I have to laugh when I think about the topic of punishment. You’ll see why in a moment.

I often have parents ask me why punishments are not effective with their AD/HD children. I can feel the parents frustration and, well, bluntly, the blow to their pride. Parents often pride themselves on raising obedient and respectful children. They take it very personally when their child is difficult to manage or not performing up to expectations. It is usually the non-AD/HD parent that struggles the most, because they cannot empathize with the difficulty the child is having. The parent who has the AD/HD tendencies usually remains conspicuously silent on the subject or denies there is a problem at all.

I could go into all kinds of neurological theories as to the why behind the behavior of children. I have found that does not always help people in everyday life. So, here is an extreme but helpful example of why punishment does not always work with AD/HD, especially in the long term.

Imagine a child who lives in a wheelchair. They cannot and will never be able to walk. The parent then says to the child, “It is my expectation that you walk up the stairs on your own. If you do not do as I request, you will lose your computer privileges for a week.”

Did you cringe? It makes you angry doesn’t it? What sick person would ever say that to a child in a wheelchair? That is a completely unrealistic expectation. Yet, this kind of exchange goes on everyday with children who have invisible disabilities like AD/HD.

Many parents miss that their child with AD/HD or any other learning challenge is often trying much harder than the kid sitting next to him in school and achieving less results. I work diligently to help parents understand the difference between a capable child who is struggling to perform due to issues that can be managed maybe by a therapist or strategic parenting and a child who is neurologically incapable of performing as requested by school or the parent.

Just as a child who is bound to a wheelchair cannot walk up the stairs, many children with AD/HD cannot consistently attend in the classroom. They cannot finish tests in the time allotted. They will forget to turn in assignments. They will forget they even had an assignment. And despite the level of their intellect, they may not get grades that reflect their actual potential.

Parents do not typically know how to respond to these events when the disability is invisible. In this case, we may hypothesize the child’s brain is low on the neurotransmitter dopamine. This is a simplification, of course, but understanding the challenge is organic and neurological is important.

I have epilepsy. People are sometimes baffled why my husband might have to help me (or carry me) out of a movie theater because the frame rate or flashing lights triggered a seizure. When they learn I have epilepsy, they say, “Oh! That makes more sense!”

However, we do not offer children with AD/HD the same level of compassion. I am not exactly sure why, but I can guess our media and all of the misinformation floating out there in the world does not help the cause. I am also dyslexic and people still ask me if I read backwards or see letters backwards. All I can say to that is, “Ugh!!!”

AD/HD does exist. While the way we categorize attention difficulties may change over time, we currently call it AD/HD. My husband and I work with people daily who are plagued by their AD/HD tendencies, and school is not their only problem. They struggle in relationships, at work, getting daily chores done, making sure they are properly caring for themselves, and, mostly, accepting themselves. Some of these people respond very well to medications and others do not. Regardless, they still need to work on their challenges and learn how to structure their lives and support themselves.

So, not knowing what else to do, parents resort to what their parents would have done in a similar situation. They yell at the child to try harder or punish them for their poor performance. Yikes!

This approach is sending the wrong message to the child. Punishment and condemnation deliver the message that you are not OK just as you are. You are broken. Your parents want you to be different. This is a tough message for a child to hear from their parents. You can imagine where a child might go from here?

Instead, helping the child and the family understand exactly what is happening is critical. The child must know they have a neurological condition that comes with challenges and gifts. People with AD/HD are some of our greatest artists, innovators, therapists and entrepreneurs, to name a few. Families need to learn how to best support their child’s invisible disability in the context of school, family and friendships. Setting realistic goals is very important. Expecting perfection is disastrous. And, just as you would buy a child who could not walk a wheelchair, you need to find the supports necessary for the child with AD/HD to feel successful in their environment. Supports might mean a psychologist, a coach, a psychiatrist, a tutor, a support group, extra help from parents at home with scheduling and homework, accountability buddies, and most importantly, finding what the child is really good at or passionate about.

Everyone is good at something. School and performance at school should never define a child’s worth. There is so much more to people than grades on a piece of paper. Parents must learn to empathize with the child regarding what is difficult for them. This does not mean lower expectations, but setting realistic expectations. It also means finds strategies and perspectives that are truly helpful. For example, externalizing rewards for normal children is frowned upon by neuroscientists, but for the AD/HD crowd, external rewards can be effective at motivating the child to produce. Given that a broken internal reward system is a hallmark of AD/HD, parents can use this knowledge to their advantage. Depending on the age of the child, rewards like extra time on the computer or a particular lego set they have been wanting or a special outing alone with a parent, can do a lot to help motivate the child to initiate a task and endure the frustration necessary to complete it.

As the child develops they will be capable of setting their own goals which may be a little less tangible as motivators. My oldest daughter decided she wanted to study theoretical physics at Cambridge. She realized that she was going to have to pull some high marks in some difficult classes. She is completely intellectually capable, however, her issues including epilepsy, AD/HD Inattentive Type, boredom, and poor frustration tolerance, are high hurdles to overcome. She is so driven to achieve her goal, she is overcoming her issues and is more open to the help from her doctors than ever before.

So, just like I would laugh at the ridiculous situation of asking a child in a wheelchair to walk or be punished, I have to internally laugh at parent’s responding to neurological problems with punishment. When parents fully understand what they are dealing with, they themselves discard punishment immediately as the default response to a struggling child.

It just takes shedding a little light on a situation for a person to see clearly.