Teens & Young Adults

True Grit: Turning Your Teen Into a Trooper

It’s not easy to inspire teens with ADHD to hang in there when things get tough, and parents can slip up by offering too much praise or being too controlling. These strategies will help your teen grow into an adult who has “grit.”

An obstacle course in front of a goal. Teaching grit will help kids reach goals
Red obstacle course thing white background

It’s well known that resilience — adapting to new circumstances and bouncing back from adversity — is necessary to succeed in life. Psychologists also know that school, work, and social success rely on tolerance for discomfort and the ability to delay gratification in favor of a greater goal. We call this “tenacity” or “grit,” and for your child to rise and succeed in the real world, it is vital.

As to the ADHD crowd in general, especially those still in school, resilience and tenacity do not play a role in how they think, feel, and act day-to-day. I’ve seen exceptions, but the ADHD diagnosis implies dodging uncomfortable experiences and missing what might have been learned by enduring them. Kids with ADHD give up too quickly in the face of difficulties.

As a parent of kids with ADHD, and as a psychologist who has worked thousands of hours with other people’s kids, I find that we often try to help our kids cope by making them feel better, which only makes things worse. Here are the three parental approaches that rarely succeed:

1. The “self-esteem booster club.” Parents study the literature and learn that kids with ADHD generally have lower self-esteem than their peers. This is a universal truth of ADHD, but many parents respond by adopting the “give every child a trophy” model, rewarding children more for effort than success. They let ADHD become an excuse to justify any shortcoming of a child’s behavior, instead of a guidepost to steer them toward growth and improvement. They give in and placate their children to soothe their hurt. These approaches won’t produce resilience, but they will increase the likelihood that the child will grow up feeling insecure or incapable.

2. The “cheerleaders.” These parents take “self-esteem coaching” even further. They see ADHD as a “gift” that grants special insight and creativity, and invite the child to find ways to change the world with his gift. In my book, I Always Want to Be Where I’m Not, I conclude each chapter by noting the upsides of ADHD and explaining how to use and misuse them. But I’ve never met anyone who was properly diagnosed with ADHD who was thankful for having it. Assuring a child that she is not impaired, but just talented in other ways, does not teach her to accept adversity and do the hard things.

3. The “structure gurus.” On the other end of the spectrum are the strict, authoritarian parents who have read that the way to manage ADHD is to provide a highly structured environment. And kids with ADHD do need help with organization, prioritization, and time management. I’ve likened this approach, in severe cases, to driving kids around “like little boats” trying to keep them off the rocky shores or from getting stuck on a sandbar. Guiding kids to do the hard stuff needn’t be a choice between control and shame. It should be a lesson in courage and self-discipline.

Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, has researched “grit,” and she offers five suggestions for improving tenacity and resilience. I am modifying them to reflect my own experience working with kids with ADHD, but I encourage you to read her book Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. It’s on point for your child:

Pursue what interests you. We don’t stick with things we don’t care about; grit requires us to pursue what we don’t love. This presents a tough problem for kids with ADHD. By design, they like interesting things and tolerate little else. Because a lot of things in life aren’t very interesting, they go for the exciting stuff that may not be useful. Duckworth’s advice is to find a productive pursuit that gets them up every day and ready to go to class or work. As young adults, they should try to figure out how to monetize that passion to earn a self-sustaining living, while accepting the fact that they will encounter a fair amount of boring stuff.

Practice and more practice. When we find the things we love, Duckworth says, we must do them a lot to make them ours. That’s what it means to be an expert. However, the brains of kids with ADHD are wired to hate repetitive tasks. Even when they love an activity, they will grow tired of it. After helping your child find productive paths, work on the discipline of staying on them. It’s OK to try several interests and to quit a project on occasion, but working through and finishing things is key to mastering them.

Find purpose. Duckworth suggests pursuing goals that have meaning and purpose, especially those that help others, or, as she puts it, “make a job into a calling.” I agree, but I know introverted people find that helping others seems like a punishment instead of a blessing. Parents should help young people approach this goal. What’s important is that they do something great, something important. Such idealism sounds grandiose coming from a teen’s mouth, but the idea of having a calling can be nurtured from unrealistic to operational, and, even better, to inspirational.

Have hope. Hope is not wishful thinking. It means having a way and a will to accomplish your goals. And people with ADHD feel less adequate than their peers, less effective in problem solving or finding success. That can make hope seem, like “self-esteem,” a pipe dream that belongs to someone else. Instead, make hope a behavioral plan for success, a way to enhance a young person’s vision of what is possible.

Join a gritty group. Duckworth writes that if you spend all your time with slackers, you’ll end up a slacker. That’s a cliché teens with ADHD hate to hear, but it’s clinically and empirically true. It’s more difficult to socially engineer teen friendships than just about anything else. But if a child finds a group that is headed somewhere, he will be better off. This may be a local interest group, school club, political action committee, online organization, or any place where people want to get something done.

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