Self Esteem

Four Steps to Independence: How to Support (Not Enable) a Child with ADHD

Children with ADHD need support — and lots of it — at school, at home, and in social settings. Advocating for and bolstering your child is not the same as “enabling” him, but it can become counterproductive if you’re not also teaching him how to live independently. Follow these four steps to foster your child’s autonomy, while still providing reinforcements when necessary.

A father and son working on their house, father supporting not enabling his son
Father and son working on house
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The Parental Predicament

Watching a child with ADHD anguish over homework, fumble a social interaction, or get lost in forest of distractions can be frustrating — even heartbreaking. Most parents are tempted to jump in and just complete the offending task — finishing their child’s math worksheet when he loses steam, or feeding the dog after three reminders have gone unanswered. In some cases, this kind of help is necessary and beneficial to a child. At other times, parents walk a fine line between supporting and enabling — particularly as children mature into teens.

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Enabling vs. Supporting

What does it mean to enable versus support? Both of these words carry baggage, and often mean different things to different people. In general, enabling means “over-helping” — rescuing a child from any and all challenging situations without stopping to consider if or how he can handle it himself. Supporting, on the other hand, means providing reinforcement for a child as he or she grows — clearing a path to independence without stepping out of the picture entirely.

Husband and wife discussing their enabling and supporting behaviors
Husband and wife talking on a beach
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Your Personal Perceptions

The definitions are vague (and rarely helpful in the moment), so instead think about what enabling and supporting mean in the context of your child and your family. A teen with ADHD and comorbid anxiety, for instance, will need different supports than will a teen with just ADHD; this doesn’t mean the former is being enabled. If you’re parenting with a partner, discuss your thoughts and perceptions of enabling behaviors to avoid family conflict down the road.

[Free Download: 13 Parenting Strategies for Kids with ADHD]

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Role Clarity for Parents

The next step: Think about how you can make the transition from enabling to supporting your child as she moves toward adulthood. For most parents, this transition comprises a four-step process leading from parental direction to child empowerment. Along the way, you’ll foster independence and cultivate autonomy in your child, so she’s ready to navigate life outside your home and her responsibilities in the real world.

Teens walking out the front door with their parents' support
Teens walking out door of house
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How Long Is This Road, Anyway?

The transition to independence is far from instantaneous. This is a slow-motion passing of the baton that takes place one step and one problem at a time. Once you get started, your child may adapt to some of his new responsibilities well — maybe laundry is no big deal, for instance — but continue to struggle with others, like taking his medication regularly. That’s normal, and totally okay. Parenting is a gradual process of letting go, and even when a child is fully independent, a parent’s job is never really done.

One arrow points a different direction from other arrows, a metaphor for changing a daily routine
One arrow points a different direction from other arrows, a metaphor for changing a daily routine
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Phase 1: Prompting and Direction

In Phase 1, which lasts the longest for most families, a parent is motivating and directing the majority of her child’s work, from completing her homework to remembering to brush her teeth every morning. You’re helping your child know what needs to be done, instructing her through every step of the process, and providing concrete help to make sure she’s actually accomplishing her tasks. Most parents in this phase fear they’re “enabling” their child, but this is actually a crucial step in the support process — particularly for kids with ADHD. Thanks to underdeveloped executive functions — in some cases, up to 30 percent delayed — Phase 1 is all about bolstering and building habits.

Father helping son with homework
Father helping son with homework
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Phase 1 Example: Homework

In Phase 1, the parent is setting the agenda, directing workflow, and providing the motivation to complete the work. If your child or teen struggles getting started on homework, you might say, “Here’s a list of your assignments for the evening. Why don’t we work on them together before dinner? If we finish it in time, we can all sit down and watch your show later.”

[Step In or Step Back? How to Recognize (and Stop) Enabling]

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Phase 1 Tip

*The solutions are in the successes.*

In Phase 1, look for your child’s “wins” — small areas where he’s figured out what works for him. The solutions, which you’ll implement as you move into Phase 2, can be found in these successes, which demonstrate your child’s innate skills. If your child works more efficiently on homework when he’s allowed to play video games right afterward, take the opportunity to discuss with him the power of motivation on an ADHD brain. As he gains independence, he’ll do so with a better understanding of how his brain works and how to best carry out responsibilities.

Father and daughter at computer
Father and daughter at computer
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Phase 2: Motivation and Modeling

When transitioning into Phase 2, it’s best to focus on just one responsibility at a time. If you’re just getting started with an older teen, you may feel rushed as she barrels toward adulthood; still, your child will benefit from pinpointed attention on individual skills.

So what does Phase 2 look like? This is where parents are beginning to motivate ownership and model organization. In Phase 1, parents retain ownership of the task; in Phase 2, you’ll start to transition that ownership to your child by demonstrating and/or helping him figure out how he can best accomplish it independently.

