Ask the Experts

Q: “How Do I Improve Communication with My ADHD Teen?”

Your teen won’t engage. They ignore or rail against your questions, even when you’re trying to help. How can you get real conversations started? Try asking your kid open-ended questions and use these other conversation starters to help improve communication and get things done.

Mother and daughter discussing how the daughter might have ADHD
Mother and daughter talking

Q: “I’m so frustrated trying to get things done for my 16-year-old with ADHD. Whenever I bring up stuff we need to discuss or decisions we need to make, my son completely shuts me down. He gets angry and stomps off, tells me he doesn’t want to have these conversations, or gives me thoughtless answers to get me to stop. I can’t take it anymore. Can you offer advice?” – DSB


Ever heard of a Momversation? I hadn’t either until my son, Eli, casually floated the term when we were out to lunch a few years ago.

First, a little backstory. Our household was a busy one. Two full-time working parents, two children with heavy loads, a never-ending to-do list, and a constant stream of necessary conversations and decisions.

At the beginning of Eli’s senior year in college, I felt disconnected from him and was desperate to chip away at some of the endless questions and decisions bubbling up. Like you, I’m the one in our family who moves us along. By nature, I’m a planner and an organizer, and the consummate list maker. And boy, oh boy, did I have a list for my soon-to-be-graduating boy.

So, when Eli was home from school on a short break, I grabbed an opportunity to spend some extra time with him. We’d get the chance to have a real conversation away from the house — or so I thought.

[Free Download: Conversation Starters for Parents & Kids]

Right after the server took our lunch orders, I whipped out my list and got cracking. “Have you thought about Los Angeles or New York?” “Any decision as to whether you want to do the senior internship program?” “Did you reach out to your advisor to discuss the Berkeley program?” Without missing a beat, he sat back in his chair, crossed his arms, and replied, “So this is going to be one of your ‘Momversations?’”

I bit my tongue. I know my reputation in our home. Still, Eli would NEVER refer to a talk with my husband as a “Dadversation!” However, his pointed comment made me realize that my “All Business M.O.” undercut our connection and prevented us from having any productive conversation.

I asked, “Can we go over a few things?” My son intuited that my conversation starter would become a series of rapid-fire questions, which made him mentally shut down. He knew I tended to think five steps ahead to feel prepared. And frankly, it’s exhausting. And if I’m exhausted, well, I’m guessing he’s exhausted by me. Not a great foundation for authentic communication — or for getting anything accomplished.

What I also learned that day is that my hard-hitting questions overwhelmed him. And that’s very typical of those with attention deficits. Of course, I knew this from my work as an ADHD student coach, but sometimes it is hard to see the forest when it is your child. Guilty as charged! The bombardment of questions overwhelmed his brain and made it impossible for him to find “room” (his word, not mine) to collect his thoughts. He needed time and space to process my questions before formulating a response. And I needed to respect that.

[Free Webinar: Beyond Hello – Building Conversation Skills in Children with ADHD]

Conversation Starters for Teens: 5 Ways to Improve Communication

Here are a few more techniques I learned along the way to ease the pathway of communication.

  1. Ask open-ended questions. Nothing brings a conversation to a screeching halt faster than asking Yes/No questions. Instead, get the chat following with conversation starters such as, “So how do you feel about…?” For younger children, I love using a rating scale to kick things off. For example, “On a scale of 1-10, with 10 being the best thing ever, how do you feel about….? Why that number?”
  2. Give them opportunities to lead. Put your child in charge of what he wants to discuss. If that is too overwhelming, you can give two choices and allow him to pick one.
  3. Set an appointment & agenda. I know this sounds very “boardroom,” but truly, this is still my favorite and most successful strategy when engaging with my son. Asking him to identify a good time to talk and previewing the conversation allows him the time and space to get his thoughts in order. Once I stopped “springing” my agenda on him, our whole communication dynamic shifted.
  4. Honor the power of one. One question at a time. One decision at a time. One voice at a time. Too many are too overwhelming. I even use this method when texting with my adult children. One question = one text message.
  5. Ask before offering advice. Yes, you heard me. This was the hardest thing for me to learn. I’m a fixer by nature and always want to jump in with a solution. But offering unsolicited advice almost always shuts down the back-and-forth conversation. As my kids got older, my rule of thumb was to first ask them, “Do you want my advice, or do you just want me to listen?”

So, did we have any “Momversations” that day? Yes. Several of them, in fact, and very good ones — just not what was on my agenda. That day, I approached our conversation much more softly. Instead of a board meeting atmosphere and endless rounds of questions, I put Eli in charge of what he wanted to discuss, and the conversation flowed naturally. Did I get all my answers? No. But we made progress, and I quickly learned that the rest could wait for another day.

Conversation Starters for Teens with ADHD: Next Steps

ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer 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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