlying issue.

 <<< Download the Magic Phrase Printable >>>

Don’t get upset if your child’s answer to “How can I help you?” is not productive. They might say, “You can’t,” or say, “By leaving me alone,” or any number of less-than-ideal answers to the question.

The point isn’t necessarily to engage in conversation about their problem, although that would be the beautiful fireworks display at the end of the magic trick. The point, rather, is to validate their feelings, diffuse the emotional turmoil, and show your child that you are in their corner. The collaborative conversation to help solve their problem can come later, when everyone is good and calm.

If your child says you can help by leaving them alone, then leave them alone for a bit (unless, of course, they’re not safe alone). We all need to be left alone at times. Truthfully, sometimes we parents overcomplicate things and leaving them alone is exactly what they need.

Ask how you can help and then listen, truly listen to your child’s needs.  


#3 Remain Calm — Be the Thermostat, not the Thermometer

I’ll say it again: Raising kids with ADHD and/or “high-functioning” autism is tough. They sometimes seem to have been born with the gift of instilling frustration even in the most peaceful of humans. It isn’t their intent, mind you. Far from it, in fact. But, nonetheless, their innate behaviors can frustrate everyone around them, especially their parents.

Once you accept that ADHD behavior is not willful, nor lazy, you have built your foundation for calm. You are the parent, the leader by example more than declarations, especially with kids with ADHD and/or “high-functioning” autism.

When you’re angry or aggravated, it only escalates your child’s behavior. Nothing productive can come from a clash of the titans in your own living room. Repeat after me, “No-thing.” Instead, everyone walks away angry and frustrated, your child feels misunderstood and down on themselves, and the issue that started it all didn’t get resolved.

Early on after diagnosis, I found myself yelling, “Why can’t you just ____” statements at my son, Ricochet, repeatedly, every day.

“Why can’t you just listen the first time I give instructions?”

“Why can’t you just stand in line without jumping around?”

“Why can’t you just calm down for five minutes?”

“Why can’t you just get the chore over with and move on?”

Well, he can’t “just” do these things because genetics and environment clashed to create a brain that simply isn’t built for it. Once I realized, and accepted that, I could begin my journey to calm and positive parenting — two parenting traits that are crucial to your parenting success.

Staying calm in heated, frustrating parenting moments is a learned skill. It takes practice and time. It took me many, many months to learn to stay emotionally detached during a meltdown and not take my son’s behavior and statements personally. Even when he was a little guy screaming, “You don’t love me! I hate you! I will never love you again!” in the middle of the grocery store (and I do mean screaming). Sure, my instinct was to worry about what people thought of me and my parenting. My instinct was to threaten him into compliance with serious, stern words. My instinct was that I was the parent — the authoritarian — and he should simply do what I say. Acting on those instincts backfired every time, only fanning the flames and escalating the situation. Remaining calm always worked better (and still does).

Leave your emotions out of it. State facts in a calm and even tone. Your child may try to goat you, but don’t bite. Stick to the facts, remain even, and try to work with your child to find a compromise or resolution that can work for all. By doing this, you are modeling appropriate emotional regulation and social skills too — an added bonus.

be the thermostat, not the thermometerAnother strategy I employ to remain calm is to remember that I want to be the thermostat, not the thermometer. I want to respond (a thermostat works to adjust the temperature) rather than react (a thermometer simply offers the temperature, but not help in adjusting it).

Let’s revisit the example of a homework struggle we reviewed in strategy #2:

During a homework struggle, instead of saying, “Just get it done already. I don’t understand why you can’t just get it done,” say, “How can I help you?”

“Just get it done already” is simply reflecting the temperature (heated frustration) back to your child. Saying, “how can I help you,” instead offers help in adjusting the situation to a more comfortable scenario for everyone, acting as a thermostat.

Here’s another example,

“I want this new game but I don’t have allowance until tomorrow,” says Ricochet.

“Ok, Buddy. You can buy it tomorrow,” I reply.

“NO! I want it now. Tomorrow is too far away!”

“I’m sorry,” I say calmly and matter-of-fact. “The rule is that you must have the money to spend the money. I’m happy to help you buy it tomorrow.”

Ricochet begins tossing things and slamming doors to convey his anger. I let him cool off in his room for a few minutes, then go check on him.

“Your rules are stupid! It doesn’t hurt anybody for me to get it today!” he fires off, making sure I see the evil glare he’s working very hard to maintain.

“I’m sorry you don’t agree with the rule, but it’s still a rule in our house. Momma and Daddy don’t get to spend their money before they have it, so it’s something you have to learn as you grow up too.” Still totally calm and even, “You can make a purchase tomorrow. It’s almost bedtime now, so that’s really not so far away.”

