Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: Where Do I Draw the Line Between Helping and Enabling My Child’s Defiant Behavior?

On the surface, your child’s behaviors may look like those of a defiant teen. But once you’ve secured a diagnosis — and are confident that it’s accurate — you’ll likely see that they were actually clear indicators of your child’s struggles with ADHD. Here’s what to do to manage the behaviors in supportive, productive ways.

Q: “My daughter has just been diagnosed with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). How do I really know she has ADHD and isn’t just being defiant? I am struggling with how to help her cope and how to still be firm with expectations.” —IowaMom

Dear IowaMom,

Everything you describe — defiance, clutter and disorganization, managing times and routines — indicates that your daughter has been struggling with her self-management for many years. On the surface, these may look like the behaviors of a defiant or naughty child or teen. But they are actually clear indicators of a child with (up until now undiagnosed) ADHD. I cannot guarantee that you have an accurate diagnosis for your daughter, but it sounds pretty on target.

ADHD is not easy to diagnose. An ADHD evaluation is actually a very complicated process of elimination for a medical evaluator, and it usually follows years of frustration and struggle.

So let’s start with the assumption that it is ADHD, and go from there.

You mentioned that your child’s treatment plan includes behavior therapy, which is great. I encourage you to make sure that the behavior therapy includes YOU. It’s not enough just to bring your daughter to a provider once a week. Real behavior therapy happens in the environments where the child struggles — at home and at school. The best behavior therapists are actually well-trained parents (and sometimes teachers).

[Self-Test: ADHD in Children and Teens]

Here’s what your training should include:

  1. Get an in-depth understanding of ADHD, and its impact on: attention, organization, impulsivity, hyperactivity and emotionality. Get clear on which aspects of those are impacted for your daughter.
  2. Learn about the six aspects of executive function, and how they are generally impacted by ADHD — and specifically how this is manifested for your daughter.
  3. Learn about motivation and the role it plays in ADHD management.
  4. Get guidance from a trained professional to help you with implementation.

Once you get well informed yourself, help your daughter begin to understand these things as well. Ultimately, it’s her job to learn how to manage herself, but she won’t be able to do it alone; she needs your compassionate support and understanding.

Two of the strategies we teach in Sanity School™ for Parents are relevant and helpful here:

  • Assume Best Intention (ABI). Start with the assumption that your daughter is struggling to be respectful and to meet your expectations because she does not yet have the skills to manage her complicated brain. You can help her with that, but she needs you to believe that she’s not all bad — to understand that things are difficult for her and to presume that she wants to be respectful and to feel accomplished.
  • Shift Expectations. Developmentally, your daughter is 3-5 years behind her same-age peers in some aspects of her maturity. That’s typical for teens with ADHD. So meet her where she is, not where you wish she was, or where you think she should be. When it comes to organization, is she really 16 going on 17? Or is she more like 16 going on 12 or 13? Set expectations based on where she is developmentally, not chronologically.

Do you have a question for ADDitude’s Dear Teen Parenting Coach? Submit your question or challenge here.

The opinions and suggestions presented above are intended for your general knowledge only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your own or your child’s condition.