Help, my child has ADHD!


Is your life in turmoil because of ADHD? Here’s advice from a new book by psychologist Helena Bester, who specialises in the condition.

RS Harrison had reached a stage in her life when things were looking rosy. Two children were at university. Child number three was winning prizes and had been elected head girl. The fourth child, Sarah, a laatlammetjie, was a bit wild but the household was a well-oiled machine and it wasn’t anything they couldn’t handle. Then Sarah went to school! Suddenly the picture was very different. There was a constant flow of bad news from the school: Sarah disturbed the other children, she never completed her work, she didn’t know her phonics and she was always losing things.

The Harrisons were upset. They’d raised three model children but their youngest was doing all the things they’d criticised as “naughty” in other children. Sarah was selfish. If she didn’t get her way, she screamed the house down. She’d go on and on about something until everyone else was driven to distraction. Mrs Harrison believed she and her husband had the recipe for effective child rearing. But look at Sarah. If Mrs Harrison didn’t remind her she had a test the next day, the child wouldn’t do a stitch of work. Homework time was a nightmare. It was the same every day: the homework book was missing and there were messages about incomplete work in every workbook.

The Harrisons’ social life was also deteriorating. They were so ashamed of Sarah’s behaviour they avoided going out. The child was quite capable of dominating conversation at the dinner table. Sometimes she’d also say rude things that made everyone feel uncomfortable. The puzzle pieces started fitting together only on the day her ADHD was diagnosed.

As with most children with ADHD, Sarah has problems adapting – in her home life, at school and in social situations. These problems cause a lot of tension, especially for her mother.

Stress is subjective. One mother’s distress will be the result mainly of her child’s poor performance at school, while another’s will be because of her child’s behaviour in social situations. I want you as a mother to see there’s an element of this discomfort you can control. You can start changing your own perception. When you decide to make the principle to be independent of the good opinion of others part of your life, you’ll have made significant progress on this road.

Once you’re able to be less concerned about criticism, your tension and discomfort will ease. I also believe practising mindfulness is an effective counterbalance to the stress in your life.

Mothers of children with ADHD often feel insecure and powerless. They start feeling unsure about their effectiveness as mothers, and soon start doubting everything about themselves. Most mothers I’ve met have suffered a significant blow to their self-esteem. Mom feels more and more powerless because she can’t control her child; this makes her unsure of her ability as a mother – and soon she’s doubting everything about herself.

You can’t go on and on using up your energy without replenishing yourself. You’ll become frustrated and despondent, feel powerless and unsure, and perhaps become depressed. That’s why it’s so important you do something to nurture yourself. Perhaps doing yoga works for you, or maybe a calligraphy or bonsai course is more your thing. You know what nurtures your soul.

If you’re so out of touch with your needs you can’t remember when last you did something for yourself, it’s high time you changed the situation. Take a moment to rediscover what you enjoyed in the past. Rekindle the things that made you feel truly alive, and make regular time for them. You could also consider joining an ADHD support group.

What is ADHD?

ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) can be defined as a neurochemical imbalance in certain areas of the brain. There’s a strong genetic component, which means ADHD can be hereditary.

The three main symptoms are inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsivity.


The most important component of the support network for the ADHD child is the family – and the people in the ADHD child’s life who need the most help are the members of the family.

ADHD children’s behaviour needs to be managed. Step by step they also learn how to control their own behaviour. The largest part of this process takes place at home. Let’s take a look at practical tips that can be implemented in households with ADHD sufferers. Some of the advice is also applicable to adults with ADHD.

Clear rules and structures are important 

Vague general rules that are open to interpretation don’t work for these children. “You must always be on time,” won’t be effective. Identify the specific context in which the child’s tardiness causes regular frustration, and formulate the rule accordingly. A good rule would be, for example: “You must be dressed by seven o’clock.” Parents should work together and involve the children, where appropriate, to draw up a specific list of rules. Emphasise the most common points of conflict. The rules should be adapted from time to time and must be age-appropriate. Bedtime will differ for a toddler and a teenager. A watch, an alarm or a timer is a very useful aid in implementing rules for ADHD children.

