Burn Your Parenting Books: Why Traditional Parenting Won’t Work With Children With Exceptional Needs

Have I gotten your attention?  I don’t really mean to burn them, but what I do mean is stop reading them, and here’s why.

What is Traditional Parenting?

Traditional parenting is a belief system that the parent makes the rules, and if the child doesn’t follow them, there are negative consequences, or punishment, such as loss of privilege, time-out, or spanking.

Why Traditional Parenting Won’t Work

In addition to being on average 20-30 percent developmentally delayed behind their same-age peers, children with exceptional needs, such as ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorder, often are impulsive. They may also lack the cognitive ability to understand the consequences of their actions.

Traditional parenting, primarily a crime and punishment approach, doesn’t teach the child what to do instead, or replacement behaviors. Also, negative consequences can often worsen problem behavior.

The Function of Behavior

All behavior serves a function, which is another reason negative consequences don’t improve problem behavior. Behavior is either to gain attention, gain access to something, avoid something or for sensory stimulation.

What Does Work

So if the parenting strategies your parents used with you don’t work with your child, what can you do?

The best parenting strategies for children with exceptional needs are those that meet your child where they are and focus on positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior rather than consequences for problem behavior.


  • Keep Your Child’s Emotional Tank Full
    • Children who engage in behavior to gain attention need it.
    • Be sure you are spending time with our child in ways they enjoy!
  • Rewards or praise for appropriate behavior.
    • Parent sets up expectations and rewards in advance.
      • “Stay in the cart , use an indoor voice, and you can have a lollipop after we finish at the grocery store.”
    • Offer verbal praise or high-fives when you see appropriate behavior.
      • “Wow, great job going to the potty all by yourself!”
  • Using choices
    • Parent offers child two appropriate choices.
      • “Would you like mac and cheese or soup for lunch?”
      • “Do you want to turn the TV off or do you want me to do it?”
  • First/Then
    • Pair a non-preferred activity with a preferred activity.
      • “First, clean up the blocks. Then, you can have your iPad.”
  • Use of Timers for Transitions
    • Set a timer to allow your child a chance to ease into a transition.
      • “In two minutes, it is time for a shower.”
  • Tell, Don’t Ask
    • When giving your child a request, tell them don’t ask them.
    • Use simple language.
    • Ask them to repeat the request back.
      • “In two minutes it is time for a shower. What are you going to do in two minutes?”

How to Make the Shift From Traditional Parenting to Positive Parenting

Problem behaviors are a problem for parents, but for children their behavior is a solution to a problem. Children do well when they can, when they have the tools they need, and when parents have proper expectations and meet their child where they are.

Your child’s problem behavior isn’t personal. It’s them trying to communicate their needs and not knowing how to do it appropriately. Take a step back, look at your child with respect for who they authentically are, and the shift to positive parenting will happen!

Children do well if they can. If they can’t, we as adults need to figure out what is getting in the way. – Dr. Ross Greene, The Explosive Child

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Amy Nielsen lives in Orlando, Florida. She is the proud mother of four children ranging in age from 5-33! She and her husband, Brent enjoy sports and traveling. Amy is a former teacher with nearly 20 years of experience, a freelance writer, and a special needs advocate. Her mission is to help educate and empower families of children with disabilities to focus on their child's interests and strengths.