What is Behavior Therapy for ADHD? (Part 1)

Behavior Therapy is recommended treatment for children with ADHD, but there is a lot of confusion about what it means. In a two-part article, I will explain 1) what the doctors mean by Behavior Therapy, and 2) what the research says it should include and how you can find it for your family. For more on WHY doctors haven't been recommending it and what can be done about that, please read my article in the Huffington Post.

What Does It All Mean?

The headline is simple: “CDC Recommends Behavior Therapy as First Line of Treatment for Young Children with ADHD.” That's great to know, except for one thing: what does it really mean?

To be honest, I didn't know what Behavior Therapy was until I started working as a parent advisor for the American Academy of Pediatrics. I wasn't the only one confused. Surprisingly, a LOT of doctors and therapists don't know what the term means, either.

So, my purpose in writing this article is to help you understand what the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC* REALLY recommend as the first line of treatment for young children with ADHD: Behavior Therapy, otherwise known as parent management training or behavioral parent training.

NPR did a piece that explains this in September, 2019, and I recommend listening to the 4 minute audio here. Their article explains that recommended treatment involves behavioral interventions, although they could have been more clear that the person to receive the training is generally  the parent, not the child.

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Treatment for your Child's ADHD

Download a free tip sheet "Recommended Treatment for ADHD: Medication & Behavior Management" for what's really recommended for your child or teen.

Behavior Therapy Definition

According to the CDC, “Behavior therapy is a treatment option.” It helps to think of “behavior therapy” as an umbrella term that is used to refer to two different kinds of treatment for improving challenging or disruptive behaviors in children. Specifically, Behavior Therapy refers to:

  • behavior therapy training for parents
  • behavior therapy with children
  • a combination of the two

Common Misconception

Here's where it gets confusing. There is a common misconception that “Behavior Therapy” is a therapist working directly with a child. While it's true that that is one kind of behavior therapy, it is actually NOT the most effective for young children. Instead, “Parent training in behavior therapy has the most evidence of being effective” for young children. That means: train parents to do behavior management.

Let me say this in plain English: Behavior Therapy does not mean that your child (of any age) needs therapy. It means that you, the parent, should receive training in Behavior Management strategies to learn HOW to help your child manage his or her challenging behaviors. It also means that your child might benefit from therapy as she or he gets older, but it's not recommended as the first place to start.

So What Exactly IS Parent Training?

“Parent Training in Behavior Therapy is also known as Behavior Management Training for Parents, Parent Behavior Therapy, Behavioral Parent Training, or just Parent Training.”

Parent Training focuses on the ADULTS in a child's life – specifically parents, and sometimes teachers.

Since children with ADHD struggle with the ability to pay attention, and their disruptive behaviors often cause challenges in relationships, Parent Training teaches parents how “to learn or strengthen positive behaviors and eliminate unwanted or problem behaviors.”

“Parent training helps parents better understand their child's behavioral issues and learn parenting skills specific to these problems. The training might include learning about the effective use of positive reinforcement and discipline that is effective with their particular child.”

In case that STILL feels a bit too clinical, try this summary:

Behavior Therapy is …

  • Parent Training in Behavior Management
  • “…effective treatment for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) that can improve a child's behavior, self-control, and self-esteem”
  • “…most effective in young children when it is delivered by parents
  • … helpful to start “as soon as a diagnosis is made
  • … recommended for parents of children under 6 years old “as the first line of treatment, before medication is tried”
  • … recommended for children 6 years of age and older in combination with medication
  • for parents to learn “skills and strategies to help their child with ADHD succeed at school, at home, and in relationships”
  • … “given by parents and with the support of healthcare providers”
  • “… requires time and effort, but it has lasting benefits for the child

Source: Center for Disease Control website

In fact, only a behavioral method “that focuses on training parents is recommended for young children with ADHD because young children are not mature enough to change their own behavior without their parents' help.”

Is it Too Late?

It is NEVER too late to get Parent Training. For parents of any age children, 4 to 24 (or older), this kind of Behavior Therapy will help you understand your child's challenges and learn new ways to manage old problems. The results will benefit the entire family, improving communication, establishing effective systems and structures, and fostering improved self-control and self-esteem.

Parent Training, Coaching and Support

This website, ImpactParents.com, is dedicated to providing parents with free ongoing training, coaching and support for Parent Management. The Impact community receives free weekly tips and strategies in a newsletter, a free parent's guide to motivating your child, and all kinds of resources to learn to parent more effectively, like discovering your parenting style, figuring out if coaching is for you, and attending free monthly webinars. It even includes a terrific Recommended Reading section.

For parents who want to learn more about Impact's Parent Management system and Parent Training programs, there is information about Training and Coaching programs online, or you can email TheTeam@ImpactParents.com.

Lasting Benefits

As the CDC website states clearly, and repeatedly, Behavior Therapy “requires time and effort, but it has lasting benefits for the child.” At Impact, experience has taught us that the benefits of Behavior Therapy FAR exceed the effort. Parents who engage in Parent Training find that their family life is more peaceful, their children are more successful, and parenting is a whole a lot more enjoyable!

We hope this articles helps you better understand what Behavior Therapy actually means, and how it can help you help your kids! In the next article, we'll provide more about what Parent Training programs should include, and how to find the best support for your family.

For more information on Behavior Therapy, follow the links below.*

* All quotes in this article are taken from the following CDC web pages and publications.

CDC Vital Signs Program Call-to-Action Report

Attention Deficit-Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

ADHD and Behavior Therapy Overview

Behavior Therapy for Young Children with ADHD

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