Teens & Young Adults

Inside Your Teen’s ADHD Mind

“Adolescent boys with ADHD are their own worst enemies because they refuse to ask for help.” How to help your son recognize his strengths, take responsibility, and succeed in high school.

Teenage boy with ADHD smiling outside
Teenage boy with ADHD smiling outside

Teen boys face their share of obstacles at school: They are often restless in the classroom, and their verbal skills lag behind those of girls. As a result, they can fall behind young women with ADHD (and girls without the disorder) in standardized test scores and rates of college admissions. This is especially true of teen boys with ADHD.

While boys with ADHD typically have a greater need than girls for academic help from their parents and teachers, they are less likely to accept it due to their independent streak.

“Adolescent boys with ADHD are their own worst enemies,” says Judith Levy Cohen, M.Ed., a certified learning specialist in private practice in New York.

“They refuse to ask for the help they need; instead, their mantra is, ‘I want to do it all my byself!’ This is not a misprint. Two boys in my class, both with ADHD, were so distracted that they reversed their words and never noticed!”

Here are strategies that will allow you to help your son without stepping on his toes.

1. Play up his strengths.

“Look for activities that a boy is good at and loves,” suggests Fiona St. Clair, a Manhattan-based learning specialist who works with children who have ADHD. “It’s amazing how sports, music, or the arts can override attention problems.”

Finding a boy’s favorite activity and praising him for his accomplishments can remove obstacles to asking for help.

“If your child is practicing the guitar, you might say, ‘You’re doing a good job of sticking with it. How can we apply that strength to other areas, like, say, math or science?'”

2. Connect him with good role models.

“They might not say it, but many boys with ADHD harbor the belief that they won’t ever make it in this world,” says Michael Riera, Ph.D., head of Redwood Day School in Oakland, California, and the author of Staying Connected To Your Teenager: How To Keep Them Talking To You And How To Hear What They’re Really Saying.

Knowing about-and meeting with-successful people who have ADHD can turn that fear on its head.” Riera advises boys with ADHD to shadow an adult with ADHD in the workplace for a day, to see that some jobs are ADHD-friendly. (Parents can contact local chapters of CHADD or another ADHD-related organization to find mentors.) “Adults can talk about what ADHD has done for them and how they’ve worked with it to succeed,” Riera says.

3. Be patient about his progress.

In the early teen years, students are given a greater workload, but some of them lack the organizational skills to handle it. Boys with ADHD tend to lag behind others in executive function skills — the ability to plan, prioritize, and organize their work.

“The culture pushes boys to be more independent than girls, but if they have problems with executive functions, they’re not ready to be,” says St. Clair. “So they may become hard to reach.”

Experts recommend that parents be patient. “Boys often make breakthroughs at age 15 or 16,” St. Clair says. “By that time, they are getting accustomed to handling independent work.”

In their teens, many boys with ADHD start mastering techniques that help high school students get work done, such as breaking down their tasks into smaller, more manageable chunks.

“Parents should remember that a boy doesn’t need to master everything by the end of high school,” says Riera.

4. Let him make his own decisions.

Riera advises parents to let their teenage sons make their own decisions, in and outside of school.

“From elementary school on, academic activities are selected and packaged for kids, and schools push students, to the detriment of their social lives,” he says. “When kids go to college, they may be ahead academically, but probably haven’t developed themselves socially and morally.”

Riera suggests that “parents give kids the opportunity to test their decision-making by allowing them to make bad decisions.” He believes that making mistakes gives boys with ADHD some advantages over their non-ADHD counterparts when they enter college.

Riera tells kids with learning differences and ADHD, “The good news is that, when you graduate from high school, you are going to know how to work through struggle. To me, that is the core of success.”

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