Teens & Young Adults

Steps to Independence

Thinking of your teen with ADHD as a “work in progress” will make this stage easier on both of you.

Independence Teen driving with Dreamcatcher haning on rear view mirror
Independence Teen driving with Dreamcatcher haning on rear view mirror

“I can’t understand what happened to my child. We were so close, and now I either get argued with or ignored,” said a parent who had just embarked on parenting a teenager.

During adolescence, the primary developmental tasks are to build a sense of self and work toward independence.

Teens with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) are as keen as their peers to begin this exciting stage, but some ADHD traits — difficulty with time management and organization, a lag in maturity, and a reluctance to ask for help — can make the process more complicated for them, and for their parents.

During these years, emphasize open communication, be patient, and be sure to:

  • Teach life skills gradually. By the time she reaches the teen years, both you and your child are probably used to your scheduling, organizing, and planning for her — not to mention getting her out of bed every day. Although it’s time to step back, she won’t become an adult overnight. You’ll need to teach life skills consciously, step by step.

For example, you may want to switch your child from a weekly to a monthly allowance, and work with her to develop a plan for saving and spending. Your guidance will be appreciated when that special item is finally affordable.

The teen with ADHD may also need more practice, and more specific instruction, when learning to drive. If you’d be too anxious a teacher, find a driving school. Studies have shown that proper ADHD treatment results in safer driving; if your teen takes meds, be sure she’s taken her dose each time she gets behind the wheel.

  • Stay on top of your child’s schedule. Because impulsivity is an ADHD trait, your teen may make or change plans “in the moment.” Don’t let him fly off into a chaotic whirlwind on weekends and after school. Insist on knowing whom your teen is with and where they’re going. Make sure rules (“Call to let us know where you’ll be if your plans change”) and consequences are clear, and stick to them.

One family with two teens made the rule that they would lose a half hour from their next night with friends if they did not “beat the clock.” It took several trials, but, once they saw that their parents meant what they said, the teenagers got home on time.

  • Help him understand when to ask for help. John had misplaced all his homework from the night before, but would not allow his dad to write a note to the teacher or help him develop a plan to avoid this problem in the future. A discussion with his parents about ADHD helped John understand that organization was an area where he typically ran into trouble, and that knowing when to ask for advice was being more “mature” than repeating the same mistakes.

Sue had accommodations set up for her at high school, but she began coming home with poor grades. Her parents discovered that she wasn’t going to the teachers to place the requests for extended time. Sue was embarrassed about being “different” from the other students, but her parents explained that the accommodations would allow her to demonstrate her knowledge more accurately. Together, they developed a plan that would let Sue talk with her teachers discreetly. She’ll use the same strategy when she’s on her own at college.

  • Avoid overreactions to overreactions. No matter how many rules you impose, or which precautions you take, at some point, you’re going to ask your teenager, “What were you thinking?!” At moments like these, remember that the neurological system is not fully mature until the early twenties. Your teen is still a “work in progress.” Reassure her, stay involved in her life, and know that the teen years will pass.

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