Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: How Responsible Is ADHD for My Child’s Defiant Behaviors?

You finally know the reason for your teen’s lifelong challenges with inattention, impulsivity, and defiance: ADHD. Now, however, it can be hard to unravel where ADHD ends — and what behaviors are instead the result of laziness, boredom, or boundary-pushing on the part of your teen. Here, our Teen Parenting Coach outlines the root causes of ADHD and explains how parents can decipher symptoms.

Q: “My 15-year-old son was only recently diagnosed with ADHD, but I now realize I should have picked up on the symptoms when he was 8. All the signs were there. Now that we know the root cause, I’m left wondering: How responsible is he for his defiant behavior, lateness, and lack of application to school work? How do we motivate him to make more of an effort? What are appropriate consequences for defiant behavior?” —AussieMum

Dear AussieMum,

As I’m sure you’ve read, ADHD is a neurobiological condition marked by a lack of self-regulation. Based in the brain, it can have an impact on absolutely every aspect of a teen’s life.

So I want to start by saying that, “How responsible is he?” is the most important question you can ask when your child has ADHD and related challenges, like anxiety or a mood disorder. Because understanding why he does what he does — or doesn’t do, as the case may be — is essential to helping him find the motivation you want for him.

At ImpactADHD, we teach parents to ask themselves the question, “Is it naughty or neurological?”

How do you know? Well, if you try a traditional disciplinary approach, and it is effective, there is a natural cause and effect at play. If traditional discipline is sufficient to change behaviors, chances are the behavior was “naughty.”

But when traditional parenting techniques are ineffective — as is often the case when a child has these kinds of complex issues — you can presume that the behavior is, at least in part, neurologically motivated.

[Free Resource: Transforming Teen Apathy Into Engagment]

What difference does it make if his behavior is naughty or neurological? It has everything to do with how we should respond, how we should hold him accountable, and how we use motivation to help.

I’m not saying that we should accept unacceptable behavior without any accountability. But I do believe we should set realistic expectations, approach our kids’ behavior with an understanding of their diagnosis, communicate openly with them about it without judgment, and not add a “moral diagnosis” on top of their ADHD.

Your son’s circumstances are more common than you might think. A teenage diagnosis often sheds light on behaviors that were present at ages 8 through 10. Kids diagnosed after years of unidentified challenges often exhibit dangerous or reckless behaviors, do poorly in school, and exhibit defiance and other behavior problems. In short, they’ve been out of control for a long time, and they have not learned effective mechanisms for self-management.

To be honest, kids hate feeling out of control. But many give up trying to regain control because they don’t know how. It takes time to turn things around.

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As a parent, you want to hold your child accountable, but on some level you understand that there is a level of self-management that he has never learned. And so you must begin by helping him understand how his brain is wired, and understand why he’s found it so difficult to succeed. Start with the assumption that he would want to be more effective if he could, but he’s given up after years of feeling a failure.

Helping him understand himself is key to helping your child take ownership of his life and learn to manage it. Help him identify what’s important to him, and what motivates him to do… anything!

When thinking about appropriate consequences for infractions, let him be part of the conversation. Ask him what he thinks, and come to an agreement that you can both point to the next time things go awry. Your job as a parent is to help your child (slowly but surely) learn how to come up with self-management strategies that will work for him — not necessarily for you.

And one more thing: Above all else, focus on re-building your relationship and your trust with your son. You want to be in this relationship with your kid for the long haul. Choose your battles, and don’t let the difficult teen years ruin your future.

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.


2 Comments & Reviews

  1. I have a 14-year-old that was diagnosed at 6. Even with medication “figured out” (and that took a while) it’s still only just enough to give him some control over his focus and behavior. We still have to use alot of behavior modification techniques. That was SO much easier when he was young. In the teen years he’s getting harder to deal with.

    I would say most of the school is ADHD. We have to keep a close eye, externally, on my son’s progress in classes. He’ll do the work, but only if someone other than just the teacher is holding him accountable. You sound like you’re not in the states, so I don’t know if they have the same system over there, but my son has an IEP (individual education plan) and in that we write specific accommodations the teachers must give him (like accepting late work, double checking that he’s on task for in class work, providing copies of notes, etc). We still have to watch like a Hawk, but he is an A/B student with the extra structure.

    As for the at home defiance, part of that is ADHD, and part of it is being a teenager, and part of it might even be another disorder called Oppositional Defiance Disorder. For the most part, once my son calms down, he will comply with requests, but he is downright rude when you first make them. He screams at me often, and no amount of typical discipline can stop that. It’s just a natural instantaneous reaction. I’ve learned to simply comment, “I don’t deserve to be yelled at, take a couple of seconds and then we’ll talk about it.” Discipline there does no good because it’s not like he exactly chooses to yell. It’s a lack of frontal cortex activity that usually prevents neuro-typical people, or even more mature people with ADHD from just going off on everyone who annoys them. Between the ADHD and all the testosterone, every time he does control himself is a win, and I praise him for it.

    My son told me yesterday that he has a hard time not punching everyone at school, and that he was thinking about bringing a knife to school. Well, luckily, this year he’s only pushed one kid, and he didn’t get in trouble for it because the other kid was being such an as*hole that he wasn’t willing to go to the principal to talk about what happened. On the other hand, I confiscated all his pocket knives just to be on the safe side. I don’t think he’d do anything stupid. He’s been managing to control himself despite the fact that he gets picked on ALOT, but everyone has a breaking point, and for kids with ADHD, it’s easier to reach that breaking point because they have less forethought for consequences before they react. We usually have between 1&3 issues per school year, and it’s getting better. On the bright side, he’s never the instigator, but because he’s more immature than the other kids (because of the ADHD) he gets picked on alot which can set him off, and of course, since he’s not popular, all the other “witnesses” side with their friend who was doing the teasing. It’s such a mess. Luckily his Jr. High principal has recognized the situation and handles it calmly.

    He’s going to a different district next year for High School, it’s a specialized tech school that should be really good for him. I’m really TERRIFIED that something will happen and he’ll screw it up though. I need to meet with the administration before the year gets started. I am hopeful, however, that because most of these kids are “Tech Geeks” (a term they use for themselves) he’ll fit in better and there will be fewer bullies to test his patience.

  2. DDDaysh — I agree to so much of what you’ve shared, and have a few thoughts in response. First, I’m not sure what I said that suggests that I’m not in the US, but FYI I’m based in Atlanta, GA, and I work with parents all over the US, and all over the world :-). Second, the point of medication is to do just what you describe — to “give him some control over his focus and behavior.” Medication should always be accompanied by behavior management, first for parents to help them manage, and then for kids to gradually learn how to manage themselves — which is what’s happening for him. It’s great that he’s open and willing to share with you, and that he’s recognizing when he needs to exercise self-regulation. That’s the key next step — to transfer behavior management from you to him! I get that you’re Terrified about next year, and I guess I’d encourage you to trust that you are gradually getting him ready. You can start having conversations with him about what he can expect to be different next year. Ask him what he thinks, and what he might want to do to get ready. Try to avoid the temptation to tell him what you think, and just ask questions. He’s making progress, and chances are he’ll be ready for you to start transferring that baton to him to run with in High School!

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