Is It ADHD or Is It Bad Behavior?

It’s often challenging for parents of kids with ADHD to know when parental support is appropriate, and when they are letting their kids get away with something.

How is a parent to know when to deal with their son or daughter’s behavior as a function of their ADHD, and when is it simply bad behavior?

This is a critical question since kids with ADHD are at high risk for long-term serious acting out behavior. One study found that, compared to girls without ADHD, girls with ADHD are more than five times as likely to have oppositional defiant disorder (ODD) and more than nine times as likely to have conduct disorder.

So treating ADHD as bad behavior could create parent-child control battles resulting in kids with negative identities who have given up on cooperating with adults altogether.

So it’s best to avoid the concept of bad behavior entirely — instead, let’s differentiate behavior by the intentions of the child.

For instance, a child may intend to cooperate yet cannot due to his or her:

  • lack of focus,
  • distractibility,
  • or impulsivity.

Meanwhile, another child may struggle with the same issues of lack of focus, distractibility and impulsivity, yet intentionally choose not to cooperate.

Let’s look at two similar cases of kids with ADHD.

The Aftermath of Acting on Impulse

Geoff (12) is a kid who generally struggles to stay on track in school, and who often frustrates his parents with leaving messes, forgetting things, and doing things impulsively.

For instance, Geoff sometimes takes tools from his father’s tool chest and doesn’t remember where he left them. His father gets upset and Geoff tries to find the tools and expresses remorse for his actions. He might repeat a similar behavior next week, but he genuinely feels remorseful and guilty when he does something like that.

On one occasion, Geoff saw a $20 bill sticking out of his mother’s purse and before he even thought about it, he snatched it. When confronted, he denied it but his denial wasn’t plausible and he eventually admitted it.

He felt terrible and dealt with the consequences his parents gave him. He never really intended to steal… it was an impulsive act that he felt badly about.

Andrew (12) also has ADHD, and his parents struggle to get him to manage his school responsibilities and home responsibilities. He not only leaves messes, but he also has to be watched all the time. Every day is a struggle for his parents to get him to behave, not take or play with his older sister’s things, and he argues disrespectfully with his parents whenever they try to set limits.

Every day is another episode of a parent-child control battle.

What should you do when every day is another episode of a parent-child control battle?Click To Tweet

When his mother found $20 missing from her purse, she was frustrated and knew that Andrew took it. Andrew vehemently denied it and she was never able to prove it. It was not the first or last time that things went missing in the family and it was always Andrew to blame.

Sometimes he was caught, and sometimes not. But the behavior was ongoing and not getting better.

What’s the Difference Between Geoff & Andrew?

While the difference between these two boys is rooted in their intentions, both children need to be held accountable and dealt with similarly.

In Geoff’s case, the only way he is going to learn is with…

  • a positive supportive tone from his parents,
  • discussions of strategy to help him improve,
  • and needing to earn his privileges.

While ADHD can be a challenging syndrome for any kid, he or she still needs to learn to manage it. And if they receive privileges they haven’t earned, they never will.

  • If it is a parent’s job to manage ADHD behavior, the child won’t learn self-management skills.
  • If the responsibility belongs to the child, and they are supported and empowered, indeed they will learn, grow and succeed.

Andrew will need a similar approach, as well.

His parents will need to see the part of Andrew deep inside that wants to succeed and to be a good person, and talk to that part of Andrew. They will need to withhold privileges until he is ready to earn them.

This is different from a reward system.

Earning privileges is different from a reward system.Click To Tweet

Andrew can earn privileges when he…

  • communicates respectfully,
  • cooperates,
  • makes sincere amends for his behavior,
  • and commits to healthy cooperative behavior going forward.

His parents will need to not fight or argue, stay positive, and let Andrew know they believe in him.

They will need to let him know what they expect — both in general terms as well as specifically in the moment — and leave it up to Andrew to step up and do his best and earn his privileges.

If they can stay positive and hold appropriately high standards, Andrew will become motivated to do well, learn, grow, and have positive intentions.

Posted in Parenting.


