Q: “Should I Let My Teen Suffer the Consequences of His Actions?”
Should parents allow natural consequences to teach their ADHD teens a lesson in cause and effect? Or should they extend kindness when teens most need it?
Q: “My son is 15 and has ADHD. He’s a really good kid and usually responsible, but I never know if I should help him out or not when he forgets stuff or misses something. Most of the time I let him suffer the consequences but other times I help him out. Am I doing the right thing?” – ConflictedMom
Boy did this question resonate with me. Deciding whether we should allow our son (who has ADHD) to “sink or swim” took center stage for most of his high school years! That said, I’m going to put on my parenting hat to lend you my perspective: Knowing when to step in or stand back is NEVER a one-size-fits-all decision. Though I considered many factors, the one that always superseded the others was where Eli sat on my “responsibility meter.” Let me share with you a story from his high school days to illustrate my point.
Eli juggled a lot his senior year in high school. Six classes, homework, play rehearsal, his high school’s Shakespeare troupe, college applications and, of course, all the “stuff” that goes with being a senior. It was a lot to keep on top of! One morning, when he was in a rush to get out the door for school, he left behind his permission slip for a special out-of-town performing arts weekend that was a rite of passage for the seniors in his theater program.
How did I know all this? Because at about 9 that morning, as I was driving home from a speaking engagement I had in Albany the night before, I got the dreaded call: “Mom, where are you?”
Eli was clearly upset that he forgot the slip, and since the sign up was first-come, first-served, he needed to hand it in during theater class (which was in about an hour) or he would possibly not get a spot. And since he had a test in the period before theater, he couldn’t drive home to get it himself. You get the picture.
So what did I do?
My initial instinct was to say no. First, I wasn’t planning on going straight home, so this would mean a HUGE change of plans for me. Second, we talk A LOT about responsibility in our house. And this had the potential of being a HUGE teaching moment. “Your trip, your responsibility.” “What would you have done next year when you are in college?” And lastly, he could go home during lunch to get it and take his chances that there would be a few slots left.
But then the mom in me took over. “He’s been working really hard. It’s one permission slip on one crazy morning. Opening night was last night and he’s exhausted. What’s the big deal if you play ‘Nice Mom’ and bring it to him? This trip is the highlight of senior year.” And on it went.
“I’ll meet you at the school in an hour,” I said.
As I drove along the highway, I thought long and hard as to why I said yes. Maybe because Eli is pretty responsible — keeping on top of his stuff and doing what he needs to do with limited prompting. Or I just didn’t want Eli to miss this trip. It was too big a consequence for such a small misstep. But more likely I knew that, at that moment, kindness was an equally important lesson to teach.
So did I let my son sink or swim? Neither really. I like to think of myself as his lifeguard that day throwing him a rope so he could help himself out of the deep end.
The point I’m trying to make is that it all comes down to what feels right for you in that specific moment. So, trust your instincts. You’ll know when to get out of the pool.
Natural Consequences for ADHD Teens: Next Steps
- Q&A: How Can We Grant Her More Independence When She Makes Such Bad Decisions?
- Download: What Are Your Teen’s Weakest Executive Functions?
- Read: Abandon Your Pre-Conceived Notions of ‘Success’ (and More Advice for Parents of Teens with ADHD)
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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