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Behavioral therapy may help individuals with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) manage and change the behaviors that are causing them difficulties and stress.
ADHD symptoms can lead to a variety of behaviors that may make everyday tasks feel challenging or even impossible. Behavioral therapy can help people with ADHD develop new, more positive behaviors and help them manage their symptoms more effectively. Behavioral therapy may work alongside medication and is often a part of an ADHD treatment plan.
What is behavioral therapy for ADHD?
People with ADHD have symptoms that can make it difficult for them to succeed at school, work, or everyday tasks.
Behavioral therapy can help people with ADHD learn skills that control their symptoms and help them manage tasks. The goal of behavioral therapy is to replace negative behaviors with positive ones. Behavioral therapy does this by teaching strategies to improve problem areas like organization, focus, and impulse control.
Some people find that behavioral therapy helps them effectively manage their ADHD symptoms without medication. Other people use behavioral therapy alongside medication.
Behavioral therapy doesn’t affect the actual symptoms of ADHD. It won’t change how a child or adult with ADHD’s brain works. However, it can teach people with ADHD skills that make it much easier to succeed at school, work, home, and in relationships.
When children have behavioral therapy for ADHD, their parents or guardians are involved in the process. Families will work with a therapist to set goals, and therapists will help families use behavioral therapy techniques at home and at school. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), behavioral therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy are helpful in reducing symptoms in children with ADHD.
When adults have behavioral therapy for ADHD, they normally have a type of therapy called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). CBT may help adults with ADHD recognize how their own thoughts affect their behaviors. It works to help adults with ADHD reframe their thoughts so they have more positive behaviors and more control over their ADHD symptoms.
How does behavioral therapy for ADHD work for children?
Behavioral therapy for children with ADHD takes a whole family approach to change behaviors. All behavioral therapy focuses on changing a person’s actions. Behavioral therapy for children with ADHD also looks at how negative actions are responded to in a child’s home. In many cases, parents of children with ADHD are unintentionally reinforcing negative behaviors.
That’s why a therapist will sit down with a family to help create a plan. The plan will help the entire family set goals and work on changing behaviors. Therapy sessions will give children and their parents the tools they need to successfully make changes.
Children will learn new skills and new ways to manage tasks that might be challenging for them, such as:
- completing homework
- paying attention in class
- keeping their rooms clean
- completing any daily chores
Parents will learn new methods of helping their child with ADHD succeed, and they’ll learn about why certain strategies aren’t effective. The therapist will introduce new strategies for rewarding positive behaviors and managing negative ones.
Finding a professional for behavioral therapy for ADHD
It’s important to find the right therapist if you think behavioral therapy could benefit you or your child. If you’re not sure how to get started, check out the tips below:
- Ask your child’s pediatrician for recommendations.
- Ask your child’s school for recommendations.
- If your child is receiving in-school accommodations to help their ADHD through an IEP or other plan, you can ask the counselors or social workers involved for recommendations.
- Ask your primary care provider for recommendations.
- Use the internet to search for CBT specialists in your area who see adults with ADHD.
- Use Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder’s (CHADD’s) professional directory to find therapy near you.
What to expect during behavioral therapy for ADHD in children
At your child’s first appointment, you’ll sit down with the therapist to discuss goals. You’ll talk about which behaviors are the most challenging. The therapist will help you come up with a plan to work on those behaviors.
The plan will involve setting up a system of rewards and consequences in your home. You’ll create a chart listing the actions your child needs to take to meet goals and earn rewards. The therapist will help your child select rewards that will motivate them. This chart will help your child see exactly what they need to do to meet expectations every day.
For example, if your child has trouble staying with their class and not running down the school hall to the gym or cafeteria, you could make walking safely with the rest of the class a goal. The chart would be set up so that every day your child walked safely with the class, they’d earn a point. You could then establish that five points would earn them extra time doing a favorite activity.
Children should be praised and encouraged when they complete tasks and earn rewards. When tasks aren’t completed, they won’t earn those points. It’s important that they’re not punished or shamed for not completing tasks. Not earning a point is the consequence.
The goal is to encourage positive behaviors. You’ll meet with the therapist on a weekly basis to discuss how the chart is going and work out any issues you’ve encountered.
Your child will also have sessions with the therapist, typically once a month. They’ll learn skills that can help them complete the tasks on the chart. They’ll learn strategies that will make it easier for them to reach their goals at home and at school. They’ll also learn ways to manage their anger and improve their self-control.
How do you know if behavior therapy for ADHD is working for your child?
The chart that you and your child’s therapist make is a great way of monitoring how well behavior therapy is working. If your child is demonstrating positive behaviors and earning rewards, it’s a sign that behavior therapy is helping them.
You’ll also notice that your child is doing better in school and struggling less with things that have always caused problems. Your child might seem less frustrated and might have more confidence.
