Teens & Young Adults

How to Steer Your Teen Without Hovering or Nagging

Teens and tweens with executive function deficits need an extra nudge to get going. Here are 8 ways to help them get (and stay!) on the right track without being a helicopter parent.

An illustration of what the brain of teens with ADHD could look like
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The Teen Brain

Why all the drama? Will he ever speak to me again? Why does she switch so rapidly from Jeckyl to Hyde? Brain chemistry changes dramatically during adolescence and puberty. Parents must come to grips with the neurological and emotional processes at work before they can even attempt to improve communication with their tween or teen with ADHD, and help them build executive function skills. Your strategies must take into consideration the realities of teen brain development. Their minds are changing daily; and so should your coping strategies.

Student with ADHD reading book in library
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What are Executive Skills?

Executive skills are brain-based functions that help teens regulate behavior, set and achieve goals, balance desires with responsibilities, and learn to function independently while also recognizing the need for guidance. More clinically, they comprise 11 key skills critical to school and life success: response inhibition, working memory, emotional control, flexibility, sustained attention, task initiation, planning/prioritizing, organization, time management, goal-directed persistence, and metacognition.

Portrait of a student girl with ADHD sleeping at the desk
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Executive Function Deficits, Not Personality Defects

In most adults, executive skills take 25 years to fully develop. For adolescents with ADHD, it may take until age 30. When executive function skills lag behind, we too often label teens as lazy or oppositional when really the problems are neurological ones with task initiation or sustained attention. When communicating with your teen, talk about the problems and frustrations they are encountering rather than the skills or lack of skills behind these problems.

An illustration of a parent standing between two arguing teens with ADHD
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#1 Pick Your Battles

You don’t have to fight about everything. There are times when you can (and should) walk away. You can decide not to turn something into a fight by getting to know your child — and yourself — well enough to figure out quick ways to de-escalate any situation. Don’t let your teen walk all over you; instead, show that you are in charge of how you react – modeling emotional control for your child. It’s an art, not a science, so don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself snapping more than you want to as you feel your way along.

A teen with ADHD uses a smart phone
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#2 Use Natural Consequences

In certain scenarios, a tween’s actions are punishment enough. For example, a child exceeding her monthly texting allowance either has to pay the extra charges or she loses the privilege of using her phone when the texts run out. Those are natural consequences to actions. Let your teen experience them so she understands the connection between cause and effect. Or, you can remind your teen that her behavior is the trigger for consequences. Say, “When I hear that tone, it means you’re taking a time out. When you apologize for the mean things you said, you can come out.” This gives your child an active role in avoiding punishment.

Two teens with ADHD play video games together
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#3 Make Privileges Contingent on Performance

In layman’s terms, this means: if you do this, you get that. This can be something simple like, if you finish all of your homework, then you get to spend a half hour playing whatever video game you want before bed. Or, if you complete your homework, you get your phone back. Limit privilege freebies so that kids have a real incentive for finishing the work that unlocks the things they enjoy – like screen time. Additionally, be certain to reward kids for behaving well. If you notice your child is being nice to a sibling, put a marble in a jar. When the jar is full, they’ve earned a special treat.

Mom and daughter with ADHD discuss responsibilities
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#4 Be Willing to Negotiate and Make Deals

In adolescence, kids should take on more responsibility and parents should relinquish some (not all) authority. To make this work, parents must try to respectfully understand where kids are coming from – why they want what they want – and be willing to negotiate a solution that leaves everyone happy. Ask your child how he would solve the problem. Teens are more likely to participate in a plan if they feel like an equal partner contributing meaningful input on the rules.

A teen with ADHD uses a laptop computer
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#5 Build in Verification

When you strike a behavior contract, or a deal, you can’t just take your teen’s word that she is following through. You need to create a reliable, fair way to check in. For example, if you created a plan contingent upon turning in homework, email the teacher every Thursday night to ask, “Can you let me know whether she did her homework this week?” This weekly report can be written into your child’s IEP or 504 Plan, and it can help you determine whether your child is holding up her end of the bargain.

A potters hands guiding a child's hands to help him to work with the ceramic wheel because they both have ADHD
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#6 Involve Others

You don’t need to do it all yourself. At times, it makes more sense to send teens off to someone else. For example, if your son has ADHD, have him spend time with your brother – a successful adult with ADHD – or a friend from college to see a different kind of role model. Sometimes adolescents respond better to perspectives that aren’t their parents’.

A drawing of a question mark made by a teen with ADHD
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#7 Ask Questions

Instead of making suggestions or giving orders, try asking questions to draw out information. “So what do you have to do for homework tonight?” “When are you planning to start that science project?” “Do you think you have enough time to finish it?” This helps to walk kids through the process in a way they may not have considered. Then, use language that supports executive-skill development, like, “What’s your plan? What do you have to do first? How long will that take?”

A mother talks to a teen with ADHD on the couch
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#8 Use Positive Communication Tricks

These ideas come from a book by Arthur Robin, and suggest ways to replace bad patterns when families aren’t communicating well. If your family does this…try these alternative strategies:

  • Call each other names. >Express anger without hurt.
  • Put each other down. > Say, “I am angry that you did…”
  • Interrupt each other. > Take turns; keep it short.
  • Criticize too much. > Point out the good and bad.
  • Get defensive. > Listen, then calmly disagree.
  • Lecture. > Tell it straight and short.
  • Talk in sarcastic tone. > Talk in normal tone.
  • Dredge up the past. > Stick to the present.
  • Read others’ minds. > Ask others’ opinions.
  • Command, order. > Request nicely.
  • Give the silent treatment. > Say what’s bothering you.
  • Make light of something. > Take it seriously.

From ADHD in Adolescents: Diagnosis and Treatment by Arthur L. Robin. Copyright 1998 by The Guilford Press