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The Power of Motivation for Children with ADHD

Children with ADHD often need incentives to complete schoolwork or do chores around the house — especially ones they don’t like — but what kind of rewards work?

Last night I found myself in a classic standoff between parent and child. Let me set the stage for you: I love to cook and I love to eat, and this love of eating, especially over the holidays, has prompted me to try and be more mindful of nutrition, so I’ve been working some foods into the menu that have caused some raised eyebrows from my daughters, who are 4 and 6. There have been a lot of conversations that begin with “I’m not eating that!” and end with “What’s for dessert?” Usually, I’m pretty patient, but last night I was tired, cranky, and not in the mood for their discerning palettes. I did something my mom did to me years ago. I said, “You two will not move from this table until your plates are empty.”

I seem to recall that when my mom did this to me as a kid, I cleared my plate in seconds. My girls, however, were not to be intimidated. Without flinching, they simply stared at me, throwing a challenge back in my face: Who would break first?

5:37 p.m. The standoff begins.
5:45 p.m. I remove all canine allies from the dining area and hover, looking stern.
5:55 p.m. I leave the room to regroup from all the whining.
5:56 p.m. I set up a fake video camera and tell the girls I will see them if they move from the table. Once again, I leave the room to regroup.
6:05 p.m. I pass level 5 on Angry Birds, the “Seasons” edition.
6:15 p.m. I re-enter the kitchen. All of the food on their plates is still there, although my 4-year-old is starting to build a tower out of hers.
6:20 p.m. I bring the kids their pillows and blankets since it looks like they will be spending the night in the kitchen.
6:25 p.m. I do deep-breathing exercises as fake requests to use the bathroom fill the air.
6:30 p.m. Hoping humor will help get them eating, I hand each of my daughters a roll of paper towels and explain why they call it the “quicker picker upper” and how they can follow the product’s good example by cleaning their plates.

[Free Download: Routines for Morning and Night]

6:40 p.m. More tears and gnashing of teeth.
6:45 p.m. I realize that my approach is not working. There is nothing motivating them to finish their dinners.
6:50 p.m. I try a new tactic. Nothing drives my 6-year-old crazier than being able to hear the TV but not being able to see it. So I sit across from her and start watching How to Train Your Dragon. What’s this? Suddenly she’s shoveling that food into her mouth like there’s no tomorrow. Score for Daddy!
6:58 p.m. The 4-year-old is a tougher nut to crack. She likes TV but not nearly as much as her older sister. What she is passionate about is chocolate.
7:00 p.m. Though this might seem counter to my plan of instilling healthy eating habits, at this point, I’m ready to bend a little, so I pull out a big box of chocolate candy, pour myself a large glass of ice-cold milk, and begin eating, making sure to really take my time and blow chocolate-aroma-filled breaths in my younger daughter’s direction. Her eyes light up and I think I got you now! but no. She wants the chocolate, but it’s a matter of pride now so she turns up her little nose and pretends to ignore me.
7:10 p.m. I’ve had more chocolate than anyone ever needs (but at least I ate all of my veggies first) and my girl still hasn’t touched her food. What now? Then I remember!
7:15 p.m. I’ve set my 6-year-old in the den to watch the movie, tidied up in the kitchen, and then I head to the den too. “See you in the morning Annie!” I cheerfully tell the pouting 4-year-old over my shoulder.
7:16 p.m. “Don’t leave me here all alone!” she wails as she starts picking up her fork. Aha, we’re onto something here.
7:27 p.m. Both plates cleaned off, the girls and I are sprawled on the couch watching the movie. Mission accomplished.

[The ADHD Brain Processes Rewards & Consequences Differently]

This has been a long-winded way of reminding you that everyone is motivated by something. Figure out what that is for your students and children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and getting them to go along with you may become a lot easier. It’s hard to teach or guide someone who is unwilling and unmotivated, and motivation cannot be forced. Keep in mind that what motivated you as a child may not work for the kids of the 21st century, and what motivates kids without ADHD might not work for your kids. Also, with children, points of motivation are constantly changing — what worked last month may not work today, so don’t get comfortable. Instead, get creative and most importantly, have fun with it!

What do you do to motivate your child? Share your tips in the comments below.

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  1. Wow! I can’t believe the “Attitude” magazine allowed your letter to be published as a legit article/comment on how to motivate children, especially children with ADHD. The motivational technique you described will likely not only ensure that your daughters will begin to hate you, view you a controlling and bullying parent, perceive dinner time a a s battle ground, but maybe help them to develop an eating disorder. How do I know? From my own personal experience.

    I can still remember now 53 years later (I’m 60 years-old) having to sit at the dinner table until I finished all the asparagus on my dinner plate . It sat there staring at me – cold, limp and lifeless. It was winter in the midwest and the only veggies we ate were reheated from a can. As I sat there for nearly 1 1/2 hours, I could hear the TV show Laugh-In blaring from right behind me. Of course, I wasn’t allowed to turn around and watch any of it. I had to face the wall. It was one of my few favorite shows and I waited all week for it – and my parents knew it.

    And yeah, I began to hate my parents, viewed them a petty and mean, began to dread eating dinner with them b/c it turned into a battle of wills and developed an eating disorder in my late teens. They controlled so much in my life, at least I could control what I put in my mouth. That is the genesis of an eating disorder. I was a picky eater then, and at age 60, I’m still a picky eater. Luckily, as an adult, I am in complete control of what I eat.

    Raising our own three children, my husband & I made sure dinner was a happy and enjoyable time, not a conflict zone. In fact, they were allowed to eat as much fruit, veggies or popsicles as they wanted right up to dinner time. They were in control of what they ate. If they didn’t like what was being served for dinner, no problem, they didn’t have to eat it. Instead, I offered to heat up some soup (from a can) or make a peanut butter/jelly sandwich WHEN I was finished eating my dinner. Yes, they had to wait until I was done, that was my only caveat.

    I will add that as they began to grow up and mature, and therefore able to regulate their behavior, I became a manners cop (again, how I was raised). Correct table manners were strictly enforced at the dinner table. Very soon, my husband insisted I stop doing it b/c it was interfering with our time together as a family. He was right and I immediately put away my cop hat.

    Now, as adults, they are all athletic, slim, trim and are amazingly healthy eaters. In fact, they are healthier eaters than either me or my husband. Best of all, we continue to enjoy our time together – whether we are together dinner table or away.

    So I ask you to reconsider your current parenting strategy around eating. If you goal is to maintain a healthy relationship with your daughters, want them to experience you as a kind and loving father, or help them to develop healthy eating habits, you know what to do. If in doubt, ask yourself: “Will my comment/action/behavior bring peace in my house or war?” I hope you choose peace.

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