Teens with ADHD

How to Heal a Strained Parent-Teenager Relationship

The parent-teenage relationship is complicated, in part, by a host of competing wants and needs. If the bond with your teen is under strain (especially in new and unexpected ways during the pandemic), learn how to rediscover and embrace your child with ADHD all over again.

The teen years are fraught with tension and intensity. As our kids with ADHD navigate the rocky road to adulthood, they inevitably hit potholes as they assume greater school responsibilities, figure out friendships, strive for independence, and plan for the future. This journey can and does impact many areas of life, including the parent-teenage relationship.

To protect and strengthen your relationship with your teen, begin by understanding their true needs and how to properly address them. Taking the time to see the world through their eyes can help you fortify your bonds and strengthen family communication strategies, even during the most unprecedented of times.

The Parent-Teenager Relationship: 5 Fortifying Strategies

1. Recognize Your Teen’s Bid for Connection – and Say Yes

The idea of “bids” comes from the work of John Gottman, Ph.D., author of Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child(#CommissionsEarned) and other best-selling books. A bid is an overture from one person to another for affection, attention, and connection. Bids vary widely – an offer to go for a walk, a hug, a request to look at a meme or play a game, or the gift of a freshly-drawn picture can all be bids. There is no limit.

It is critical to respond to your child’s bids most of the time, as it increases the likelihood of bonding and connecting with them. We don’t always have to respond positively to these bids, but we do have to respond. If we can’t go for a walk or play a game at the moment, we can say so, but we must respond and affirm the bid. Even better would be to set up another time to connect.

As with many things, ADHD can make things tricky when we’re assessing and responding to our teens’ bids. We sometimes misinterpret their bids for connection as attention-seeking behavior. There are a few reasons for this. First, they can’t get the connection they need without first getting our attention. Also, kids with ADHD often lack social skills, so their efforts to get our attention can come across as clumsy, offensive, or obnoxious. They may yell, show off, talk over us, argue, make inappropriate comments, or sulk. They don’t realize that these behaviors are off-putting and are unlikely to lead to the kind of connection that they seek.

[Read: Don’t Freak Out! And 13 More Rules for Navigating Teen Behavior Challenges]

Our kids often feel vulnerable when reaching for connection with us. It is part of the classic conflict between parent and teen: Teens desire both independence and parental approval. And this vulnerability can lead to self-sabotaging their own attempts at seeking attention with rudeness, so that they will feel less exposed. It is a subconscious way for teens to excuse themselves if we refuse the bid. They may ask us to do something they know we don’t like or ask in a way that invites us to turn them down. But when our teens do ask, we should say yes if at all possible.

2. Identify Your Teen’s Love Language

Understanding the things that make our child feel loved is key to strengthening the parent-teenager relationship.

In his book, The 5 Love Languages(#CommissionsEarned), Gary Chapman, Ph.D., posits that we express and receive love in five different ways. Those ways are acts of service, gifts, physical touch, quality time, and words of affirmation.

  • Acts of service are about doing things for someone: cleaning a room, baking a cake, or running an errand.
  • Gifts are material presents, bought or made.
  • Physical touch means hugs, holding hands, or even a high-five.
  • Quality time is time spent with others that is focused on connectedness, deep conversation, playing a game, or watching and (critically) discussing a movie or show.
  • Words of encouragement are compliments and affirmation, whether spoken or written.

[Read: Like Hugging a Time Bomb — How to Calm an Emotionally Dysregulated Teen with ADHD]

If we express love in a way that the other person doesn’t receive, they miss it. So it’s important that we determine our child’s love language so that we can better express our affection, love, and esteem. There are quizzes on the 5 Love Languages website to help you determine your teen’s and your own love languages.

3. Give Your Teen Space

We all want to know what our kids are up to, and it’s normal to feel rejected or disconnected when we notice they’re keeping to themselves. You find out your daughter’s boyfriend broke up with her, but you never even knew she had one!

The teenager’s need for privacy is challenging for parents, but it is developmentally appropriate. It goes with developing autonomy and independence. Only when the secrecy is extreme should it be considered a possible red flag. If your son leaves his room only to leave the house, or if he spends all his waking hours on the computer or another screen, he may be disconnecting from family. These could also be warning signs for other problematic behaviors.

That said, red flags must be looked at in context (like the lens of the pandemic). An increase in screen time is to be expected if it’s the only way for teens to connect with their friends, and if they’re taking classes virtually. Also, stress over the challenges of distance learning may very well lead to them pulling away from you a bit to keep them from exploding emotionally. It’s important to talk openly about these things before assuming there’s a problem.

