Ask the Experts

Q: How Do We Balance Teenage Independence with a Decent GPA?

Your teen is hungry for independence, and that is healthy. But what happens when his ADHD symptoms begin sabotaging grades and causing family strife in high school?

Q: “My son has been backing me off of his schoolwork since he started high school. His grades have always been good because he has a good memory and math has come easy. He has always struggled with organization and studying. Now that the material is getting harder, his grades are slipping. He fights me on bringing work home or studying for tests and I can only imagine what his locker looks like. How should I deal with this situation?” – ADHDMom


Hi ADHDMom:

It wasn’t long ago I was sitting across the table from my then-high school son (who also has ADHD) trying to figure out how to negotiate these same boundaries. Since I don’t know the extent of your son’s “grade slippage,” the subjects with which he struggles, or whether he receives any accommodations or services in his high school, I’m going to offer tips that worked for me and my coaching clients.

Ask the teachers very specific questions.

My first course of action would be to contact his teachers directly. What are they noticing? Are his problems academic-based like poor test scores? Or is he failing to turn in assignments on time…or at all? Does he understand the material that is being presented? Is he overwhelmed by the work? His teachers should be able to tell you what they are observing.

Tell teachers exactly what you’re seeing to ensure appropriate supports.

It is also critical that you communicate to your son’s teachers what you are seeing at home. I had a parent coaching client with a similar situation to yours. When she communicated to her child’s teachers that her daughter was not bringing any work home to complete, her teachers required that a certain amount of work had to be done at home nightly and then checked for completion the next day. This simple change helped to boost her daughter’s grades significantly. Bottom line? The better your communication with the school, the more it will help your son.

Ask “what” (not “why”) questions.

You mentioned that your son is “fighting” you on the topics of homework and studying. I can offer you this piece of advice: Nothing brings conversation to a screeching halt faster than nagging or intrusive questions. Well, at least that is true in my house. ☺

[Click to Read: Like the Teen You Love – ADHD-Friendly Communication Tips]

“Why” questions are emotionally charged. And the responses to them are usually filled with defensiveness or blame. “What” questions are fact-finding and help to get to the root of the problem.

So instead of asking about specific assignments or grades, try dialogue starters such as, “So how do you feel about…?” or “What’s your plan to ….” or even “What might be getting in your way?” Starting conversations like this is a softer approach and may avoid that shut down syndrome.

And a tip within a tip? Set up an appointment to discuss.

This strategy is one of my favorites. When your child is caught in the heat of the moment, the most typical response is to get defensive and shut down. The next time you want to discuss his schooling with him, present this option instead: “I understand that you might need to gather your thoughts to explain to me what happened about… Let’s talk at 8 pm so you have some time to prepare what you are going to say.” This strategy allows your son to have some space to get his thoughts and emotions in order.

Ask before offering assistance.

Yes, you heard me. This was the hardest thing for me to learn how to do. I’m a fixer by nature and always want to jump in with a solution. I have learned the hard way that I can’t “force” my advice or solutions on my son. And offering unsolicited help or advice almost always shuts down the back-and-forth. As my son got older, my rule of thumb was to ask him first, “Do you want my help, or do you want to go it alone?” Believe it or not, the answer on occasion was “Help, please!”

Set clear parameters.

As we know all too well, we can’t always make someone – even our own children – do what we would like them to do. However, what we CAN do is make our expectations known. So set your parameters – and make them clear, concise, reasonable and direct. Make sure your son knows what is expected of him, the natural consequences that are in place if he doesn’t meet those expectations, that he is accountable for his own actions and you are here to help if he needs it.

Good Luck.

Teenage Independence: Next Steps for Parents


ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

Submit your questions to the ADHD Family Coach here!


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Updated on August 3, 2020

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