My ADHD Teen Always Blows Me Off — How Do I Get Through to Her?
You see your teen daughter with ADHD making mistakes and want to fix things — or at least let her benefit from your lifetime of learning and insights. But she wants nothing to do with your words or advice — or you. Here’s how to bridge what seems like an impossible gap.
Q: “I try to help my 16-year-old daughter with many things — making smart choices about relationships, how to handle a big project at school, whatever. She either rolls her eyes, gets angry, or doesn’t respond to my offers. She resists my help and ignores me. How do I get through to someone who wants nothing to do with me?”
Parenting a teen, one with or without ADHD, is challenging. Life with your daughter seems rough right now. It’s rotten to feel like your daughter doesn’t like you and shuts you out. Her rejection can feel painful. At times, we need a suit of armor to weather the storms and periodic rejection.
It’s tough to stay grounded, patient, and steady when teens are provocative, disrespectful, or unkind. Teens are trying to figure out what it means to be separate yet connected to their parents. Those with ADHD brains and “now/not now” thinking have trouble with cause-and-effect learning.
Adolescents wrestle with two key questions: Who am I? and Where do I belong?
With their delays in brain maturation, teen girls with ADHD are sometimes asking these questions into their mid-20s. What they want from adults is a chance to vent while you listen rather than offer solutions. This is tough for parents. You see your child making mistakes and want to make things better. You want to fix things.
How and When to Step in to Your Daughter’s Life
Knowing when and how to step in confuses most parents. It’s frustrating when your daughter ignores you, rolls her eyes, or yells at you. These behaviors make it hard to act as an ally and help with the transition to adulthood she needs. You bear the brunt of her uncertainty about how to manage her life independently. What can you do to connect with your daughter?
Manage Yourself First
Parents of kids with ADHD often feel incompetent, especially when their teen’s behavior is confrontational, uncooperative, or isolating. When you get upset with her, you are adding fuel to her fire, and taking the focus away from her to you. Of course, we all say things in frustration or anger that we wish we could take back. Our adult brains are capable of noticing when we’re getting riled up (racing heart rate, louder voice) better than our kids are. Use this ability to regulate yourself by calling a pause in the action, and follow the steps of STOP, THINK, ACT:
- STOP what you’re doing and re-orient. Decide in advance what you need to calm down: deep breaths, some fresh air, or a trip to the bathroom to wash your hands and encourage yourself that you can do this.
- THINK about what’s happening in this moment, using neutral observations or questions: “What I notice happening is…” or “What do you think is going on here?”
- ACT. Move on thoughtfully and deliberately: Discuss the next right thing to do to move forward and do it. You’re showing your daughter how to handle emotions and work together to address challenging situations.
See Your Daughter for Who She Is
She is doing the best she can to manage her life, despite limited executive functioning skills and increasing hormone levels. It’s not easy, but find your compassion. It’s hard enough to be an adolescent girl today, but when you add ADHD, she’s probably dealing with lower self-esteem than most of her friends. Show your compassion with these tips:
- Refrain from offering suggestions, but be available to help her when she asks. Always make sure you understand what she needs from you before you speak or take any action.
- Focus on being an ally. Make an agreement about conversations with her. Since you are responsible for her health and safety, you get to ask one question a day about her life, and she has to answer it honestly and completely. Promise not to “nag” her after that. You’ll get some conversation and she’ll “get you off her back.”
- Acknowledge what she says, but save your follow-up question for the next day.When there are issues of unsafe or inappropriate behavior, step in immediately.
Define Shared Goals and Collaborate on a Plan
Apply your desire to help your daughter make positive choices, complete homework, and do her chores by focusing on building executive functioning skills—together. Follow these tips for collaboration:
- Set up a plan to meet once a week, at a designated time and place, for no more than 15 minutes. If she needs an incentive to do this, that’s OK. Find out what she wants (e.g., extra screen time), and attach it to participation in your meeting.
- Ask her to list what she’s doing well this year at school, and what she’d like to manage better. Whatever she chooses is where you start. Brainstorm ideas and let her pick one strategy to try. Assess how it’s working in your next meeting. Start with small stuff and plan for possible setbacks. Say something like, “We’re going to try this and see how it goes. Nobody’s expecting perfection.” Notice her effort as she practices. Ask: “How can I help you follow through?”
- Tolerate the discomfort of letting her try on her own, perhaps not succeed, and recalibrate. This is the process of cause-and-effect thinking and a growth mindset. If she hits a bump in the road, ask her about alternatives, and offer options only when she asks for them.
Celebrate the Good Stuff
Teens with ADHD expect criticism and unfavorable feedback. They have a stream of negative self-talk in their minds that perpetuates low self-worth. Your words can be a bridge from self-criticism to self-esteem. Praising her when she completes chores or homework encourages her to keep going with the good stuff. Give specific, positive feedback to encourage her to keep trying. Maintain eye contact, and use these statements: “I really like when you…”; “It’s very helpful how you…”; “I’m really proud of how you…”; “You’re doing well with X. That’s the way to go!”
Take the Long View
Zoom out and prioritize what’s most important. Your goal is to teach executive functioning skills for life, which takes time, practice, patience, and faith. The majority of teens with ADHD grow up into fully functional, productive, and happy adults but their paths may differ from what their parents expected. Concentrate on aiding your daughter to develop a growth mindset: one where she pays equal if not more attention to her efforts and believes that her learning and intelligence grow with time and experience. When you nurture a growth mindset, you encourage resilience. Most important, she’ll practice these strategies under your loving care without shame or blame. Yes, she will make mistakes, and she will rebound from them.
How to Get on the Same Parenting Page
There’s very little that triggers parents as much as feeling unsupported. When the adults are frustrated or angry with each other, children are left feeling confused and uncertain about whose direction to follow. For teens with ADHD, who are concrete thinkers and benefit from predictability, these inconsistencies can lead to increased anxiety, irritability, and defiance. Here are some tips to help you and your partner parent as a team:
- See Yourselves as a Duo of Conductors. Discuss and define your mutual goals as parents. What skills and morals do you want your children to develop? You are working together as a team to create a concerto that is your family. At various times, you are each responsible for supervising and engaging in different tasks and activities with the hope of making the score sound harmonious. On some days you run the bedtime routine and, on other nights, your partner does it. The routine stays essentially the same regardless of who’s directing it.
- Identify the Issues That Trigger Disagreement. Notice the patterns in your arguments and when they tend to occur. Do you differ on discipline, study goals, chores, privileges or screen time? Does one of you prefer to avoid conflict with the kids more than the other? Make a time when the kids are in bed and explore these questions using a reflective listening technique for 20 minutes. Each partner speaks for five minutes while the other repeats what he or she hears without commenting on it. Switch back and forth twice to share your responses. Agree to meet weekly.
- Don’t Make Big Decisions without Checking In. One of the most common struggles for couples is when one partner makes a significant decision related to the kids without talking to the other one first. You cannot predict every possible family scenario. There are times when you have to make a decision on the spot based on your shared parenting values. But decide together in advance which types of situations require a joint meeting when the two of you can discuss an intervention or plan. When unexpected situations arise, take time to contact your partner and ask for his or her input, or wait to give an answer until you can check in. There’s nothing wrong with saying “I need to think about this and talk it over with your mom/dad.” The issue here isn’t about who has the upper hand in your relationship but about teamwork that enriches your relationship and your family.
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