The importance of rewards

Don’t start implementing rules with punishments. The first phase of implementing the rules involves only rewards. You want to reinforce your child’s spontaneous positive and obedient behaviour.

Reward doesn’t equal money. You reward her with affirmation. Express your approval of your child’s good behaviour in words. You can also reward with a smile or a hug and by your tone of voice. Reward is about recognition. You want to affirm the things your child does that are right and good. Be generous in giving compliments and recognition. It will also do you the world of good. It’s good to focus on what’s beautiful in other people and to express appreciation for it. A next step is to include surprise rewards. You could pick up your child at school on a Friday and go to the beach or to the movies as a reward for finishing all his homework that week. Be creative and make up exciting rewards.

A system of rewards

Rewards can be earned in the form of tokens, stickers or points. Points generally work well for older children, while the visible, tangible tokens or stickers are more effective for younger children who don’t yet have a good numerical sense. These rewards or points can then be exchanged for money or privileges at predetermined intervals. Now compile another list. This time you specify goals you want to achieve in terms of your child’s behaviour. Focus on the problem areas – things that cause the most conflict in your household. This list is therefore very similar to the list of rules.


After you’ve rewarded the desired behaviour generously for a while and the rules are very clear, the penalising process can begin. I can however virtually guarantee if you implement penalties immediately you’ll destroy the process. Try to have at least a two-week period without any penalties. The child can be penalised in different ways for undesirable behaviour or for breaking the rules. It usually works best to apply a combination of penalties.

Those used most often are:

  • Losing reward tokens
  • Losing privileges
  • Grounding
  • Time out

It’s important the child doesn’t lose too many reward tokens too quickly. Don’t take away points, tokens or stickers constantly so he soon has nothing left. That only demoralises him. So use the other methods of penalising as well. Remember the penalty or punishment ought to fit the transgression. It must not reflect the depth of your anger but the seriousness of the transgression.

Time out

Most parents are familiar with the concept of time out. When the child shows undesirable behaviour he’s sent to his room. The principle of one minute’s time out for every year of age works well. But when he displays undesirable behaviour while serving the time, one minute is added to the punishment.

Give clear instructions

Long, wordy and vague instructions don’t work. The instructions you give to your ADHD child must be short and to the point. Use concrete, direct, clear words. Avoid metaphorical language, imagery, sarcasm or innuendo. The three critical times in most homes with an ADHD child are before school, homework time and bedtime.

Effective instructions for ADHD children sound like this:

  • "You have 10 minutes to get dressed, Peter. Take a look at the clock here”, and you show him the time.
  • “You have five minutes before your bath, Susan”, and after five minutes: “Go and bath now. Remember to wash the bath afterwards. You’ve got 20 minutes. The clock is there.”

Give one instruction at a time 

Some people organise their thoughts while they speak, and at the same time plan their lives as well as the lives of all those around them. This kind of mother’s thoughts might sound something like this: “We’ll just drive down to the shops quickly. We mustn’t forget, you write your test tomorrow. Just ask Amy whether she wants  to come along. Bring me that book for your project quickly – it’s overdue for the library.” And all this while reversing at full speed out of the garage. William, who has to hear it all, has attention deficit disorder and yes, he inherited it from his mother. If your thoughts are as chaotic, I suggest you do what it takes to calm them. You must think ahead but not talk ahead.

Help them to plan and organise

The planning ability of the ADHD person is usually extremely poor. When an ADHD child has to plan an assignment, rework the information and write it up in a meaningful way, it all becomes too much. The parent ought to help here. You can divide the project into a number of tasks, which you give to the child one by one with a time limit for each one. If they apply and practise structured approach techniques consistently enough, they’ll learn something about them. The principle of “children learn what they live” applies here.

Keep your sense of humour

ADHD children break rules, they test boundaries, they embarrass their parents repeatedly – in short, they’re master button-pushers. But face it, they’re not pretentious. They aren’t interested in making a good impression and don’t care what others think. These children can help us to live more honest, less pretentious, more real lives. They can teach us to laugh at ourselves.

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