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Helping Tweens Succeed

Whether your tween with ADHD is acting up in school, starting to run with the wrong crowd, or trying to exert more control over his life, the years between early childhood and adolescence can be turbulent. How parents can avoid and resolve conflicts.

Preteen girl with ADHD leans against brick wall
Preteen girl with ADHD leans against brick wall

Twelve-year-old Ryan had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities in the third grade. With the help of tutoring and a stimulant, he had been doing well in school. But things became a little shaky in his preteen years.

He stopped doing homework, and refused help at school. Some days, he wouldn’t take his ADHD medication — or he pretended to take them and then spit them out. ADHD behavior problems ran rampant. He was calling out in class and getting into trouble in the halls.

It was at this point that Ryan’s parents — enormously frustrated and worried about their son and his behavior problems — sought my help.

Is Peer Pressure Turning Your Child Against You?

The problems Ryan had been having, I told his parents, are not unusual for kids 10 to 12 years of age. These “tweens” — no longer children and not yet teenagers — have stopped caring about what grownups think of them. Now they’re focused on what their peers think.

Tweens are so eager to “fit in” that they’ll avoid doing just about anything that makes them seem different from friends and classmates. They dress alike, talk alike, and wear the same hairstyles. Take ADHD meds? Forget about it. Accept ADHD accommodations at school? Work with a tutor? No way. “There’s nothing wrong with me!” these young people tell their parents. “Why do you want me to learn this? I’m never going to use it anyway.”

As tweens refuse the help they accepted a few years ago, their ADHD symptoms flare up and their grades go down. How did your sweet elementary-schooler become this…this thing? What can you do to make things right again?

If your preteen with ADHD refuses to take medication, make her privacy a priority. Let her know that you understand that it can be embarrassing to be seen taking meds. Explore ways for her to take her pills in private. When she goes to a sleepover, for example, explain the situation to the host parents. (Let your child skip a dose, if necessary, to maintain her privacy.)

What to do if your child is running with the wrong crowd…It’s normal for tweens to make new friends. But what if you think their influence is partially to blame for your child’s behavior problems? Telling your child that you disapprove may backfire; he’ll probably want to spend even more time with them.

Instead, keep a close eye on where your child goes and what he does. Encourage him to stick with all of his extracurricular activities. He may decide that he prefers his old friends.

Understand what motivates your child. Elementary school students strive to get good grades, in part, to please their parents and teachers. But by middle school, the primary goal of most tweens is to be accepted as one of the gang. Pleasing grownups doesn’t matter so much anymore.

Let teachers know that your child may refuse accommodations because they make her feel different. Ask if she could get help in a less obvious way. For example, instead of being pulled out of class to see a tutor or speech therapist, she might meet with the tutor or therapist at home.

Don’t be the disciplinarian. Meet with the teachers at the start of the year to suggest alternative consequences for missed assignments, and so on. Maybe the teacher could require your child to spend lunch period in the classroom and do his work then — or to stay after school to do the work. After that, don’t get involved unless you feel that the school’s approach has been inappropriate. After all, you’ve probably found that battles over schoolwork only cause your child to resent you — and the work still doesn’t get done. If you and your child aren’t adversaries, the lines of communication will stay open.

Pay less attention to grades. It’s not easy to watch a child struggle in school  — especially one who had been doing well. But criticizing his academic performance will only intensify the stress your family is under. And, before high school, grades are less important than acquiring solid study skills.

Hire a teen tutor. Your child may be more likely to accept academic help from an older student than from you or a professional tutor. If your child needs help, find an intelligent high school student (of the same sex) who is willing, for a few dollars, to come over after school to see that homework gets done and that your child understands the material.

Manage ADHD medication at school discreetly — your child should be allowed to end her lunchtime visits to the school nurse. Use an eight- or 12-hour dose of the stimulant to cover the entire school day.

Continue to make yourself available in the evenings, in case your child asks you for assistance. But don’t push him to accept help from you.

Many conflicts are rooted in the adolescent’s budding desire to control things. But parents are so used to coaching children through routines that they refuse to cede ground. In turn, kids with ADHD push back.

Problem-solve together to help your child have more control over her life, without losing yours. The best way to avoid confrontations is to team up. Instead of dictating orders, see if you can solve problems together. Day after day, Joe’s dad told him to stop playing computer games. Joe would answer, “OK,” but continued to play. His dad would start shouting.

Joe explained that he didn’t stop right away because he was trying to finish a level. He agreed that, when his parents asked him to stop, he would, as soon as he completed the level. Dad agreed not to nag. Complying with the plan earned Joe extra computer time.

Ground Rules for Negotiating Rules with Your Preteen

1. Address your tween’s behavior problem calmly. Be clear about your expectations, not critical.

2. Don’t “overtalk” when you communicate. The rule should be that you give more “talk time” to your preteen than to yourself.

3. Find ways to help your child feel powerful. Ask her to help you solve problems. Solicit her advice on buying toys for her siblings.

4. Teach her to disagree without being disagreeable. Set an example by not raising your voice when you find yourself in conflict.

5. Stick to a structured routine. If your child knows that he wakes up and does homework at set times every day, there’s less room for argument. Managing his own schedule will help him feel like an adult.

6. Be clear about what’s not negotiable. Putting on her seatbelt in the car and other safety issues are not.

Despite your best efforts, you might find yourself drawn into a power struggle when you’re tired. If so, leave the room. After the flurry, go back with new ideas and a reminder that you love your child.

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