Teens with ADHD

“Take a Sabbatical from Teaching and Judging”

As our children age and mature, they need fewer and fewer corrections. They need to feel valued, and listened to, and praised for their efforts. Any parent of a teen with ADHD knows this is easier said than done; here is how to get started.

A father greets his defiant teenager at the door.
A father welcomes his teen son home.

When your main goal is to get control over a defiant teenager’s behavior, learning to pay attention, spending some positive time together, ignoring minor misbehavior, and offering praise may seem like digressions. But these are essential elements to putting your relationship with your teen on positive footing. Praise and quality one-on-one time are critical to breaking the logjam of negativity between you and your teen. Don’t skip over or minimize these, however difficult or trivial they may seem to you.

The place to start is with learning to pay positive attention some of the time, instead of paying negative attention all the time. Your teen does some things that are positive, yet he may feel you’re taking him for granted, that nobody at home appreciates the good things he does to contribute to the family life or his unique qualities as a person. If you look closely, you’ll see what these are.

Review Your Management Style

Are you a good supervisor? Your teen wants recognition for his good qualities and achievements in the same way you want to be recognized for the skills you bring to your job or your friendships. The boss we willingly work for makes a point of acknowledging our positive achievements, even if it’s just to say, “I know I really loaded you down, and I appreciate your trying to get the report done” — although you didn’t quite finish it on time. The boss who picks out the parts of the report that you thought were particularly well done and congratulates you on them is the boss who’s likely to find the next report on her desk a day ahead of deadline. You’ve been there. Why should your teenager be any different?

Parents need to take a sabbatical from teaching and judging. Teens are getting too old to want our help all the time, and “help” in a context of mostly negative interactions is always going to be viewed as another negative. Even asking questions, no matter how benign, can be taken as a challenge or “the third degree.”

If your teen has been ignoring your requests, neglecting chores, and blowing off homework, you’ve probably been asking a lot of questions to get him to do what he should be doing. So start cutting back on giving directions and instructions, and on asking questions.

[Self-Test: Is Your Teen Showing Symptoms of ODD?]

Schedule Quality One-on-One Time

Over the next week, spend at least 15 minutes, three or four times, doing something with your teen. During this time, ask no questions, give no directions or instructions, and make no corrections.

Let your teen choose something enjoyable (within reason) to do. Maybe your daughter would like to take a drive to the mall, shoot some hoops, or play a video game for a little while. Just say you have a little free time and would like to spend it with your teen — what would she like to do? Let her choose any activity as long as it isn’t illegal, destructive, or overly expensive. Let her direct the activity. If your teen chooses a game and cheats or violates the rules, go along with her rules during one-on-one time. Be completely accepting and try to recapture the fun you used to have playing with your daughter when she was young.

Next, make a point of noticing when your teen is doing something he enjoys. Approach him and make a positive, non-judgmental, and brief comment, such as, “I see you’re using the new pastels we bought the other day.” Stick around and find positive things to say for a few minutes — say how well the project is going or how nice it is to hear him laugh.

[Teen Defiance Is Normal. That Doesn’t Make It Fun.]

Use Praise to Win Over Your Teen

You need to be able to see the positive in your teen, but don’t stop there. When was the last time you took the trouble to praise your teen for something good you caught him or her doing? Or just being grateful that you have a son or daughter in your life to care for? Use that feeling of being fortunate to overcome your resentments and hostility.

During the next two weeks, try to catch your teen being good every day. Not being extra good, just being acceptable. Look for these opportunities:

  • When you’re busy and your teen isn’t interrupting you with a question, a demand, or some other disruption, stop what you’re doing and thank him for not disturbing you. This could be as simple as whispering your thanks while you are on an important phone call.
  • Any time your teen volunteers to do something helpful, be sure to thank her for it, no matter how small it seems — even if it’s wiping up soda that spilled on the counter.
  • If your teen starts to do what you ask, immediately praise him for complying.

Set up opportunities to praise your teen by making offers he can’t refuse. The goal here is to contrive some commands over the next couple of weeks to elicit compliance and then go out of your way to praise your teen. Even the simplest command, if it doesn’t seem onerous to your teen, is still a command. When she obeys it, praise her, and before long the connection between complying and receiving praise gets internalized and becomes more automatic.

Here are some good sample commands:

“Turn on the football game; it’s about to start.”

“Go get yourself a snack.”

“Try on my new earrings; they probably look good with that top.”

“Tell Dad the hilarious story you told me today.”

No longer completely at the mercy of your teen’s defiance, you are starting to set a tone in your household in which your teen will be inclined to comply. At the least, you’ve filled your household with positive feedback, which is all good.

Excerpted from Your Defiant Teen, Second Edition, by RUSSELL BARKLEY, Ph.D. Reprinted with permission of Guilford Press.

[Grow Up! Why Teens with ADHD Mature Slower]