Pick Your Battles, Parents
The teenage years mean new independence — and mistakes. Use this 10-step plan to help your teen manage ADHD on his own terms by letting him make mistakes, choosing your priorities, and nixing parental guilt.
I saw Donny for an ADHD evaluation shortly after his eleventh birthday. Like many parents, his mother, Christine, reacted to diagnosis of her adolescent son with mixed feelings: sadness that he was not perfect and that the ADHD wouldn’t go away — and concern about the implications for Donny’s future.
She hoped that the treatment plan we devised — a combination of academic accommodations, therapy, and ADHD medication — would improve their day-to-day lives. Mostly, she was determined to do whatever was necessary to help her son.
Christine became the boy’s champion, protector, and advocate — getting him the ADHD help he needed during his critical tween years.
She coordinated with Donny’s teachers, school counselors, soccer coaches, piano teachers, and the parents of his friends to make sure that they understood his needs and treated him fairly. She attended IEP meetings and helped shape his academic plan. Morning, homework, and bedtime routines were established to structure life at home.
The bottom line? Donny thrived.
Changes for the Worse
I saw the family again almost four years later. Sad to say, their life had taken a turn for the worse. Donny was a teen with ADHD experiencing many of the same problems he had in the past: He was angry and defiant at home. Now in high school, he procrastinated about homework and became disorganized in the classroom. Finally, Donny began to rebel against taking his medication and going for after-school academic support sessions.
The old disciplinary standbys of grounding Donny and taking away his privileges had little effect on his behavior. Christine expressed worry about his choice of friends, and urged him to find more responsible buddies. Donny withdrew from family life and spent more time in his room or with his friends.
Christine was the same motivated mother, but the parenting approach that had worked so well before was now exacerbating Donny’s behavior. What happened, she wondered? And where could she find help?
For one thing, Donny wasn’t the same youngster at 15 that he had been at 11. His perceptions, expectations, and needs had, in some cases, changed drastically. To hear Donny describe things, his caring and dedicated mother had somehow become a controlling, demanding parent. She nagged him constantly, about “everything.” Why couldn’t she get a life and get off his back?
Trying Too Hard
I told Christine that she was trying too hard. The take-charge, proactive parenting that used to work was now smothering Donny. He didn’t want to be taken care of; he wanted to be independent and mature. He was embarrassed when his mother checked with his teachers about his academic work. The routines set up at home now felt like a straitjacket to Donny. He perceived many of the family rules as attempts to limit his freedom. He hated taking medication. Donny was sick and tired of his ADHD! He wanted to be like other kids his age.
Christine began to realize how Donny had outgrown many of the old strategies to manage his ADHD, and her attitude started to change. She had run interference for her son for three years, but now he resented the interventions. She felt frustrated and guilty over Donny’s struggles and concluded that she wasn’t doing enough to help him.
In a nutshell, Donny wanted to grow up, but his loving mother — of all people — was standing in his way. It frustrated both of them. Christine needed a plan to find the right balance in mothering her son. Here is the 10-step plan I devised to help her:
1. MAINTAIN REALISTIC GOALS.
ADHD cannot be “cured” because there is nothing to cure; it’s not an illness or a disease. A realistic goal is to help your child manage it well by providing strategies and interventions helpful to that particular child. Even with ideal interventions in place (a great IEP, therapeutic and tutoring help, the right medication at the right dosage), most children will continue to struggle at times. Expecting too much from your child, or from yourself as a parent, isn’t fair to either of you.
Perspective: Everyone slips up occasionally — kids with ADHD and those without it. Sometimes the school paper is put off until the night before it’s due, and sometimes the garbage doesn’t get taken out. Look at the implications of a given act. If there are none, ask yourself, “What am I getting so upset about?”
2. MINIMIZE THE GUILT AND FEAR.
ADHD is a biological condition that, in most cases, is genetically transmitted. It’s no one’s fault. Parents aren’t guilty of “giving” their child ADHD any more than they are guilty of giving their child life. Feeling guilty or worrying excessively leads to trying to do too much. Take a breath, relax, and remind yourself that your child isn’t doomed to a life of failure.
Perspective: Recall the baby and giant steps your child has taken since the original diagnosis. Ask yourself honestly: Hasn’t your child made more progress than you thought he would after first being told he had ADHD? Pat yourself and your child on the back for how far you’ve come and how far you will go.
