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Behaviour therapy

BMJ Group Medical Reference


This information is for people who have a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder ( ADHD). It tells you about behaviour therapy, a treatment used for ADHD. It is based on the best and most up-to-date research.

Does it work?

We don't know. Behaviour therapy may help you and your child cope better with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). But we don't know for certain if it will help your child's symptoms when used on its own.

There is some evidence that children who have behaviour therapy along with a drug treatment may do better than those who have either treatment on its own. To learn more, see Methylphenidate plus behaviour therapy.

What is it?

In behaviour therapy, a trained therapist counsels and supports your child and family, and teaches you how to manage the behaviour of ADHD.

The term behaviour therapy covers a wide range of treatments. They are based on the idea that all behaviour is learnt and can be unlearnt. Some treatments involve working with a therapist one-to-one. Others involve group activities with other children or parents. Your child's teacher may also be involved in the therapy.

Therapy can be used on its own, or combined with drug treatment.

To learn about the different types of therapies, see Therapies to manage ADHD.

Behaviour therapy most often involves a system of rewards and penalties. This is sometimes called positive reinforcement. Here's how it works: [20] [114]

  • Parents identify a few types of behaviour they want to encourage, such as getting ready for bed on time

  • These are explained clearly to the child

  • The child then gets a small reward (such as a special privilege) for behaving in the ideal way, or a small penalty (such as time alone in their room) for poor behaviour.

The aim is to help children plan ahead and choose the right behaviour.

How can it help?

We're not sure behaviour therapy can help your child's behaviour get better, when it is used on its own. There's not enough good evidence to say one way or the other.

However, we do know that your child is likely to benefit from having a combination of behaviour therapy and medication such as methylphenidate. [60]

Also, you may feel more supported and able to cope if your child's treatment includes therapy as well as drugs. Therapy may allow your child to manage his or her behaviour with a lower dose of drugs. This can reduce the risk of side effects. [60] [62] [45] [73]

One study also found that behaviour training for parents helped improve children's behaviour more than just usual care. Children were also less likely to be taking medications for ADHD at the end of the study if their parents had behaviour training. However, the researchers didn't find any differences in the children's symptoms of ADHD. [118]

One study found that children who have anxiety disorder as well as ADHD may be helped by behaviour therapy. [60]

Last Updated: September 27, 2012
This information does not replace medical advice.  If you are concerned you might have a medical problem please ask your Boots pharmacy team in your local Boots store, or see your doctor.

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