16 year old boy working on his homework.
16 year old boy working on his homework.
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Phase 2 Example: Homework

A parent in Phase 2 might say: “Here are the free times you have to do homework. When do you want to do it? Where do you want to do it? How can you reward yourself when you’re done?”

Here, the language shifts from “My job is to direct you” to “This is your job — how do you want to accomplish it?” By necessity, Phase 2 involves a lot of questions — which puts the ball in your child’s court and helps her think critically about what works for her — but parents are still guiding the basic structure of the task.

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Phase 2 Tip

*Transition from “I” or “we” language to “you.”*

Parents often unwittingly say things like “I’d like this homework started now” or “It’s time for us to work on homework.” This paints the task as primarily the parent’s responsibility. As you transition into Phase 2, shift your language to say: “When do you want to start your homework?” or “How will you remind yourself to take out the trash on Friday?” This will reinforce in your child’s mind his ownership of the task.

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Phase 3: Ownership and Support

In Phase 3, you’ll transfer ownership of the task almost entirely to your child, and make it his responsibility. At this point, however, you’ll still provide support and structure — particularly in the realm of organization, where many children with ADHD lag behind their peers.

A child with ADHD struggling to focus on a difficult homework assignment.
Mother watching son do homework from around the corner
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Phase 3 Example: Homework

When your child returns home from school, you’ll begin asking, “What’s your plan for the rest of the day? When are you doing your homework? I know you’re on top of things, but do you need anything from me?”

If your child asks for help, you may guide, but not fully direct. If your child wants to make better use of her planner, but isn’t sure how to get started, talk her through several strategies and ask her to choose and implement the best one for her. Allow her to retain ownership of the task, but serve as a sounding board for ideas that will help her complete it more effectively.

Teen girls walking down a school hallway
Group of students are walking down the school corridor together wearing uniform.
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Phase 3 Tip

*Target a task your child cares about.*

Ownership requires buy-in. Therefore, as you start to shift ownership to your child, choose a task that she views as either an opportunity or a challenge. Maybe your teen would like to start getting to school early so she has more time to hang out with her friends — this is good motivation for her to experiment with full ownership.

A student creates a plan for tackling a big project, helping to address his ADHD in high school.
A student creates a plan for tackling a big project, helping to address his adhd in high school.
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Phase 4: Empowerment and Trouble-Shooting

Ideally, Phase 4 will kick off in high school. Some teenagers with ADHD, however, won’t hit this phase until college — and that’s completely normal.

During this phase, your child has assumed ownership for his life. He knows his agenda, and he’s completing his responsibilities confidently and independently. Some parents may feel their role has ended at this point. But in reality, it’s as important as ever to empower your child, champion his goals, and troubleshoot with him where necessary.

homework help, homework solution
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Phase 4 Example: Homework

In Phase 4, you may check on your child during homework to ask, “How’s it going?” If he’s struggling, ask him, “What do you think you could do differently?” In this phase, you’re encouraging your child to identify his own problems and come up with his own strategies by challenging and supporting him — not by directly telling him what to do.

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Phase 4 Tip

*Be your child’s champion.*

At this point, your child can do the task, and do it well — but that doesn’t mean she is free of self-doubt or obstacles. You will continue to act as her champion, which doesn’t just mean saying, “I know you can do it.” It means saying, “I know you can do it because you’ve demonstrated this skill in X, Y, and Z instances.” Sometimes, when a child suffers a setback, all she needs is a reminder of her competence — that’s your major role during this final phase.

Arrows and shoes representing enabling and supporting
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Separating Enabling from Supporting

As you move through these phases, periodically ask yourself: “Which step am I on right now? How and when can I move to the next step?” This will help you recognize any enabling behaviors — like staying too long in Phase 1 when your child is ready and able to move to Phase 2.

When you contemplate a task, ask yourself what you’re doing to help your child move closer to independence. If your goal is just getting your child’s homework done — instead of working on how she can learn to get it done herself —you’re probably still in Phase 1. To move to Phase 2, look for her successes and begin to devise a plan to transition ownership.

Teenage girl doing laundry with support from a parent
Young blond woman loading clothes into washing machine in bathroom
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Children are imperfect humans, just like adults, and these stages of growth may not follow a neat pattern. Your child may spend a few months in Phase 3 — doing his laundry every week with only minimal help from Mom, for instance — then slip back to Phase 2, where you need to remind him repeatedly before he starts sorting his clothes. This is normal for every child — and particularly for those with ADHD — because maturity doesn’t move in a perfectly straight line. These phases aren’t static; don’t lose hope or fall back into enabling behaviors when your child falters.

[Steps to Independence]