3. LET YOUR CHILD MAKE SOME MISTAKES.
It’s a good thing to let your child make and deal with “safe” mistakes in situations that won’t cause irreparable damage. Let him learn from the natural consequences that result from his behavior. To learn responsibility, there must be accountability.
Perspective: If your son insists on wearing an earring to his part-time job and he ends up losing the position because of his fashion statement, don’t call up the boss and try to persuade him to rehire your child. Discuss the issue with your child and suggest some other employment options, but let your son deal with the situation.
4. RESPECT YOUR CHILD’S NEED FOR PRIVACY.
Monitoring your child’s behavior at home is a basic parenting responsibility, but it can be overdone. Excessive fears can turn you into more of a cop than a parent. Every child or teen needs personal space.
Perspective: Closed doors should be knocked on before entering. Remember the irritation and anger you feel when you’re interrupted during a quiet moment. In addition, don’t search your child’s room or go through his or her possessions. Many children equate snooping with smothering. If you’re suspicious, talk with your child about your concern. Teens with ADHD need to be heard because others are always telling them what to do.
5. DON’T TRY TO CHOOSE YOUR CHILD’S FRIENDS.
This strategy almost always backfires, particularly with teens. Identifying with one’s friends and sticking up for them if they’re criticized is a normal part of maturation. It may be better in the long run to tolerate the friendship than to fight over it. One exception: Any friends who place your child in danger, as from drug use or criminal activity.
Perspective: That certain friend you think is a bad influence on your child will not necessarily remain his buddy forever — or may not be as “bad” as he looks. Have your son invite the friend over for pizza and a movie or offer to drive them to the shopping mall to get a better idea of his character.
6. MONITOR YOUR CHILD SELECTIVELY.
Most children with ADHD need frequent monitoring and supervision; it’s a fact that maturity comes more slowly to kids with ADHD. Take your cues from the child’s behavior. Too little monitoring increases the chances of problems being overlooked or repeated, or of the child getting into situations that hold unacceptable risks. Too much monitoring may cause excessive conflict, resentment, and rebelliousness.
Perspective: Change your tactics when it comes to monitoring your child’s schoolwork. Instead of visiting the teacher daily or weekly, stay quietly involved by e-mailing the teacher or calling when your child isn’t home. Instead of rifling through your child’s assignment pad, just drop a question in passing about a test or project deadline that is coming up.
7. INCREASE PRIVILEGES JUDICIOUSLY.
As your child demonstrates his ability to behave responsibly, increase his freedoms. The parent who is overprotective holds the reins too tightly. “If you abuse it, you lose it” is a good rule to lay down. On the other hand, restricting freedoms that the child is ready to handle may stunt his emotional growth.
Perspective: Allow your son or daughter to go away on sleepovers or to a concert with friends as long as another parent or an older, responsible teen supervises. That way, you’re giving your child the chance to stretch his or her wings without personally crimping his style.
8. ENCOURAGE AND SUPPORT INDEPENDENCE.
Our job is to raise a child who no longer needs us. Most parents would agree with this statement on a cognitive level, but accepting it on an emotional level can be tricky. Confidence, self-esteem, and the ability to manage life’s responsibilities come from a sense of being competent and self-sufficient.
Perspective: Assign your child a job — painting the shed or washing the car — give him basic instructions, and let him find a way to complete it. Parents of children with ADHD are accustomed to telling their children how to do things. As children mature, parents need to accept the fact that they’ll find their own way of completing tasks. When the job’s done, praise him, even if it’s not perfect.
9. DON’T MISTAKE MILD REBELLION FOR DISRESPECT.
Developing a sense of identity is the major developmental task of adolescence, and it is often expressed in disagreement, conflict, and simply being “different” from the parents. Given the impulsivity that comes with ADHD, the process of adolescent maturation can become very lively indeed!
Perspective: A child who says no to everything you suggest — not spending his allowance in one swipe, wearing a jacket when it’s 30 degrees out — is often merely exercising his independence. Recall the times he unloaded the dishwasher, took out the dog at your request, or surprised you with that CD on your birthday.
10. PICK YOUR BATTLES CAREFULLY.
Not everything is worth fighting over. Being overprotective virtually guarantees more conflicts between parent and child. Take a stand on the important issues and don’t sweat the small stuff.
Perspective: Remember that, while you don’t like your son’s green hair or twin earrings (and might be embarrassed sitting next to him in a restaurant), the color will wash out and the earrings can be removed. Heavy cigarette smoking or repeated thefts from the convenience store, however, are worth sweating over.
Updated on March 19, 2021