The Power of Rewards for Kids with ADHD

Many parents of kids with ADHD may feel like they spend an inordinate amount of time yelling at them to do what they need them to do. If you’ve been there, it feels like a failure all the way around. Their behavior doesn’t change, and you feel bad because home isn’t the safe and happy place you want it to be for you or your kids. It can undermine their self-esteem and it doesn’t help establish trust or accountability.

Many experts recommend a different approach for kids with ADHD – a reward system.

Why Rewards are so Effective for Kids with ADHD

To understand why traditional disciplinary methods often don’t work well for kids with ADHD, it helps to understand how they process – or don’t process – threats and punishments.

When an adult considers consequences, they use a part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is responsible for critical thinking and for evaluating information from other parts of the brain, including the fear center — the amygdala. It also parses the subtle implications and longer term consequence inherent in a situation..

But the prefrontal cortex doesn’t reach its full operational capacity until adulthood. So, information from the amygdala may not get properly decoded, resulting in irrational responses, such as big tantrums. In fact, until the teen years, the young brain is mostly pre-logic and egocentric, and not really capable of remembering what they should or shouldn’t do, and when.  What this really means is that the child’s ADHD brain is not unwilling, but rather unable, to conceptualize the abstract threat of losing some privilege or some other type of discipline.

On the flip side, the anticipation of a reward creates dopamine a key neurotransmitters often in short supply in the ADHD brain. Rewards stimulate the production of dopamine, giving the prefrontal cortex what it needs to allow the child to sit still, pay attention, keep hands to self. But the anticipation of a negative outcome creates no dopamine. The actual delivery of the reward earned creates dopamine as well, further aiding the brain to remember that there is an enjoyable consequence to good behavior.

Meaningful Rewards

The rewards don’t have to be expensive or even tangible items to be effective. They simply need to be meaningful to the child. For example, they could include:

  • Time to spend with a friend
  • One-on-one time with a parent
  • A special treat like going out for ice cream
  • Choosing a family meal
  • Extra playtime before bed
  • Extra TV time or time for video games
  • A fun activity

How to Set Up a Reward System That Works

Setting up a rewards system to help your child manage their behavior involves:

  • Identifying the behavioral challenges your child is facing that are most impactful no them and other family members
  • Establish a set of rewards – something that will motivate your child to change behavior along the way
  • Celebrating the wins and letting your child know that they are making progress in a tangible way
  • Sticking to the basic plan you have put in place, but tweaking when needed

Rewards systems are a great way to show your ADHD child, and yourself, that you’re making progress and that’s making a positive difference.



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