Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: Could Dropping Out Be the Best Solution for My Son?

For some students with ADHD and learning disability, a lifetime of academic frustrations and failures triggers crippling anxiety. They physically and psychologically cannot get themselves to go to school anymore. For these students, the best solution may not be pushing through to high school graduation but taking a different path — at least for a time.  

Q: “Our son is very bright (possibly twice exceptional), but he’s a chronic underachiever and missed almost 40% of school last year. Until last year, he was usually able to keep it together and even get good grades with some school refusal but now he is in a special program at the high school for kids like him and he is refusing to go to even that. The school has made home visits to encourage him to attend but he mocks those visits. He says the work is too easy; that he is not challenged. He says the other kids are weird and doesn’t want to be around them. He says the teachers are fake (‘No one is that happy all the time’ and ‘They don’t care if I come to school; they say they do, but they don’t even know me – it’s so fake’).

All he wants to do is sit in his room, watch TV, and play video games. He agreed to a contract that said, ‘If I attend for 20 straight days, I get $60’ and, ‘If I don’t go, I lose my electronics that day.’ He couldn’t even go for the first day. We took away the electronics. He didn’t leave my room most of the day –complaining about the consequence and saying he couldn’t do it. We let him change the contract. He swore he could do it if it said that he could get $60 after going 5 days in a row and if he refused to go then he would lose electronics for one month instead. He still couldn’t go. So I told him it’s time to pursue getting his GED through a local community college program, but he said he was tired; maybe we could go later.

So I guess my question is: What now? I had a nervous breakdown almost 2 years ago and had to take leave of absence from my job because of all of this and I am at that same point again now. I know we have failed him but I don’t know what else to do.”

[Free Resource: Transform Your Teen’s Apathy Into Engagement]

Dear Parent,

Before addressing your son’s problem, let’s focus on you. The parent-child relationship is the most complex, intense, and central relationship in our lives. Your attachment to your children is stronger than any other. This attachment brings joy and fulfillment, but it can also cause frustration and pain. It seems that having children flips the guilt switch in our brain. We wish to shield them from life’s struggles, and often feel personally responsible when things do not go well.

You are not a perfect parent. Not one of us is. We have all made mistakes. But you are also not 100% responsible for this problem of your teen possibly not graduating high school, nor does finding a solution rest completely on your shoulders. Carrying the full burden of this situation will be enough to give you a nervous breakdown, and then you will not be of any help to your son. So take ownership of your mistakes and try to fix them, but also appreciate that, as bright as your son may be, he has significant learning disabilities. The school system may also not have had the necessary programs or support available, and you have other children with special needs.

You are very worried about your son’s future — and so is he. You will benefit by stepping back. This does not mean that you are giving up on him. However, your son has given up on himself, at least as a student. Going to school reminds him that, though he’s smart, significant learning disabilities hold him back. Your son is uniquely challenged because he has challenges in several areas: focus, executive functioning, verbal expression, and auditory processing. This combination makes it difficult to develop compensatory strategies. School offers your son little reward and lots of frustration.

Right now, it does something else, too. Graduation is just around the corner, so attendance forces him to confront the terrifying question of what comes next. He reacts to this anxiety about the real world like many teenage boys — by denying the problem, avoiding his feelings, and externalizing blame. Your son is too afraid to admit that, as smart as he is, he may never be ready for college. Taking the pressure off may be just the thing to get him moving.

[In Defense of the Nap Year]

First, explore whether your school can provide home schooling. Given his learning disabilities and anxiety, there seems to be ample reason to justify this intervention. It might be more manageable to start this way, and then add classes one by one. If this is not an option, it is time to take high school graduation off the table. Let your son know that his future self would thank him if he graduated, but it may not be in the cards right now. Instead, insist that he get a job, and help him find one. I have seen many a teen take his job scooping ice cream more seriously than his grade-point average. Working offers these teens an immediate sense of value and satisfaction. Your son may really enjoy working, even at an entry-level position. Sitting home all day and playing video games is not an option; if he cannot go to school, then he has to work.

Making this your goal will free your son of the crippling anxiety he feels, and also help you to look for a more reasonable solution, rather than bear the weight of all his problems (and his future) on your shoulders. You can revisit a GED and community college down the road, but for now. getting him out of the house and working will be a huge step.

Adam Price, Ph.D. is a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel.

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

[An Open Letter from a Smart Kid with ADHD]

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.