Ask the Experts

Q: Is My Teen Truly ‘Lazy?’ Or Is Something Neurological Going On Here?

Your teen can blast out short bursts of energy to finish an assignment on deadline, for example. But his energy peters out on longer tasks. Is this a telltale sign of adolescent laziness, an ADHD byproduct, or something else? And how can we respond constructively?

Q: “Are some underdeveloped prefrontal cortex issues (such as delayed maturity) common outside of an ADHD diagnosis? Also, can you suggest ways to better react and deal with perceived laziness or lack of effort from a teen with ADHD?” WAFreshmanQ

Hi WAFreshmanQ:

If your son has ADHD, then he will also have executive functioning challenges. And the lack of “maturity” you mention is controlled by his executive functioning weaknesses. Let me explain.

Have you heard of the term “executive age?” It refers to a person’s age based on how his or her brain is working. Children with executive function challenges are, on the average, approximately 30 percent behind their peers in executive age. Though your son is 15 years old chronologically, academically, and athletically – if he is challenged by organization, time management, and/or social skills, he is going to behave like a 10 ½ year old on these type of tasks. Your expectations and support systems must shift accordingly.

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

When it comes to understanding executive functions, and how they impact perceived effort, there is A LOT of information out there. I am a huge fan of Dr. Thomas Brown and his model for executive functions. He breaks them down into 6 clusters, one of which is effort. He says people with EF challenges have a difficult time regulating alertness, sustaining effort, or achieving strong processing speed. Many with ADHD say they can perform short-term tasks or projects, but have a much more difficult time sustaining effort over longer periods of time. So what you might perceive as laziness or lack of effort might be a very real and challenging executive dysfunction.

Many of my coaching clients have a difficult time sustaining effort. I see this clearly when too much information is being thrown at them. And then I immediately know it is time to modulate how I am presenting information. How do I do that? First, I talk in sound bites. If I am giving instructions, I only use the words that are necessary. I truly eliminate all unnecessary information from my verbiage. Second, I “introduce” to them that I am about to say something important and I ask them to increase “their effort level.” This gives them time to wiggle in their chair, sit up straight, or simply get ready to receive the info I am about to give. This strategy allows them to get their brain to “high alert.” And once I am finished, I then give them permission to bring it back down.

Crazy as it may seem, it works every time.

If you would like to learn more about executive functioning, I invite you to check out my one-hour “Late, Lost, and Lagging Behind” video, chock-full of information on executive functioning.

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

Organization guru Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, answers questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

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