Teens with ADHD

Reframe Your Teen’s Bad Behavior With “Unconditional Parenting”

“Your insistence on good behavior may be more about your need to feel like a successful parent than about your ADHD teen’s shortcomings.” Learn the benefits of unconditional parenting: a parent-child dynamic rooted in respect. Strategies include getting rid of bribes and rewards, finding alternatives to punishment, and replacing praise with noticing.

Portrait of an African American father and his son.
Portrait of an African American father and his son.

How Do You Discipline an ADHD Teen’s Bad Behavior?

What are your goals for your teen with ADHD? Good (enough) grades? Not Snapchatting or texting their friends all night? Following the rules? Treating others with respect and kindness?

You might be relying on rewards (money or access to electronics or screen time) and punishments (grounding or loss of privileges) to reinforce the behavior you want to see more more of and discourage anything you consider to be unacceptable. You praise your teen for positive choices and scold him for negative ones.

On the surface, this approach makes sense for teens with ADHD, and may even “work” on some level. The question is: What is it actually working toward?

According to Alfie Kohn, author of Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishment to Love and Reason, praise and scolding leads to the opposite of what we’re looking for. In fact, by pushing for “good behavior,” we’re giving our teens the message that their compliance and our approval matters more than their own sense of agency.

Instead, says Kohn, we should want to unconditionally parent, and ask, “What do our kids need, and how can we meet those needs?” We should work with our children to help them get there, rather than try to force them to be and act in certain ways.

[Free Resource: ADHD Discipline Strategies]

The Problem with Focusing on Bad Behavior

I read Kohn’s book when my son was in third grade, and it was a game changer. I recognized that my quest for “good behavior” was about my own need to feel like a successful parent. I wanted my son to reflect my own good values and choices. (Of course, in my case, his oppositional nature meant that I was failing at achieving this goal anyway.)

So I started making changes in the way I interacted with him and handled difficult situations. I quickly found that letting go of my need to control and, instead, looking for learning in every situation paid huge dividends in the health of our relationship.

Every child benefits from unconditional parenting, and it’s an especially critical reframe to make with differently wired teens, many of whom have had behavioral management systems in place since they were little. By prioritizing compliance, we inadvertently bring up teens who don’t trust their own judgment.

Parenting unconditionally may feel uncomfortable at first, but you’ll be surprised how well teens respond to a parent-child dynamic that’s rooted in respect. Here are tips for staying in the unconditional parenting zone:

[Free Download: Evaluate Your Teen’s Emotional Control]

1. Question the behavior you’re correcting. Our kids have behaviors that get under our skin, but often the things we’re correcting aren’t important compared to raising humans who are poised to contribute to society. List the behaviors that spark your discipline response, assess the validity of your reaction, and stop correcting behaviors that don’t matter in the long run.

2. Get rid of bribes and rewards. Bribes and rewards can undermine what we’re working toward, and push our child in the opposite direction. Take a note from William Stixrud, Ph.D., and Ned Johnson (The Self-Driven Child), and give your teen opportunities to make their own decisions and learn from their mistakes. They may fall on their face from time to time — fail a class, make bad social choices — which can be painful to watch, but learning from these experiences will prepare them for the future better than a reward or bribe.

3. Find alternatives to punishments. Punishments may seem like our only option, especially for egregious behavior, but research shows they’re ineffective. Punishments often lead to resentment, conflict, and more negative behavior. Instead, engage in respectful conversations, listen to and reflect the teen’s perspective, share your point of view, collaboratively problem-solve, and work together to come up with a restitution, if appropriate.

4. Replace praise with noticing. Instead of sharing your value-laden opinions about your teen’s actions or achievements, be an objective observer. This prevents his becoming a praise-seeker, and deepens his own sense of competency, critical thinking, and intrinsic motivation. For example, instead of saying, “Wow, I really love that new song you made up on the piano,” try saying, “I noticed you’ve been working on a song. How did you come up with that melody?”

5. Focus on the end goal. This one is straightforward, but important: Keep your eyes on the prize. If our goal is to raise ethical, responsible, emotionally healthy adults, doing the work to parent unconditionally is our best shot at achieving that outcome. It takes effort, and may require some repatterning of a well-established parent/child dynamic, but it is absolutely worth it.

Deborah Reber is a New York Times bestselling author, speaker, and the founder of TiLT Parenting, a website, podcast, and global online community for parents raising differently wired children. She is the author of Differently Wired: Raising an Exceptional Child in a Conventional World.

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

Updated on November 18, 2019

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