10 Terrible Reactions to ADHD Teen Drama — and Healthier Ways to Communicate at Home
Teen drama requires a special kind of parent patience. Saying “Don’t let this get to you” or “You’re stronger than this” tells your teenager that you aren’t interested in hearing why they’re upset. It also minimizes their very big feelings, which causes more harm than good. Here, learn better ways to respond when the sky is falling on your ADHD teen.
When our teens’ “problems” seem insignificant or trivial, we sometimes respond in a way that downplays their struggles — ADHD-related or otherwise — and makes them tune us out. Our dismissive reactions are natural, but also counterproductive. Here is how it typically begins:
You sense something’s wrong from a mile away. Your teen’s body language is different. Maybe their hoodie is pulled down way over their eyes, their shoulders are slumped, and they’re wearing ear buds — blocking out the world. You know something’s wrong. You can feel something’s happened — maybe a group chat gone wrong, a bad break up, a perceived betrayal, a real betrayal, academic struggles… the list of potential ADHD hurdles goes on.
We may be tempted to think, “Oh, boy, more ADHD teen drama about nothing. They have it easy! Three meals a day, a loving family, a nice home. What more could they want?”
Adults tend to compartmentalize their ADHD teens’ “social dramas” and may even consider them a waste of time and energy in the grand scheme of things. Just wait until they live in the real world, we think, knowing life only gets harder. At the same time, many of us can recall a deeply emotional struggle that changed us in fundamental ways, marking a shift in our thinking about the world moving forward. Life’s ups and downs mold our adult lives and complicate our next steps, making our younger days seem like kinder, simpler times, free of the burden of adulthood.
Teen Pressures Today Weren’t Our Pressures
It’s easy to forget that our teens are in the fertile social training grounds of pre-adulthood, where they are doing the hard work of building the skills of emotional adaptation. They are in the process of developing the maturity and fortitude to rebound and rebuild when the deviations and detours of life happen. We didn’t always have those abilities, and it cannot be expected for our young people to gain these skills automatically, just because we will it so. Some lessons are experiential and cannot be learned through storytelling. They must learn the lessons by living them.
We sometimes expect our children to recover quickly from the difficulties they face because we don’t always fully understand them. The social challenges of having constant connection and feedback from peers is something we never dealt with when we were young. We likely did not face the same emphasis on test scores and GPA/class rankings when we were applying to college. Our entire social, academic, and political environment was so entirely different, how could we possibly know how they feel?
Not appreciating those differences can lead us to the common misstep of responding from a standard bank of platitudes that are well intended but usually not helpful. Here are some common ways we dismiss our teens when they come to us with problems:
- “Trust me, you won’t even remember this in 20 years”
- “That kid is probably home not giving it any thought while you’re all worked up.”
- “Don’t worry about this right now; you have bigger fish to fry!”
- “This is no big deal if you look at the big picture.”
- “You have been through worse, this is no biggie!”
- “Not this again, I thought you were over it!”
- “You are tougher than this!”
- “How are you going to handle adulthood if you can’t handle this?”
- “You are so smart, kind, cute, funny, handsome, awesome, cool, (fill-in-the-blank with the complement). You’re going to be fine!”
- “C’mon, let’s go out for ice cream! It’ll make you feel better.”
While quickly redirecting the panic, sadness, or anger may be our first inclination, you’ll receive a better result by listening to them carefully. They want to know that you hear what they’re going through and that you believe them. Really hearing what they’re feeling and asking questions to help them discover how they arrived at that feeling should be your primary goal.
Help them unpack that process. Sometimes that journey is enough to get them into a better position for the problem solving to begin on its own. You may not even need to suggest what to do next.
Remember, too, that most teenagers are self-absorbed — it’s part of the developmental process — and the teenage brain has difficulty imagining that anyone else has ever walked a mile in their shoes. In their minds no one has ever experienced what they’re feeling. Telling them we know how they feel because we’ve “been there” probably isn’t going to resonate. Neither is sharing that the same thing “happened to me, too.” A better approach is this: Listen to what they’re saying, and then ask them if they’d like a suggestion for what to do next. This communicates to your child that you respect them, without hovering or micro-managing.
Talk Less, Listen More: How to Connect Through Conversation
Communication sometimes falters when we’re facing a child who is experiencing tough emotions. In an attempt to connect, we may want to default to a familiar role. Here are some unproductive mantles and solutions for fixing them.
The Wise Sage
The Wise Sage pontificates about the meaning of life and the impact of actions far into the future. This approach almost never works. Kids most often want to talk about how something hurts right now — not tomorrow, or next year. Waxing poetic about how the ripples of the pond will reverberate for eons to come will lose them quickly, and they’ll be back inside that hoodie in no time at all. Stay present and listen.
The Tough Guy
The Tough Guy is an adult who suggests that the way to survive any difficult scenario is to build layers of scar tissue that keep you immune to the sharp edges of the world. The thing is, nobody really wants this outcome. A calloused person loses their ability to feel the subtle pangs and tingles that we need to feel to be connected to the world around us. Teaching our emerging young adults to disconnect is not the right direction.
The Fellow Teen
The Fellow Teen is an adult who tries to be a peer instead of a mentor, a parent, or a teacher. This adult uses colloquialisms, pokes fun at other kids, references memes, uses sarcasm, and even curses in an attempt to be cool and relevant. The reason this fails is simple: teens need leadership and guidance. They are not looking for another friend to complicate an already complicated social situation. If we are looking to model and demonstrate the functional capability of a fully formed frontal lobe, the best way to do it is to act like an adult, a connected and caring adult who is concerned about all parties involved.
Knowing what to say to a distraught kid in need of support is not always easy. You must be equal parts detective, counselor, and pathfinder — and know when to stay quiet, too. The most important component? Listen more than you talk.
Updated on November 14, 2019