The teen years are a long, natural rite of passage. Childhood intersects with adulthood as kids seek and gain more independence and responsibility. It's a very trying time for any teen -- but especially one who has ADHD.
"All of a sudden, they're being asked to handle situations they're probably not ready for," says Diane Dempster, a certified professional coach based in Atlanta. She's also the mother of a 16-year-old son with ADHD.
She notes that kids with the disorder often are three years behind their peers when it comes to executive function. "Their decision-making skills are lagging. Impulse control is lagging. Emotional control is lagging," Dempster explains. "They may be physically ready and intellectually ready. But developmentally, they're not quite there yet."
In the teen years, the structure and supervision of elementary school are gone. They're replaced by social demands and expectations. High school students change classes every hour or so. They sit in lecture halls, write in a planner, and use a locker. They're just basically trying to organize life.
"ADHD's symptoms become more apparent and more impairing during the teen years," says Mary Rooney, a clinical psychologist at the University of California-San Francisco. "The child hasn't changed dramatically, but his environment has."
At the same time, there are new, riskier situations that the teen hasn't had to deal with before. Take driving. Teens with ADHD tend to get more traffic tickets and be involved in more accidents.
Also, in general, they start experimenting earlier than other kids. "They are at a much higher risk for problems with substance abuse," Rooney says. "So it's very important to prevent kids with ADHD from using alcohol and drugs."
The keys to avoiding worst-case scenarios with your teen? Keep the lines of communication open and be proactive. That isn't always as easy as it sounds.
For years, Elaine Taylor-Klaus tried what she calls "the shotgun approach" with her three kids, all of whom have ADHD.
"Therapists, tutors -- you name it, I tried it," says Taylor-Klaus, who co-founded an ADHD coaching service, ImpactADHD, with Dempster. "It wasn't holistic or comprehensive. It was about me trying to, quote, 'fix them.' "
And it was the wrong approach. Taylor-Klaus says she was "denying the elephant in the room." Like most parents, she had to learn to accept ADHD and how to manage it for the long haul. Simply telling your teen to try harder and expecting results isn't the way to do that. "There's a neurobiological reason why they just can't get up in the morning or remember to turn in homework," Taylor-Klaus says. "It isn't because they're disrespectful or lazy."
So, strict discipline and focusing on failure probably won't cut it. If you want to get your child through the teen years successfully, you're going to have to have a fully engaged partnership. "Teens with ADHD really need parents to stay in the picture," says David Anderson, PhD. He directs the ADHD and Disruptive Behavior Disorders Center for the Child Mind Institute. "There needs to be supportive communication."
And it needs to be consistent among all parties -- " Between the parents and the child, between the teacher and the parent, and between the teacher and the student," says Thomas Burns, director of neuropsychology at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta. "Good communication is so important for an adolescent with ADHD," Burns adds. "You have to be able to talk about their ADHD, understand it, accept it, and move through it. That can be a hard thing because teens don't often want to sit down and talk with their parents."
Effective communication with your reluctant teen starts with good listening.
"For all teens, but especially those with ADHD, you really have to listen without trying to jump in and fix whatever your child is talking about in that moment," Rooney says. "Just listen and let him know he's being heard," she adds. "That creates a safe space for kids to talk without feeling judged."
In their work with other parents, Taylor-Klaus and Dempster teach about shifting expectations, or meeting kids where they are instead of setting expectations based on chronological age.
"Every kid is different anyway," says Taylor-Klaus, who should know. Her 21-year-old daughter was not great academically, but loved theatre. So she skipped college and moved to Los Angeles. Bex Taylor-Klaus has had regular roles on productions like Scream: The TV Series and the super hero drama, Arrow. Meanwhile, Bex's 18-year-old sister is an academic whiz going to college, and her 14-year-old brother is learning to manage his ADHD.
How does that all work? Taylor-Klaus, who discovered as an adult that she'd been struggling with ADHD for years, explains, "We're honest with each other. I know my son doesn't like schoolwork, and I know it's difficult," she says, "so I let him get annoyed and frustrated. I'm not asking him to like it. I just want him to understand it's part of his job to learn how to do it. And he understands that."
Consequences and Limits
As your teen works toward self-management and autonomy, consider the following tips and reminders:
- Be aware of unexplained underachievement and be willing to provide structure and support. Teens with ADHD typically need their parents to monitor them more than their peers who don't have it do.
- Identify a handful of basic, non-negotiable rules. Write them down and discuss them together. Explain that trust built through following the rules can open doors to better things.
- Be willing to negotiate. It can shape your teen's behavior and resolve conflicts. And, it'll allow you to still respect your teen's need for independence. You'll both want him to take a more active role in creating rules to live by. "Parents have to set limits and teach their kids to set limits for themselves," Rooney says.
- Stick to your guns. Consequences should be agreed on beforehand, and appropriate -- like the loss of car key privileges for coming home late. Let these consequences replace argument and keep conflicts and emotions at bay.
- Know when to ask for help. Utilize teachers, tutors, ADHD coaches, psychologists, and psychiatrists to help educate you about ADHD, its symptoms, and management strategies.
The teen years can be tough as young people make the move from total dependence on parents and teachers to greater levels of independence. For a teen with ADHD, it can be a very sharp transition, and you don't want your child to get lost in the confusion.
Ultimately, it comes back to how well you're willing to stay involved and communicate with your child. And a little compassion can go a long way.
"ADHD should not be treated as if it's a moral diagnosis," Taylor-Klaus says. "So let's try to understand ADHD and teach our kids how to manage it so they can have the capacity to be incredible adults."