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ADHD and Punishment

In my last post, I wrote about a teenager in Michigan who was sent to a juvenile detention facility after being found “guilty on failure to submit to any schoolwork and getting up for school” – which is to say, she was incarcerated for oversleeping and not doing her homework.

First, an update on that situation: after two and a half months, that girl has been allowed to go home! Her lawyers took the case to the Michigan Court of Appeals, which apparently saw that society does not benefit from incarcerating children who don’t do their homework and ordered her immediate release.

I’ve already talked about how the situation highlights the unequal treatment of ADHDers along the lines of race as well as widespread ignorance about ADHD.

Lady Justice: Not a mental health professional

But that girl’s story also got me thinking about another more general topic: ADHD and punishment.

Probably every person with ADHD was punished for ADHD-related behaviors at some point when they were children.

Incarceration is the most extreme and outrageous example, but there are a range of everyday punishments that children with ADHD might encounter – most often administered by frustrated parents, teachers or principals.

Not staying in your seat? Talking out of turn? Failing to finish your schoolwork? Losing something? Getting bad grades because you’re “not trying hard enough”? Not listening? Not paying attention? Getting distracted, and distracting other students?

All of those could be grounds for punishment. That happens when authority figures interpret these behaviors as a moral failing, a “lack of discipline,” or simply a behavior that demands some good, old-fashioned negative reinforcement.

So how does it affect children with ADHD when you punish them or behaviors stemming from ADHD?

Does it make their ADHD symptoms go away. Of course not.

It does send them a message, though. The message is that they are bad, and their ADHD symptoms are their fault.

By the time ADHDers reach adulthood, many seem to have internalized a feeling that they have something “wrong” with them and that they need to “try harder,” as well as a general sense of low self-esteem.

I wonder how much being punished for ADHD-related behaviors in childhood contributes to those feelings. It certainly can’t help.

The story about the teenager incarcerated for not doing her homework received widespread media coverage because it highlights the way our society uses the prison system to deal with problems that might better be addressed through mental health support and treatment, disproportionately so when people of color are involved.

Besides that message about systemic problems, though, it’s also a wake-up call for parents and teachers to reflect on the role punishment plays in their interactions with children who have ADHD. Incarcerating people for symptoms of ADHD is an extreme example, but any form of punishing children for ADHD symptoms has the potential to be disastrously counterproductive.

Image: Flickr/Michael Coghlan

ADHD and Punishment

Neil Petersen

Neil Petersen writes regularly on psychology, ADHD and education. In addition to ADHD Millennial, he writes about psychology at Psych Central's AllPsych blog and about ADHD at He can be found on Twitter at @ADaptHD_blog

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APA Reference
Petersen, N. (2020). ADHD and Punishment. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 22, 2020, from


Last updated: 6 Aug 2020
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