Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: How Can I Transfer Responsibility to My Teen — Without Risking a Ruined GPA?

Your teen with ADHD wants more responsibility, and you want to give it to her — but you’re worried about the impact her executive function challenges will have on her GPA, her social life, and her happiness. Here, our Teen Parenting Coach explains how to teach key skills at a pace that makes sense for your teen’s unique needs.

Q: “In addressing organization challenges and responsibility with school work, I have always been there to help. Now that my sons are 14 and 12, how do I support them in becoming more independent? I have encouraged them to communicate with teachers for themselves, and I offer constant reminders, but they still struggle and their grades have taken a huge hit. How do I manage the school failures resulting from executive function issues?” —Mauimama

Dear Mauimama,

It sounds like your steady support made a big difference for your boys’ success when they were younger. And now, it’s time for them to accept more ownership of their school-work. Sure, executive function challenges cause difficulties and delays, particularly for teens with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD). But your sons can learn to function with greater independence, regardless of their executive function problems. And that transition actually starts with your approach.

First, let me explain the role of the parent in the pre-teen and teen years; and then I’ll offer some suggestions for teaching responsibility and starting to shift your approach.

In, we teach that parents’ roles tend to fall into these four phases:

  • Phase 1: Motivate Effort/Direct Work
  • Phase 2: Motivate Ownership/Model Organization
  • Phase 3: Transfer Ownership/Support Organization
  • Phase 4: Empower, Champion, Troubleshoot

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

Phase 1 typically begins when your child enters pre-school or kindergarten. As the years pass, most parents gradually begin to let go of the reins and transfer ownership to their kids. Ideally, Phase 2 begins in elementary school, and the transition from Phase 2 to Phase 3 takes shape in middle school. By the time a child enters high school, his or her parents are generally operating in Phase 3, and the transition to Phase 4 often begins before she graduates from 12th grade.

When your child has ADHD, however, chances are good that you’re stuck in Phase 1 or 2 — and you don’t know how to move beyond that approach. Mauimama, it sounds like that’s your experience — and trust me when I tell you that you are not alone!

This happens for a few reasons. First, since children with ADHD often have delayed executive function development, they may lag 3 to 5 years behind their same-age peers in some aspects of their maturation. On top of that, when their peers were learning certain skills in 3rd or 4th grade, for example, these kids were likely not developmentally ready to learn or practice what was being taught. They may have missed it altogether. Finally, our school system tends to focus on outcomes (making sure kids get the work done), instead of the process (helping kids learn how to learn). So parents are often unprepared when they get to the transition to middle and high school.

So, Mauimom, the goal is to slowly but surely step back and transfer ownership to your boys — you will need to step firmly into Phase 2 in most areas, and start moving into Phase 3 little bits at a time.

[“Can I Save My Teen From Failure?”]

Start by talking to your children about your goal of stepping back, and asking them what’s in it for them. Truly, kids don’t want to be micro-managed, and it helps for them to recognize that.

Then, ask each of them to choose one thing that they’re willing to take on for themselves. Maybe it’s getting started on homework, or turning in math assignments, or talking to their Spanish teacher. Be really specific, and let them get their feet wet while you continue to scaffold the rest. Once they experience success in one area, they can take aim on the next, and so forth.

It takes time to learn to let go, and to help your kids learn to take the lead in their own education. Set the intention with your boys, and make sure it doesn’t feel like you’re just handing over the reins, because that can feel overwhelming. Little steps lead to lasting change.

Do you have a question for ADDitude’s Dear Teen Parenting Coach? Submit your question or challenge here.

The opinions and suggestions presented above are intended for your general knowledge only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your own or your child’s condition.