The best way to prevent discipline problems in the ADHD teen years is to instill good behavior at an early age — I know, I know, why didn’t I tell you that seven years ago? — and reinforce it as your child grows.
While there are no quick fixes for discipline problems in adolescence, the following rules can help establish the groundwork for cooperation and peace at home.
Don’t Punish Biology
What do teens hate more than being criticized or punished for misbehavior? Being criticized or punished for things that are not under their control — such as the biological symptoms of ADHD. An adolescent with ADHD who has an emotional meltdown is not being “bad” — she is being emotional.
You should discipline destructive behaviors that involve choice. Impulsivity is a biological symptom of ADHD, but that isn’t an excuse for shoplifting or other irresponsible actions.
Be Democratic — Sort Of
Although a family is not a true democracy, discipline is easier when teens help shape the rules. Even the most rebellious teens are more likely to abide by the rules if they had a say in making them.
Holding regular family meetings — once a week is good — encourages open and honest communication and creates an atmosphere of belonging, acceptance, and cooperation. (Emergency meetings can be called at any time to deal with a crisis or discuss an important matter.)
At the weekly meeting, solicit everyone’s opinion. It is an opportunity to air grievances and complaints, and to discuss or change rules. Once a rule is established, everyone is required to live by it. Some decisions are open to a vote (where to go on vacation), but important ones (who gets keys to the car) are in the parents’ hands.
Scale Back Power Struggles
They can’t be avoided, but they can be minimized. Parents should be clear about what they expect of their teen. Rules are written down and signed as a contract (study times, curfews, household chores, driving rules). A few important rules, with frequent reminders and consistent enforcement, work much better than a long list of rules that won’t be remembered and can’t be enforced.
Keep Your Cool
When you ratchet up the tension, your emotional teen is likely to do the same. Arguing distracts both of you from the real issue and finding constructive solutions. Instead of raising your voice, calmly, but firmly, enforce the rules. Follow the principle of “if you abuse it, you lose it.” Break a curfew and you’re grounded for a week. No arguments.
What will you do if your child skips school? Calls you names? Breaks curfew? Comes home intoxicated? You should know before any of this happens. Developing specific strategies for problems makes it more likely that the problem can be dealt with calmly and constructively.
Make Rules You Can Enforce
Never fight a battle you can’t win, and never set a rule you can’t enforce. “Be home by 10 o’clock” is an enforceable rule. “Don’t spend time with your friend Sandy, who tends to get you in trouble,” is not. You can’t tag along with your daughter and choose whom she sees when she leaves the house.
Stay In the Present
Nothing is more counterproductive than bringing up past problems or mistakes while trying to deal with a current situation. Rehashing the past distracts from the problem at hand, and leads to an escalation of frustration and hostilities. Save the long lectures and the “I told you so.”
Let Your Teen Vent
Given the high level of emotionality that often comes with ADHD, your teen’s frustration, disappointment, or resentment can quickly turn into anger.
Acknowledge angry feelings, but don’t criticize them as long as they are expressed responsibly — verbally, without becoming abusive (no name calling or insults). Make it clear that there is a big difference between angry feelings and angry acts. Set firm limits against physical anger toward people or property. If those limits are not respected, be prepared to call the police, if necessary. Some lines cannot be crossed.
Stand Firm on Tough Issues
Major offenses always require discipline. Teens with ADHD are at higher risk for substance abuse and addictions, driving violations, and car accidents than are non-ADDers. These misbehaviors call for swift and meaningful consequences. Be clear that there is zero tolerance for dangerous or illegal behavior, and take action when rule violations occur.
Consequences should be linked directly to your teen's infractions. For instance, allowing your daughter to only go out on weekends only if she acts responsibly during the week, including attending all classes at school, will set up a system of rewards and results. If she breaks the rules, she'll have to suffer the consequences you establish together.
This tough-love approach addresses serious problems in a serious way, and provides the discipline ADHD teens need.
This article comes from the Winter 2008 issue of ADDitude.