Teens with ADHD

“I Can Do It Myself!” How to Support Tweens with ADHD (Who Don’t Want Help)

Tweens with ADHD often refuse to ask for help, reject it when it’s offered, or pretend that they’ve got things under control when they don’t. Parenting teenagers with ADHD requires managing your discomfort with their mistakes, but also finding ways to offer support that they will accept.

Conflict with parents, father and mother scolding a teenage boy. A teenage boy ignores his parents. Children's misunderstanding with their families. Vector characters.
Conflict with parents, father and mother scolding a teenage boy. A teenage boy ignores his parents. Children's misunderstanding with their families. Vector characters.

It’s 8 p.m. and your 13-year-old daughter who has ADHD is rushing around the house looking for her social studies book. She’s just realized that she has to prepare for a quiz tomorrow. You offer to help her find the book and review the material. Instead of accepting your assistance, she screams at you, “Why can’t you leave me alone? I don’t need you!”

Many tweens and teens with ADHD either refuse to ask for help, reject it when it’s offered, or pretend (lie) that they’ve got things covered when they don’t. Some of this is due to their developmental stage. Early adolescence is a time for stretching their capabilities and learning to do things on their own. But tweens with ADHD often overestimate their capacity for independence. It’s a constant game of “Push Me-Pull You.” Sometimes they pull you in for comfort and support. Sometimes they push you away, unpredictably and unkindly. To arrive at connected independence, they need to learn from experience, and you have to manage your discomfort with their mistakes.

With their Now/Not Now brains, tweens with ADHD struggle with cause-and-effect learning. They think they know the answers already, but they lack the ability to consider the effects of their actions and words. Underneath their bravado, many feel ashamed of their challenges and hate to disappoint others and themselves.

You want to do something. You hope to help them become self-reliant and responsible, so they can transition into effective, successful adults. Whether it’s recognizing too late that they are in a bind, believing adult input will make things worse, or feeling ashamed of their problem, children with ADHD would usually benefit from the assistance they reject. Your job is to figure out how to offer support in ways they will accept. Here are some strategies to do that:

Strategies for Parenting Teenagers with ADHD

Problem: Lack of Clarity

Sometimes kids with ADHD push back without knowing why. They react quickly with a huge “no” before thinking about it. Being overwhelmed by big feelings, disorganization, incomplete tasks, and without the ability to prioritize, they reject your offer for help. They are unable to process anything in that moment, and they have no idea about what would be useful.

Solution: Practice Self-Control

Practice self-control. If you are distressed by their situation, you will surely exacerbate their distress. Calmly discuss what is overwhelming or confusing them. Break things down by identifying each factor in the situation, and writing it down. Let your child know that you are her ally and will work with her to find doable solutions that make sense to her. It’s not “You should” but rather “Let’s try this and see what happens.”

[Free Download: What Are Your Teen’s Weakest Executive Functions?]

Problem: Discomfort with Vulnerability

Most tweens dislike being vulnerable, and it’s especially tough for those with ADHD. These kids have already spent years hearing how they’ve missed the mark at school, at activities, and at home. They may well believe they will inevitably mess up. They don’t trust their ability to respond appropriately, and believe that asking for help further demonstrates weakness. By refusing to ask for help, tweens are protecting themselves from feeling exposed.

Solution: Reframe Vulnerability

Reframe vulnerability as strength. It takes courage to admit your limitations and ask for assistance. Talk with your daughter about the value of authenticity and knowing when you can’t do it alone. When kids ask for the assistance they need, they are sharing something of who they are.

Problem: Overwhelmed by Shame

Anticipating the next time they do something wrong, and the criticism that will surely follow, many see any successes as short-lived, and may not believe they deserve help or that help will make any difference. Shame prevents kids from asking for support. Years of negative comments from others about doing things better intensify their belief that they are bound to fail again.

[Does My Teenage Daughter Have ADHD? Take This Test]

Solution: Prioritize Self-Acceptance

Nurture self-acceptance. Asking for help is not a reflection of failure but an act of resilience. You want your tween with ADHD to understand that trying, stumbling, regrouping, and trying again is the way of life and learning. Remind your daughter of times when she has struggled in the past and pulled through. What tools did she use? What support, if any, from an adult assisted her? How can she link the lessons from that experience to her current situation? Such conversations build resilience in middle schoolers whose limited working memory erases their awareness of past successes.

Problem: Fear of Disappointment

No child or teen with ADHD wants to let people down. They may say, “I don’t care” and “It doesn’t matter,” but kids, like adults, prefer to do well, not poorly. Your tween deals with others’ expectations all day — at home, at school, and with peers. Asking for help may be opening the door to disappointment they would rather avoid.

Solution: Adjust Expectations

Adjust your expectations. Check in with yourself and see if your expectations for your tween with ADHD actually match her capabilities. She needs to have goals that are within reach. Validate the ways that she uses the resources available to her and offer encouragement. If she doesn’t take you up on your offer to help, let her know you are there for her.

Parenting Teenagers with ADHD: Next Steps

Sharon Saline, Psy.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in private practice in Northampton, Massachusetts, and the author of What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew. (#CommissionsEarned)

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