Thursday, December 1, 2011

Punishment for the Sake of...What?

My poor little Bear has been having a bit of a rough time lately. He's getting into a whole heap of trouble at school and at home, which is pretty hard on everyone, especially him. Imagine being six years old and never being able to do anything right? Poor little guy. (Note: We're hoping his meds just need to be increased. He's grown 2 inches and put on 5 lbs since July, which is a fair amount.)

TheODDDad and I have never punished Bear for something that happened at school. The school hands out discipline for infractions, so it seems silly to punish him twice. If they've taken something he really likes away, why would we do the same thing? If he did something here and I punished him, TheODDDad wouldn't then hand out a second punishment, would he? Now, that's not to say we don't talk to Bear about whatever happened, but that's different.

How to discipline Bear has long been a conundrum for us. Convensional wisdom holds that children must be disciplined when they do something wrong in order to learn from their mistakes. I understand that -- really, I do. And for most children, it makes sense. But on the other side, imaging studies (MRIs, etc) have shown that the part of the brain affected by ADHD is the part that regulates emotion and impulse control, which means that a child is often unable to stop the unwanted behaviour despite knowing it's wrong.

Bear is no dummy. In fact, the school tells us he's "scary brilliant." He knows hitting and kicking are wrong and is the first to get upset when someone else is doing it. He's also extremely remorseful once the dust he's disturbed with all his kicking has settled. The fact of the matter is that no matter how many times we punish him and tell him that what he's doing is wrong, he is still unable to stop himself. That's not to say that someday he won't be able to control his actions, but that day is a long way away. For one thing, he's only six. That plays a big part. Secondly, he needs to learn the skills to recognize how he's feeling and to figure out how to react in an appropriate manner to the things that bother him. Did I mention he's only six?

So in the meantime, what do we do about discipline? If he kicks me or throws something at me, how should I react? Is there any point to punishing him, or is that simply punishing him for the sake of punishing him. He knows it's wrong, so I'm not teaching him anything. On the other hand, allowing your child to "get away" with transgressions seems to be the opposite of good parenting. On the other, other hand (trust me, you need three hands minimum when you have a child with behavioural challenges), if he really is lacking the skills necessary to behave in an appropriate manner then I can no more get mad at him than I could get mad at a child who has never been taught to read for not knowing how to read.

See the conundrum? What would you do?


  1. There is a difference between discipline and punishment. Punishment is necessary when discipline has failed. Discipline, on the other hand, is the methodological education and practice of correct and appropriate behaviour - which does not necessarily mean that there is punishment involved.

    You know that I know that self-discipline is sometimes hard in ADHDers. You are present in your situation, and you know Bear's limitations, so please feel free to absolutely ignore me if what I say doesn't suit your family.

    While Bear knows that hitting is wrong, he has yet to learn how to control the impulse of hitting. This is why you need to give him discipline. The thing is, having him sit in time-out (I hear you laughing at the idea because it hasn't worked... ever!) having him sit in time-out won't work.

    Parenting ADHD kids is hard, and intensive. You know this. The discipline that Bear needs now will be the intensive kind. You need to help him identify those moments BEFORE he crosses the line so that he can stop himself or just walk away.

    You know he can't keep hitting people. At 6 it's hurtful, at 16 he can put somebody in the hospital!

    So to answer your question, how do you discipline a child who knows that what he is doing is wrong, but he can't control that he does it...

    You need to help him sort it out. What was he thinking the moment or two just before he took a swing? Usually it will fall under at least 3 categories. 1. I don't like this. 2. It's not fair. 3. I'm angry/upset/sad/frustrated... or even a 4th category of "That's not true!"

    If he can realize that he is thinking any one of these "categories" of thought (sometimes it could be other words that also mean these same general thoughts...) and if he can learn to walk away when he is thinking these thoughts rather than after he has crossed the line into hitting, then he will have learned the discipline of self-control over hitting.

    We have a daughter who will often get in a right pissy mood (if I can use those terms here...) and bully everyone around her. She knows she's not supposed to bully the people around her. We discipline her by helping her recognize when she is in a bad mood. "M. You need to change your tone of voice. You need to calm down. We understand you're frustrated, but you can't behave like this. If you continue to do so, you will be punished."

    It doesn't always work, but we have rarely had to punish her, and she is learning to better control her emotions and to properly vent.

    If you don't already, you might consider working with a life-coach for Bear. They might be able to give you extra tools to deal with the situations at home, and help Bear learn to manage his emotions better.

    Certainly, if his medication is no longer well suited for him, you'll need to get that re-adjusted. But the medications should only ever be like a corrective brace for an invalid, not like the crutch. It's supposed to help stabilize him in a rational manner while you help him learn the self-discipline he needs to manage his issues. The medicine won't do the work for him. He has to do it for himself.

    I hope this helps. If not, please forget every word and just replace them with a long distance ((hugs))...

  2. Hi Laura. I love your blog and would love to speak to you about your challenges with Bear as I also have a daughter with many of the same mental health challenges.

    My daughter is now 12 and was diagnosed with ADHD, learning disabilities, fine motor co-ordination problems, and giftedness at 6 years old from TDSB psychological services. She was diagnosed with ODD after 2 in-patient treatments at 2 different pediatric Mental Health wards in Hospitals in Toronto when she was 8 and 9 years old. She was diagnosed with an anxiety disorder earlier this year when she was 11 years old.

    What most people with "normal" children don't understand is that with most children with ADHD that is only their 1st diagnosis and 60% of children with ADHD have other co-morbid mental health problems that reveal themselves over time. Also in brain scans of children with ADHD their pre-frontal cortex (brains) are 30% less developed than "normal" children. Therefore they are also 30% less mature in their ability to control their impulses and generally in their maturity levels; for example, a 6 year old is really mentally only 4 years old.

    I don't think any parent of "normal" children can possibly understand how difficult our lives as parents of these "special needs" children are unless they are walking in our shoes every day. More power to all of us "special needs" parents to just keep going day after day.

    Laura, you are doing a wonderful service by blogging about this extremely misunderstood, somewhat controversial, stigmatized and yet very important subject.

    I want to assure you that everything will improve over time with your son Bear!

    My daughter is 12 and though the past 6 years have been a "journey" she is doing better in all areas due to a combination of numerous variables including finding the right school program, social skills training, parenting courses, 2 in-patient pediatric mental health treatments in Hospitals and the right medications.

    Would love to read you in Today's Parent magazine every month! Best of luck with the contest!

  3. Hi Laura,

    No sage advice to give...but right there with you!
    We are having a similar period of aggression right now. We have found in the past that repetition is the only thing that works. Then we we get lax about reminding, the behavior reappears.
    Dig deep!