Power of Positive Reinforcement for ADHD Youth

The power of positive psychology (positive thinking) has been well documented. We all know that positive thinking, while not likely to solve all of your ills, will help you generally feel better on a day-to-day basis. However, we can’t control what our children think about, and we know that by the age of 12, the average ADHD child has heard 20,000 more negative messages about themselves than the average child. So, asking 10- or 11-year-olds to maintain a ‘positive attitude’ is quite a tall order. Our job as the child’s support system is to offer the positive reinforcement that is so lacking in that child’s life. The wonderful part about this is the opportunity that it presents us. By really leaning into positive reinforcement, we can deliver meaningful immediate hits of dopamine our child is seeking, acknowledge their success in completing a difficult task, and provide clarity on what we, as parents and stakeholders, expect (or hope) of them.

As people with ADHD, our prefrontal cortex isn’t getting the amount of dopamine that a neurotypical person is receiving, which means we’re always looking for more dopamine. Dopamine is the chemical that helps us, as people, tolerate discomfort. You may have noticed your child struggle to maintain attention when bored while their peers have a much greater tolerance for that same boredom. Because our tolerance to discomfort sits lower than our peers, we are perpetually seeking more and more dopamine. Simply put, positive reinforcement from people we love, respect, or admire will deliver that dopamine to our brains, making us feel good. Providing positive reinforcement directly after a problematic or non-desired task (for example, laundry or taking the trash out) functions as a meaningful reward for our ADHD brains. It also creates, over time, an association between the task and feeling good.

Power of Positive Reinforcement for ADHD Youth

We often struggle with ADHD to acknowledge or celebrate our success. I’ve had two clients in the past few weeks focus on the questions they got wrong on a test in which they received an 89 and a 98. Both had excellent grades, and both students were hard-pressed to say, out loud, that they had done well on the exam. Instead, they focused on how they “should” have gotten that one question right. There are numerous problems with this thinking, but the one to highlight here is that those clients could not acknowledge their success and, therefore, couldn’t allow themselves to feel good feelings (remember how much we love our good feelings with ADHD) that rewards the hard work it took to get that 89 or that 98.

Over time, it becomes harder and harder to work hard as we continue to deprive ourselves of the acknowledgment of success and the consequences that come from that. However, by using positive reinforcement, we can help our children acknowledge and feel success.

One of the keys to this acknowledgment of success is proportional reactions. Rarely do I meet a client who tells me that their parent or teacher is as enthusiastic about work being done as they are condemning missing or late work. If it’s important, this needs to be reflected equally in your reactions. The other key to this is acknowledging what is hard. If you know your child really struggles to brush their teeth, then they do it (especially if they do it without a fight), and the balloons drop from the ceiling. Our acknowledgment of success in all other areas of life is relative to the difficulty of the  challenge, except for children with ADHD when the things that they struggle with are “easy” for neurotypical children.

For everyone, neurotypical or ADHD, positive reinforcement is a powerful tool in encouraging future good behavior. But for ADHD children primarily, support via positive reinforcement provides the dopamine that is lacking in the child’s brain, which means that telling your ADHD child that they did a good job and you are proud of them can go an incredibly long way in your effort to encourage good habits. This practice also builds the confidence that ADHD children are often lacking and helps combat the significant amount of negative feedback that ADHD children hear. Leveraging positive reinforcement and support will significantly impact your child, their behavior, and your relationship with them.

Griffin Rouse | ADHD Coach | Center For Living Well with ADHD, LLC

Griffin Rouse

ADHD Coach and Life Coach, Executive Skills Coach

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