The pressure to protect our teens from the unknown is strong. But doing so undermines their self-confidence, effectiveness, and autonomy. Giving teens the space they need is critical to maintaining a healthy relationship. Respecting their privacy shows that we trust them. Allowing their privacy also helps them develop critical skills. When our kids encounter manageable problems that we don’t know about, and aren’t around to help them address, it forces them to develop and apply problem-solving skills of their own. We just have to trust them to figure it out, or ask for help if they can’t. And they’re more likely to ask for our help if we have a strong connection with them, and a history of respecting their privacy.

Let them handle smaller problems — the missing assignment or failed test, deciding to skip a Zoom hangout when they’re overwhelmed with schoolwork — on their own. For larger issues — a pattern of missing assignments and failed tests, substance misuse, or other self-sabotaging behavior — step in to provide your support and guidance.

4. Be Your Teen’s Back-Up Plan

Most teenagers are naturally more interested in spending time with their friends than with their parents. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to spend any time with their parents at all. In fact, according to the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard University, a stable and committed relationship with one caring, supportive adult can make the difference between a teen’s doing well, or not doing well.

Teens don’t want their parents to be (or even seem like!) their primary social outlet. So it is incumbent on parents to be willing to be their teen’s back-up plan when activities with their friends fall through, or when they simply aren’t invited. This is when parental support is especially valuable, even if the teen seems to resent the time together. Often, that has more to do with the rejection caused by the cancelled plans with friends than with spending time with parents. Helping your teen ride out the emotional storm caused by this change in plans can help you connect in the long run.

5. Tame Strong Emotions

Teens have needs. They need time to themselves, for example, and can only get so much privacy at home. (Social distancing and isolation have made this much more complicated.) They need to spend time with their friends, away from their parents. When these needs and others are unmet, it can lead to frustration, conflict, and emotional explosions at home.

This is why it’s important to talk with our teens about ways to manage their emotions, and manage our own emotions as well. Strategies like mindfulness, exercise, planned breaks, and clear expectations, along with regular communication about their challenges, can help everyone handle the strong emotions that come up and reduce household conflict.

Fun, Screen-Free (for the Most Part) Ways to Connect with Teens

1. Play Games

  • Unless they’re favorites, look beyond the classic choices of Monopoly and chess. Board games for teens (and kids!) are having a resurgence, and there are better genres in the modern age of play.
  • Cooperative games are games in which players work together to accomplish a task, and are opposed by the mechanics of the game rather than each other. “Forbidden Island” (#CommissionsEarned) and “Kingdomino” (#CommissionsEarned) are great cooperative games.
  • Social games, like “Things…” and “Would You Rather…?” (#CommissionsEarned) are designed to get the players talking to each other about their opinions and perspectives—so they have the potential to help us understand our kids better. And they can make great conversation starters, even if you don’t play the actual game!
  • Party games can be a blast if you have a big enough family! “Telestrations” (#CommissionsEarned) and “Apples to Apples” are popular examples.(#CommissionsEarned)
  • Video games are an obvious choice, though they aren’t always chosen by families looking to play together. “Mario Party” and “Rocket League” are good choices. Best of all, video games often give our teens the opportunity to be the expert, which is a nice way for them to display their autonomy and skill.
  • Engaged Family Gaming is a great resource for all things gaming.

2. Plan Adventures

There are probably interesting places to explore within an hour’s drive from your home. Sites like Atlas Obscura and Only in Your State are resources for finding compelling places to explore. And make sure to check out your town’s website to learn about local events as well.

3. Lean into Family Traditions

Making a tradition a bit more obvious — talking about how things went in years past, and explaining the origin of the tradition and why it matters — can help our teens feel connected to their history and values of their family. Creating a new tradition can also increase family connection.

4. Undertake Family Projects

Joint activities can foster connection, and develop new skills in our teens, like planning and cooperation. Baking together or taking on chores and yard projects can create memories and build skills that will last a lifetime. And don’t forget the value of charitable projects, like helping an elderly neighbor clean her yard, or making meals for those in need. Lasagna Love  is an example of a program that was started to address the needs of families affected by the pandemic. It helps those with the means connect with others in their community who need support by sharing kindness and lasagna.

Parent-Teenager Relationships Touched by ADHD: Next Steps

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