  1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Evone. You are absolutely correct; he could either be misdiagnosed or if he has ADHD, does very well with positivity, consistent engagement and enforced limits. Responsible pediatricians and pediatric psychiatrists will look to family dynamics and healthy classroom behavior management before they look to medication, particularly for an 8 year old youngster.

  2. Hi Mr. Brown, Just wanted to ask a question… I have an 8 year boy who was diagnosed with ADHD, and I think he may have been wrongly diagnosed. His parents are feast or famine type. They are super strict yet always give in. Example, the child steals food that they are suppose to have for a family dinner or drinks and eats all the snacks for their lunches and gets told he cannot watch tv for a week … But the same night they just allow him to watch tv but say it is not what he wants to watch but he still gets to watch tv ahhhhhh. Now when he is at my house I never yell or make empty threats I always follow through. He is always well behaved as a rule with minor mishaps that I curb immediately. I never let things slide or forget about them. he is very calm and he loves to bake with me and we have spent all day together and I find him wonderful and awesome. So i don’t think he has ADHD, I think he is just let to do as he pleases at home and it spills out in school as well as in the stores and any other place he can get away with his bad behavior. What do you think? Medication for these children is given out to quickly and it destroys their tiny little bodies.

  3. Hi Dana,

    I don’t have any more content yet surrounding the topic of ADHD and parenting. I will be adding more as time progresses. In fact, that may be a great topic to discuss in my podcast! Would you mind submitting your question here: I’d be happy to go further into answering any specific questions you have. Looking forward to continuing the conversation!

  4. Hi Neil,
    Thank you! While I really want to read your book for teens right now my practice is focused on 6-8 year olds with these issues. I am trying to extrapolate as much from you as I can. Do you have any suggestions in helping a parent limit privileges for this age group with this set of presenting issues? I hope you post more on ADHD and parenting, it’s definitely a clinical focus for me and a passion. I absolutely enjoy reading about your approach.

  5. Thanks for your question, Dana. While both boys need to be held accountable, Geoff is generally a kid who wants to do well and to please. Yet clearly, impulsive action or not, swiping $20 is unacceptable and I would use it as an opportunity to review all of his behavior with him and challenge him to manage his issues at a higher level. I’d engage him in a discussion about his ideas for doing better including returning borrowed things, thinking before acting, and making amends for the theft.

    Some of the actions that he and his parents might decide on could be that he is required to always ask before borrowing anything and reviewing the rules of the use of the borrowed item — including returning it and paying $20 to charity in addition to returning the stolen money. Perhaps the loss of his privileges, probably electronics, until he’s written a plan to make the changes he needs to make and shown sincere effort in making those changes. Since he wants to improve, this should all work well.

    Andrew is a more challenging kid since he has developed a negative identity and has turned off a significant part of the caring part of himself. Once again, parents will need to stay positive. I would still encourage theses parents to push the “restart” button on their relationship with Andrew vis-à-vis “The Talk” in Chapter 6 of Ending the Parent Teen Control Battle. They should withdraw all activities and privileges that aren’t a responsibility or specifically positive such as playing on an athletic team, and let him know that he needs to change his focus from “seeing what he can get away with” to “doing his best to cooperate”. Once he has committed to that change, made a plan with his parents about how to achieve that, and demonstrated progress, some limited privileges could come back, but slowly. In this case, trust has been severely injured and Andrew will need to work hard to rebuild it.

    If you have any further questions, don’t hesitate to reach out!

  6. Great insight into intentions and how that would vary a parent’s response… Did you explore what consequences there might be for Andrew? If not, would you mind doing so?

  7. I love the combination of staying positive yet having high standards. That is the best way to set your child up for success. Thanks for the great post!

  8. Hi Claudia,

    Thanks for checking out my blog and leaving a comment.

    I tend to think that parents always can have an influence, even if they aren’t able to control every situation. As I mentioned in this post, it becomes very important to understand why our children behave in the ways they do before deciding how best to respond to those behaviors.

    — Neil

  9. Actually understand how a person can be influenced by their parental behavior. Sometimes the “parent” needs to address their “childs” behaviors as reflection of their own influence. And then there are those times when it just doesn’t make any difference at all.

Comments are closed.