Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: My Teen Gets Too Distracted When Doing Homework on the Computer!

High schools today assume that students will receive and complete assignments in the Cloud. This means heavy computer use, and even heavier temptation for procrastination and distraction online. How can you teach your teen to manage his screen time without hovering, spying, or arguing daily? Read on.

Q: “Screens are a big source of procrastination (and thus conflict), but my high school freshman son needs his laptop to do his work. We can’t sit on top of him to prevent procrastination, so work does not get done and we argue about his wasting time on screens. How can we use electronics as an incentive and avoid conflict when we can’t control all use?”
— Joshua

Dear Joshua,

Figuring out how to deal with screens is a common family struggle today. You’ve identified the three primary challenges that parents of teens with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) face: avoiding digital procrastination, using electronics as incentives, and monitoring screen time for teens. Let’s look at what you can do differently to reduce conflict and teach much-needed executive functioning skills.

The lure of electronics pulls at all of us. Every ping from our phones or computers tells our brains to perk up, that something important is coming. There’s also pleasure associated with screen activity that makes you want more of it. Teens with ADHD are especially susceptible to the immediate rewards of social media, games, and texting.

With this in mind, let’s look at each of the common struggles you’ve identified:

Using technology to procrastinate

Procrastination means putting off something that seems unpleasant. Most teens with ADHD procrastinate because a task is uninteresting, they don’t know how or where to start, or the situation is overwhelming. Gaming, social media, and surfing the net are all more compelling and satisfying than is a boring school assignment. The key to overcoming procrastination is breaking down a task into a small enough chunks that doing it feels manageable. Your son, like many of his ADHD peers, may well need some assistance here.

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Solution: In a calm moment, sit down and talk with your son about his procrastination. You’re not grilling him, but rather gathering information. What aspects of getting started are tough? Size of the project, boring subject matter, poor understanding of the material? Then discuss the length of do-able work periods before he needs a break — and how long that break should be. Review the order he uses to approach his work. Does he like to do something easy first and feel a sense of accomplishment? Or do he prefer to tackle something hard and get it out of the way? Then, with all of this information, strategize a new approach to homework.

Using electronics as incentives

Because of the ways screens instantly reward us and incite people to respond immediately, they carry an extra strong appeal for teens with ADHD. I’m not saying that screens are bad, but I do strongly advise you to establish clear guidelines for using them in your house. Screen time for teens is one of the most powerful incentives parents have in their toolbox.

Solution: In a calm moment, think about how much recreational screen time you would like your son to have. If your goal is 2 hours daily, then you want to start by giving him automatically one and a half hours. The extra 30 minutes occurs when he’s earned it through desired behaviors. It’s this extra time that serves as the motivator.

Now comes the collaborative part. To obtain his buy-in, ask your son how much screen time he realistically thinks is fair. Keeping your baseline in mind, begin your negotiations and explain the new structure of the bonus. If he wants 4 hours per day and you want 2, maybe meet at 2 ½, with those extra 60 minutes as earned time only. Use screen time as an incentive during study breaks as well by following the guidelines below.

[Get This Free Download: Too Much Screen Time? How to Regulate Your Teen’s Devices]

Nothing happens without parental supervision

Adolescents with ADHD often lack executive functioning skills such as self-control, time management, planning, and persistence to stick with homework, chores, or anything that is unappealing to them. Just as you don’t want to police them, they don’t want to feel controlled. But, teens still need your assistance to stay on track. In a non-homework moment, chat with your son about what types of statements would feel more like encouragement than nagging. If you use these and he still balks, re-group at another time.

Solution: I strongly advise parents to create work times at a communal space in the house, like the kitchen table. You do your work or answer emails or read the paper while your kids work alongside of you. This way, you are present without hovering. You can also casually notice when they’re off topic and guide them back to the homework strategy plan.

One way to help kids stay focused when they’re doing homework on the computer is to open two browsers simultaneously. Then, have them put all of their school-related work and tabs on  one of them, like Safari, and all of their social media, music and YouTube videos on Chrome. When they are in their work period, only Safari is up on the full screen and Chrome is minimized. During breaks, these switch. Separating work and play on different browsers helps to reduce distractibility.

These solutions take time, practice, and patience. Make sure you work together and tweak things along the way!

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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.