The system might need to be changed if your child isn’t making progress. If they’re not completing tasks and earning rewards on the chart, bring it up to the therapist. You might need to introduce negative consequences. That means that instead of simply not earning a point when a task isn’t completed, points will be taken away for negative behavior.
The therapist will help you navigate this and will continue to work with your child on skills to help them manage their ADHD.
Keep in mind that behavioral therapy is not a “cure” or “fix” for ADHD. Your child will still have ADHD when behavioral therapy is complete. However, they’ll also have the tools they need to manage their ADHD and succeed in areas that were previously a challenge.
Children can carry the skills they learn in behavioral therapy with them for the rest of their lives. That can make a big impact on their success and independence as adults.
How is behavior therapy done in schools?
It’s important to involve your child’s teacher in their therapy and plan, especially if they have school-related goals. That way teachers can see that tasks are being completed and report back to parents. This can give children feedback every day on their school performance and help them improve.
Some children benefit from a specific at-school chart system. Your child’s teacher can work with you to set this up. Generally, teachers will fill out a daily report. The report will have a list of in-school tasks or positive behaviors your child needs to accomplish. Every day, their teacher will mark whether each task or behavior was accomplished. Your child can then earn a small reward if they come home with enough marks on their daily report.
How does behavior therapy for ADHD work for adults?
Behavioral therapy for adults looks a little different. Adults with ADHD have different challenges and need different strategies. Many adults with ADHD struggle with time management, disorganization, lack of motivation, and difficulties regulating their emotions. This often causes low self-esteem, high stress, constant feelings of defeat, and other negative thought processes. Adults with ADHD might think their struggles are their fault and might have trouble believing that things will ever go well or that they will ever succeed.
If you’re an adult with ADHD, CBT can help you overcome these negative thought processes. Rather than teaching new strategies for organization or task completion, CBT can help you reframe your thoughts. The goal is to change negative behaviors by changing the thought process that can fuel them.
CBT will help you look at past struggles and difficulties. During sessions, you can examine what role your ADHD symptoms had in those situations. You’ll work with the therapist to break down the situation. You’ll look at the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors you had during the situation. You’ll then start to look at other ways the situation could have been managed, and build coping techniques to avoid the situation of the future.
Other ways CBT can help adults with ADHD include help with:
- managing negative emotions
- resetting negative expectations
- figuring out any behavioral patterns
- coping with stress
- navigation transitions throughout the day
- dealing with stressful obligations
- making time for self-care and self-fulfillment
- changing self-defeating behaviors
CBT can teach you new ways to manage your everyday life. You’ll focus on things that will work for you and the specific ways your ADHD affects your life. The strategies will be designed for you and for your struggles.
CBT can also help you manage other conditions or issues you might have along with ADHD. For example, it’s not uncommon for people with ADHD to have mood disorders like anxiety or depression, to struggle with addiction, or to have difficulty maintaining a healthy lifestyle. During CBT sessions, your therapist can work with you on those issues too. You’ll learn how other conditions can interact with your ADHD and discuss ways to better manage and cope with your symptoms.
What is ADHD?
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder. ADHD is an acronym that stands for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. People with ADHD have difficulties with focus, impulse control, attention, hyperactivity, and organization. Although many people think of ADHD as a childhood condition, it may persist into adulthood.
ADHD may present in three distinct ways:
- ADHD predominantly inattentive presentation. People with inattentive type ADHD struggle to stay on task, keep their homes organized, and pay attention for long periods of time. In the past, this type of ADHD was referred to as ADD. The term ADD is no longer used.
- ADHD hyperactive-impulsive presentation. People with hyperactive-impulsive type of ADHD struggle to sit still, stay in one place, and follow directions. They might be very impulsive and talk excessively.
- ADHD combined presentation. Combined type ADHD is diagnosed in people who have symptoms of both of the other types.
Symptoms of ADHD predominantly inattentive presentation include:
- frequently losing things
- frequently making careless mistakes
- becoming distracted easily
- avoiding tasks that require sustained attention
- having trouble paying attention during meetings or class
- having trouble listening during conversations
- having trouble following directions
- forgetting appointments and other important dates
Symptoms of ADHD predominantly hyperactive-impulsive include:
- having trouble doing quiet activities
- talking excessively
- having trouble sitting still
- having trouble staying seated
- frequently interrupting others
- having trouble standing in lines
Only a licensed professional can diagnose ADHD. It’s a good idea to look into an evaluation if you suspect your child has ADHD. A diagnosis is the first step to getting the treatment you or your child need to manage your symptoms.
The bottom line
Behavioral therapy can help people with ADHD manage their condition. Therapy can teach skills and coping mechanisms that can help make overwhelming tasks feel easier to accomplish.
For children with ADHD, behavioral therapy works with the whole family to create strategies that reward positive behaviors. Adults with ADHD often benefit from learning to reframe their thoughts and analyze their behaviors with CBT.