Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: What’s Up with My Teen’s Ingratitude and Messiness?

Real life is scary. Sometimes, teens faced with the prospect of work, bills, and responsibilities take one last desperate grasp at childhood by exhibiting their “baby self.” Learn how to show empathy without enabling, encourage more responsible behavior, and work as a team on everything from chores to treatment.

Q: “How do I motivate my son (with ADHD and Tourette’s Syndrome) to follow through on anything, including family life? He purposely leaves a mess everywhere — cereal left open and milk left out on the counter, dishes left where he ate, clothes dropped on the floor, even garbage thrown on driveway where he parks. He has always wanted to be a mechanic, so he’s doing co-op in a garage all afternoon, but he’s already missed one shift. He’s perpetually late for school, has no money for his car insurance, and he’s not looking for a summer job. Now he’s staying out until 11 pm to avoid us. What is going on?”

Dear OrtonMom,

Though it is frustrating, leaving milk on the counter may be the least of your son’s problems. The garbage in the driveway and clothes strewn about the house are a trail leading directly to his fear of growing up.

Every teen has to answer three questions as he transitions into adulthood: “Who am I?” “What will I become?” “Will I be successful?” Your son’s answers to these questions are complicated by Tourette’s, his difficulty going to school, and perhaps the pressure he feels to make up for his brother’s disability.

Though the car was an ill-conceived purchase, to him it represents independence and may be the only thing he feels proud of right now. I can definitely suggest tips to help him be more responsible around the house, but first he needs to feel better about being there.

It’s time to call a truce. Your anger, though well deserved, is only driving the wedge in deeper between you and him. He is as worried about his future as you are. That is why he needs to know you have his back. To do this, stop taking his actions personally and don’t blame him for having self-doubt, having a fear of growing up, or making impractical plans.

[Free Download: What Are Your Teen’s Weakest Executive Functions?]

Let him know that, though you’d prefer him to help out more around the house, for now you will ease up on the pressure. If it is financially possible, offer to help him out with gas money until he finds a job. Put a time limit on this assistance and perhaps make the car insurance money a loan. These goodwill gestures can go far to repairing your relationship.

As worried as you are about his future, I am guessing your son feels even more hopeless. That is more reason for him to know you believe in him, and can keep the flame of hope burning until he is ready to take the torch and run. He seems passionate about cars and it’s a good sign that he only missed one co-op class. If he gets his foot in the door with an auto shop, I bet you will see a whole different kid!

Life for people with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) and Tourette’s is not impossible, but it sure is harder. Medication adherence presents a major problem for teens with a chronic illness. The worse the side effects, the more likely your son won’t take his meds. If he cannot drive after taking his evening dose, he will probably skip it. It is time for him to sit down with his health care provider, one who won’t blame him for non-compliance, to work out a sensible plan. Medication compliance always involves a cost-benefit analysis: Is the symptom reduction worth the cost of the side effects to him?

After a few weeks, you should see less tension and more of your son. It will then be time to sit down and talk about his future. Again, don’t blame him if he comes up with unrealistic solutions. Rather, gently try and steer him in the right direction offering to help out any way you can.

[Q: How Can I Transfer Responsibility to My Teen — Without Risking a Ruined GPA?]

Now, what about those chores? All teenagers have mixed feelings about growing up. It’s only at home that we see what Dr. Anthony Wolfe calls their “baby self,” the part that wants to stay a little kid. This is why your son can seem so demanding, lazy, and irresponsible: What looks ungrateful is really a wish to be taken care of. Teens are also uniquely wired to seek excitement because during adolescence their brains explode with dopamine receptors. It takes a lot of excitement to produce a steady supply of dopamine, which is why teens love to take risks, but abhor taking out the garbage.

Rather than berate your son for being irresponsible, or insist that you need more help, explain that doing chores is a way for each member to support the needs of the whole family. Then schedule regular family work times where everyone has a job and works together. This can include regular house cleaning and yardwork, or special tasks. Make sure the job can be done in a few hours, and then do not let your kids (or your spouse) do anything else until they have completed their responsibilities. You can also hold work holidays every few months to tackle larger jobs or a really thorough cleaning. These holidays should be followed by a celebratory family meal or outing.

Create natural consequences when your son doesn’t do his chores. A mother I knew told her kids laundry had to be put in the hamper by Tuesday at bedtime, since Wednesday was wash day. She then showed them how to use the washer and dryer because, after Wednesday, they had to wash their own clothes — or wait a week. When a friend at school asked the boy why his jeans were so dirty he headed to the laundry room as soon as he got home from school.

For items left all over the house, adopt a “leave it there” routine. When your teen leaves his dirty dishes in the sink, ask him once to wash them. If he doesn’t comply, the next time he asks you for something (a ride, signing a form for school, picking up supplies for a project) tell him you will do it as soon as the dishes find their way into the dishwasher or drying rack.

[Grow Up Already! Why it Takes So Long for Kids with ADHD to Mature]

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, whenever possible use humor to lighten up life. One father I know found creative things to do with the belongings his kids left all over the apartment. Used tissue went into their sneakers. Scattered water bottles were slyly hidden in their back pack, only to be carried to school the next day. He viewed these antics as a game, not punishment, and so did his kids. Another mom dealt with the growing pile of socks in her 12 year old’s room by putting a bowl of water in front of it. She told the boy the socks were probably thirsty. He laughed, and then cleaned them up.


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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.