Teens with ADHD

Fire and Ice: 4 Strategies for Dealing with Your Unpredictable Middle Schooler

Your tween screams insults in your face — then bursts into tears when you get upset. She insists she’s old enough to keep track of her own homework — then loses half of it before she can turn it in. During the middle school years, your child’s body, brain, and sense of self are changing rapidly, and ADD makes everything from organization to emotional control more complicated (and much more explosive). Here’s how parents can put out four of the biggest fires facing middle schoolers with ADHD.

An illustration of a fire extinguisher on an orange background, symbolizing challenges parents face when kids with ADHD reach middle school
Fire extinguisher on an orange background

From a young age, kids with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) struggle with self-regulation, organization, and emotional management. When you add the challenges of puberty, middle school, and tween angst — including hormones, lagging communication skills, and a heightened attention to peers — you have serious friction, often resulting in volatile (and frequent!) clashes between kids and parents.

No matter their age, relationships are at the core of effective behavior management for kids with ADHD. During the transition-heavy middle school years — when children’s bodies are changing, they are no longer motivated by “pleasing parents,” and they are knocked off-balance by hormones — your relationship is a ticket to present and future success. That’s why it’s important that even when he’s struggling in school or in his social circles, you focus your energy on building a trusting relationship with your child. As adults, we get caught up in tasks — making sure stuff gets done. But while tasks are important, they should never interfere with our connection with our kids.

The bottom line: You want your relationship with your kid to survive to adulthood, and it’s up to you to make sure that happens. So when you see that wet towel on the floor — again — or hear that snarky tone of voice, take a deep breath. Instead of snapping or sending her to her room, try these four solutions to common ADHD middle school challenges — and lay the foundation for a healthy relationship for years to come.

ADHD Middle School Challenges: What Parents Can Do

At ImpactADHD.com, my colleagues Diane, Jeremy, and I have identified the four most common reasons that parents of middle-schoolers seek our help and some suggestions for handling each one of them.

1. Disorganization.
Most middle-schoolers with ADHD lag behind their peers in the ability to organize. The executive function of their frontal lobe is sluggish. At age 12 they are organizationally closer to eight. They lose things, forget things, and couldn’t find their way out of a paper bag. Their backpacks and rooms are chaotic, and a tornado arrives when they step in the front door. They can’t get homework started or finished, much less remember to turn it in.

[Free Resource: Middle School Success Strategies]

Solution: Create an environment that makes it OK to make mistakes. When you make a mistake, comment on it (and be kind): “I forgot to put gas in the car today on the way home. Well, mistakes happen. Tomorrow, I’ll write myself a note, so I remember.” Next, expect disorganization and a little chaos (imagine what it feels like inside their brains!). Instead of making your child feel like a mess (again, imagine how that feels to her), try to show that you know it’s not easy for her. Better to say: “It’s hard to remember to unpack your lunchbox every day, isn’t it?” or “I noticed your coat was on the chair by the back door. Would you take a moment and hang it up now, please?” This will redirect behaviors without making the child feel bad. Finally, choose one area at a time that you will work on together, and bring as much compassion as you can to the process.

2. Disrespect.
It’s not what they say, it’s how they say it! They can switch from golden child to demon in a second. What’s worse, the switch seems to catch them by surprise. I remember my 12-year-old daughter screaming, “I’m sorry, Mom — I’m just so mad and I don’t really know why I can’t stop yelling at everyone!”

Solution: Don’t take the bait! Your child’s reactivity is chemically based, and she needs your help to learn to manage it, not your disapproval. It may be hard to believe, but disrespectful comments usually have nothing to do with you. Maybe she’s embarrassed, scared, or overwhelmed. At this age, your kid is whacked out on hormones, as well as ADHD. Instead of saying, “You can’t talk to me that way, young lady,” which is not true (she just did!), respond with something supportive. Say, “Sounds like you’re ticked off. Do you want to say that again? I know that’s not how you meant to talk to me.”

3. No follow-through.
Challenges with working memory and inattention interfere with their follow-through. When our kids don’t do what we ask, we presume they are being disrespectful. More likely, they really forgot, or didn’t register your request in the first place.

[Self-Test: Could Your Child Have an Executive Function Deficit?]

Solution: Make sure your teen understands when a request is being made. A simple question, “Got it?” after you ask her to take out the trash goes a long way toward making sure she’s heard the request. Next, show her the need to use structure for reminding herself. Instead of saying, “Don’t forget to take out the trash,” say, “Thanks for agreeing to take out the trash by 5. How will you remember to get it done on time?”

4. Emotional volatility.
Meltdowns, tantrums, over-reactions, hypersensitivity, anger, tears — if a teen feels it, you know it! With middle-schoolers, the highs are higher and the lows are lower, and there is nothing more boring than the middle ground. You can’t understand what they’re going through, or so they believe.

Solution: When it comes to emotional control, start with yourself. Focus on reclaiming your brain before you respond to anything that seems over-the-top. Keep your cool — take breaths, sip water, give yourself a time-out — whatever it takes for you to stay calm! Next, don’t try to convince your middle-schooler that his feelings are not real. Accept the fact that he is going to behave irrationally sometimes, and focus on helping him learn to behave as respectfully as possible when he has an intense feeling.

It’s not OK to use family members as emotional punching bags, but it’s also not OK to expect a young teen in middle school to stay calm all the time, especially in the face of disappointment and challenges.

[10 Ways Middle School Wreaks Havoc on Kids with ADHD]

Thank you for reading ADDitude. To support our mission of providing ADHD education and support, please consider subscribing. Your readership and support help make our content and outreach possible. Thank you.