Ricochet groans.

“I like the way you retreated to your bedroom to cool off instead of continuing to fight with Momma.”

Is it hard to pull that off when your 12-year-old is melting down like a toddler? Ab-so-lute-ly! Of course. It’s a learned skill, but one paramount to your parenting success.

Here are some tricks to remain calm to use in the heat of the moment:

  • Give yourself a time out.
  • Take a walk around the block.
  • Turn on some music.
  • Hum a tune.
  • Start singing a silly song.
  • Close your eyes and take relaxing belly breaths.

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#4 Set Your Child Up for Successes

Setting your child up for successes may seem monumentally hard when they have ADHD and/or “high-functioning” autism— or even impossible given all our kids’ challenges — but, it’s not. I promise. I’ll show you how right now.

The first step is to understand your child’s truth — what is true for your child right now, at this very moment. Where is he developmentally? What does she struggle with? Where does he need help?

Next, determine what your child’s strengths, interests, and talents are. Use those in everyday life to adapt situations so your child has an opportunity for success. An attainable opportunity for success, given his disabilities and developmental age — attainability for your child is a crucial element.

Crafting opportunities for successes can include several different strategies. It might be accommodations for your child, skills boosting and preparation, or the environment you choose. Let’s look at some examples…

My son enjoys the visual beauty of fireworks. However, he hates the loud booms and crackles, and he finds the crowds that usually accompany a 4th of July fireworks display downright unnerving. With that in mind, we made two accommodations so he can enjoy fireworks events: he wears noise-cancelling headphones and we go to a tiny, neighboring town so the crowd is a lot smaller.

Accommodations at school can set kids with ADHD and/or autism up for successes, as well. For instance, modified assignments make success at completing school work more attainable for kids with slow processing speeds or who take a lot longer due to frequent distraction. Assistive technology is another great accommodation for challenged learners. My son has severe executive functioning deficits, so he uses an iPad to do his worksheets digitally, so the papers can’t get lost.

If your child likes playing a team sport, but isn’t up for the competitive nature of mainstream athletics, consider intramural teams who simply play for fun, or even Special Olympics. Offer the environment where your child can succeed.

Most kids with ADHD and/or autism struggle with social skills. Before a playdate or activity with friends, set her up for success by talking about some social aspects where she flounders. Use if-then/when-then rules whenever possible, to play on their concrete thinking. Here are some I use with my son:

  • When a friend comes to our house, that means they’re our guest. Guests get to choose the first activity or game.” This helps him to seem less bossy and not monopolize the time together, something that often happens since he’s a very black-and-white thinker and only sees one way. Giving him this social rule lessens the impact of lagging social skills.
  • If someone asks, ‘How are you?’ then you reply with ‘good,’ (or however you’re feeling) and then ‘how are you?’” This helps kids with ADHD and/or autism learn social reciprocity, which is often a lagging skill for them.
  • If you get in an argument with your friend or feel angry, then come get mom or dad to help.” This can help kids who are very sensitive or highly emotionally reactive, and potentially ward off emotional outbursts that could damage their relationship with that peer.
  • If you feel overwhelmed or need a break to have some quiet, alone time, then say, ‘Excuse me for a few minutes,’ and go take your break.”

You also have the opportunity to set your child up for successes in the way you react, talk to, and interact with him. If a parent has an emotional, intense, or inflexible response, the child will too. If the parent remains calm, the child will be more calm than when everyone is emotionally charged. This applies to what you say to your child, as well, not just attitude and demeanor.

For instance, if my son marches in the door from school grumbling, throwing his backpack down, and kicking off his shoes across the room, I could react emotionally and possibly raise my voice and say, “stop acting that way right now.” However, there’s a lot of ambiguity in what exactly “that way” is, and my anger or frustration will definitely add fuel to his fire. If, instead, I say, “I can see that you’re frustrated or angry about something. Did you have a rough day? Rough days are so hard for me too!” I’m diffusing the situation by showing empathy and validating his feelings. I could even take it a step further and use my magic phrase from strategy #2, “How can I help you?” Rather than fuel the very behavior I’m trying to change, how I react can set my son up to react more appropriately himself, which is a success.

Lastly, setting appropriate expectations also offers our kids opportunities for successes. When expectations are based on our kid’s lagging developmental age, they are attainable. When expectations are attainable, our kids succeed. When our kids succeed, it builds their confidence and self-esteem… which preps them even more for future successes. Win-win-win.