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ADHD: The Importance of Communication and Positive Attention

Girl laughing with mom
Being the parent of a child with ADHD can be challenging. You may feel at your wits' end, as if "nothing works," or that you are constantly criticizing or telling your child "no." Improved communication and positive attention can help.

Improving communication with your child

To help your child understand what you expect of her, it's important to communicate clearly. Here are some tips:

  • Make sure your body language and tone of voice are warm and positive.
  • Get your child's attention before asking a question or giving an instruction.
  • Give explicit, clear, direct instructions.
  • Use "when… then…" statements: "When you finish your math homework, then you can have a snack."
  • Give meaningful encouragement and frequent, specific feedback: "Thank you for hanging up your coat."
  • Give reminders and prompts for the behaviour you want to see, and praise when your child follows instructions: "Remember to wash your hands before dinner. Good job washing your hands!"
  • Encourage your child to ask for help when she needs it.

Providing positive attention during play

Parents often pay a lot of attention to undesirable behaviour. However, paying attention to your child’s good behaviour can encourage him to conduct himself in a positive manner more often. One way to do this is to pay attention to desirable behaviour when it happens during playtime. Here are a few tips:

  • If your child is under nine years of age, choose a time each day which will become your “special time” with your child. This can be during the day if your child is in preschool, or after dinner if your child is in school. Set aside 20 minutes each day at this time to practice this special playtime with your child.
  • If your child is nine years or older, you do not have to choose a standard time each day. Instead, find a time each day as it may arise when your child seems to be enjoying a play activity alone. Then, stop what you are doing and begin to join in the child’s play.
  • Choose a time when you are not likely to be busy or planning to leave the house for an errand, as your mind will be preoccupied and you will not be able to pay as much attention to your child.
  • No other children should be involved in this special play time. If you have other children, have your partner look after them while you play with your child whose behaviour needs are important. Alternately, choose a time when your other children are not likely to disturb your special play time.
  • Once you and your child have established the play time, let your child choose an activity. This activity can be anything other than watching TV. If your child is older and you have not set up a standard play time, simply approach your child when he is playing alone. Ask if you can join in.
  • Casually watch what your child is doing for a few minutes. After watching your child play, start describing out loud what your child is doing. Do this to show your child that you find his play interesting. You could try describing it like a sportscaster might describe a baseball game over the radio. Or pretend there is a blind person in the room and you are describing to that person what your child is doing.
  • Avoid asking questions. Questions can be intrusive and may provoke confrontations during this play time. Also, do not use commands. Do not direct your child’s activity at all unless it becomes inappropriate.
  • Occasionally make positive feedback about what your child is doing. For example “I like when you and I play together.” Comment on things your child is doing that you like. Also comment on things your child is not doing that would be inappropriate. For example “I like when you don’t throw around your toys.”
  • If your child starts to misbehave, turn away and do something else. If he continues misbehaving, leave the area immediately. Come back and play with your child again when he is doing something more appropriate.

Tara McAuley, PhD, CPsych

Peter Chaban, MA, MEd

Rosemary Tannock, PhD