Teens with ADHD

When Your Teen Refuses to Stay Home

Some teens with ADHD are sneaking out to see friends – resisting local guidelines on social distancing and placing their families at risk in the middle of this pandemic. Is it possible to shut down all of your child’s contact with friends? Here, an expert on ADHD in teens weighs in with insight and solutions.

View from inside a home looking out of a family member who refuses to commit to social distancing

Social distancing and stay-at-home orders are in place for roughly 95% of ADDitude readers. While necessary to protect lives and stifle the pandemic, a near-quarantine that stretches on for weeks and months will pose a significant struggle for many – particularly parents of impulsive, oppositional, unfazed teens with ADHD.

In ADDitude surveys, parents are reporting that some teens are thwarting local guidelines and house rules to sneak out to meet friends, placing themselves and family members back home at risk for contamination. It’s a complaint I am also hearing in my practice.

These behaviors are undoubtedly concerning. But teens, especially those with ADHD, are prone to viewing rules as challenges against which to rebel. They have trouble shifting from short-term thinking to looking at the bigger picture. Their desire and drive to stay connected with friends in this time will not go away.

Can I Stop My Teen from Sneaking Out?

Frankly, I am very skeptical of absolute social distancing actually being observed by teens.

The messaging surrounding social distancing is good in concept, but problematic in operation. At odds with social distancing is what has already been pointed out by experts – that social connection is protective and important to mental health. For teens, their friendships may contribute more to their well-being now than do their bonds at home. Social media can help, but what we’re finding is that apps and platforms are merely conduits for real-life relationships.

[Click to Read: Discord Chats and Xbox Games Alone Will Not Sustain Your Son’s Friendships]

So what we are essentially telling teens today is, “Get away – don’t be with the people who give you the most support. Be here in the house with your family.” As we’re in this situation for a while, is it any wonder that teens are tempted to sneak out?

Teaching Social Distancing to Teens

Despite stay-at-home orders and limits on social gatherings, parents have to help their teens learn how to be physically together, apart, instead of trying to control every bit of contact. They have to come up with accommodations and do what we call “harm reduction” in the business. If we don’t help kids make wiser, safer decisions around social distancing, they’re just going to do it their way.

1. Have a conversation with your teen about social distancing. Parents should make sure they are on the same page as their teen about what constitutes proper, safe social distancing. Basic guidelines ask for a minimum of six feet of distance between others, and to wear cloth face coverings in public settings.

2. Make the teen feel part of a team. Emotional appeals and desperate tirades will seldom work with teens. Instead, parents should try to appeal to the idea that their teen is on a team with them and others in the household. A bit of positive reinforcement can go a long way for an ADHD mind, and speaking to a teen about how they contribute to the family’s well-being further reinforces their role in the team. If your teen balks at being asked to keep a distance with friends, or wash his hands after coming home, you can remind them — without resorting to hysterics — of the facts surrounding the crisis, like who is statistically more at risk in the household.

[Read This: Like the Teen You Love — ADHD-Friendly Communication Tips]

3. Use visual social distancing aides: I sometimes joke about this, but I’m also serious – parents should get some type of measurement tool that their teen can use to help them keep that six-foot distance when with their friends (like 60-inch pool noodles, as some have been using, which are about the right distance). If they’re gathering in a public place that still happens to be open, like a park, parents can also act as distant overseers to make sure they’re abiding.

Some parents are setting up chairs in the backyard that are stationed at least six feet apart and allowing friends to come visit with supervision from a parent inside the house.

Next comes making sure that teens actually follow the laid-out groundwork. To do that, parents need to reorient their teens’ thoughts and behaviors by leveraging the things they value.

Motivation Starts with Ingraining “Useful Anxiety”

My colleague, Kelsey Daugherty, a psychiatric and mental health nurse practitioner, and I have a theory that says ADHD and anxiety are opposites that exist on a single continuum. Those on the ADHD side of the normal distribution are carefree, sometimes unconcerned with the small details to a fault. Those on the anxiety side are careful, and at times too controlling.

How does this relate to social distancing? For teens with ADHD, we want them to move slightly to the other side of the spectrum and develop a level of useful anxiety around what happens if they don’t follow basic social distancing guidelines. We are not trying to instill a sense of mindless fear, but rather productive concern. The risk of contracting and spreading the illness may not raise their anxiety levels alone, but connecting their compliance to something that is of value to them just might. Parents can achieve that by doing the following:

Setting up a Reward System

It could be money, the promise of a trip in the future, more time with friends, greater freedom in the household, and more. What matters is that the reward is motivating and of great importance to the teen. Going out to see friends — safely! — can be the reward, too, for completing tasks like chores or homework.

Some parents might scoff at the idea of setting up a token economy or feel that their child doesn’t need rewards to be swayed. I personally encourage parents to not view this as bribing, but as raising the anxiety around something that is important to the teen and proximal to the goal.

Enforcing a Punishment-Based System

If rewards don’t work, try framing failure to comply in terms of if-this-then-that punishment. Parents might say to their child, “If you are not able to practice these basic rules of social distancing…”

  • You will not get to go see your friends or significant other
  • We will not let you use the car
  • We will suspend your phone service
  • We will not go with you to the park to be the distant overseers
  • We’ll call your friends’ parents and say we don’t think it is safe for them to be with you because you’re not taking this seriously.

Social Distancing in the Long Haul

The pandemic has perhaps revealed to parents previously unknown facets of their teens, and unexpected, fundamental disagreements between the generations.

It’s my belief that, in the long run — and this will be a lot longer run than most people realize right now — kids are going to need to be able to see each other for the sake of their mental health. Parents shouldn’t assume that, because their teen is gaming with friends on Xbox or TikToking incessantly, that they are feeding their social needs adequately. In a way – and I’m almost afraid to say this – some of the teens who have been sneaking out, sticking to social distancing best practices or not, are more mentally healthy right now than teens who have surrendered themselves to hopelessness.

Beyond parents sorting out social distancing rules with their teens, the priority should be on getting along in the household, not arguing about petty issues like cleaning the litter box or loading the dishwasher. While good room-mating skills are important, even if your roommate is your son or daughter, remember that you’re all stuck on this island together and you won’t be getting off nearly as soon as you’d like. Plan for a lot of tomorrows in a constantly evolving version of quarantine.

[Read This Next: The Most Obvious Pandemic Parenting Advice You May Not Be Following]

This article is based on the ADDitude ADHD Experts podcast episode with Dr. Wes Crenshaw titled, QuaranTeens with ADHD: Keeping Your Impulsive Teen Safe at Home,” which aired on April 9, 2020.


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Updated on July 27, 2020