How to help and discipline a ADHD toddler

My toddler is very particular and too smart for her own good. Plus I think she has ADHD (inattention, not so much hyperactivity) How do I help discipline her? Timeouts, counting & breathing, and reasoning (which she understands for the majority of it) are no good.
Asked by Ven

Smart children can be very challenging to raise!  You said a toddler, and so I am wondering how much language she has yet.  But one thing that is true for even the youngest babies is that you connect with them by helping them to feel that you understand what they are trying to communicate, and they can count on you to take care of their needs at least the majority of the time.  Remember that children do want to be good, and your love is the most important thing to them above everything else.  The thing that children fear the most is losing their parents, and to a child, they imagine that if you are not pleased with them you could reject them and they could lose you.  It might not always seem that way, but that is what matters the most to a very young child.  They want to be good.  They want to be loved.  They want you to know that they are trying.

But children don't have all of the skills that they need to be good all of the time.  It is difficult even for adults to manage their emotions when emotions get intense.  Children are full of inner conflicts.  As much as they want your approval, they also have a powerful need to learn about their environment, to experiment, and to assert their independence.  And that combination can really get them into trouble.  Sometimes they are deliberately testing their limits to make sure that you still love them, no matter what they do, and that can be incredibly frustrating.  It is also developmentally normal, to an extent. Your job is to teach her the limits so that she can be safe and grow and mature and ultimately become more trusted and independent.

As frustrating as it is, all of these challenging behaviors and difficult emotions are opportunities to bond and strengthen your relationship with your child.  John Gottman, one of the best known family therapists, has outlined a technique called "Emotion Coaching and Problem Solving" for helping parents to learn how to teach and coach their children through difficult emotions and challenging behavior.  You can read more about it in Gottman's book, "Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child."

  • The first step is to be aware of your child's emotions. 
  • The second step is to recognize that when your child is experiencing difficult emotions (which often leads to impulsive behavior), that is an opportunity for you to bond with your child.
  • Third, tune in to what your child is communicating (verbally or non-verbally).  Listen with empathy and validate how the child is feeling.  Feelings are never wrong - they just are.  Feelings are not the same as behaving though.
  • Fourth, help your child to learn to identify their feelings and the words for them, and to be able to express their feelings with words.

I realize that this may sound like reasoning.  The difference is that reasoning expects your child to recognize the logic in what you are saying to her, while emotion coaching is about you listening to your child and helping her to feel heard and to communicate better.  The focus is on what your child cares about the most right then in that moment, and that is something that she will be motivated to connect with.

The final step in emotion coaching is problem solving.  Sometimes you won't even need this step once your child feels understood and can say how she feels with words.  When you do need a problem solving step, the way that it works is to guide your child to find a solution, while teaching limits and exploring the consequences or "what ifs."  As much as she is able to, ask your child what needs to be done.  Ask her what will happen if you do what she is proposing, and help her to shape that into a reasonable and appropriate solution. 

For example, if she ran into the street, of course you are going to stop her and make sure that she is safe.  You will probably be scared and mad and upset because she could have gotten hurt.  Recognize your own emotions and what you need to do to regulate your emotions.  And then see if you can understand what your child is feeling.  Be curious about why she did that.  Was she frustrated because she wanted to go play in the park and you told her no?  Recognize that this is an opportunity to understand each other and bond together.  Validate her frustration (even if she can't go play in the park right now, she can still be frustrated).  Help her to name that feeling.  Explain that she can't go play in the park and she has to stay with you and out of the street.  Ask her what she thinks would help her to stay safe and out of the street and also help her to feel better.  Explore those ideas and come up with a plan together based on her own suggestions.