Dear Teen Parenting Coach

Q: Is My Teen’s Homework Really Too Hard…

…Or does he just not want to do it? Students who relish doing homework are few and far between, and teens with ADHD are no exception. Still, it can be hard for parents to discern whether homework is stalled due to ADHD or learning disabilities, or if their child is procrastinating out of laziness or defiance.

Q: “I don’t know how to tell the difference between ‘ADHD behavior’ and ‘teen behavior,’ especially when it comes to my son’s homework. He often complains that it’s ‘too hard’ and gets frustrated when I try to help him, but when he finally gets started, he seems to complete it without too many problems. How can I tell when he just doesn’t want to do his homework — and when he’s actually struggling with the material due to his ADHD?” —Joy

Dear Joy,

The first step is to make sure his challenges have been carefully diagnosed. Before you can properly help your son, you need to know exactly what you’re dealing with. It’s possible that, alongside his ADHD, your son has a comorbid learning disability or anxiety disorder that’s greatly impacting his ability to complete his work.

Once you’ve secured a complete, accurate diagnosis, the next step is to look at his treatment plan. Is he on medication? If he is, is it covering him during the time he needs to do his homework? You wouldn’t ask a child who wears glasses to take them off at 6 p.m. every day — but unfortunately, too many teens with ADHD are expected to complete mountains of homework each night without adequate assistance from their medication.

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The next step would be to talk to your son’s teachers, to get a sense of his in-class work and the quality of his at-home assignments. Is he frequently turning in unfinished classwork or making the same complaints to his teacher? Does the teacher see specific areas where he is falling behind, or has she noticed a tendency toward anxiety or procrastination in class? If these problems are repeatedly occurring throughout the school day as well as at home — and his treatment plan is optimized to the best of your ability — it may be a sign that your child is struggling to manage his ADHD symptoms and keep up with the material that’s been presented to him.

At that point, you’ll likely need to call a meeting with the school’s IEP team (if applicable) to discuss how your son can better meet his academic challenges. If an IEP or 504 isn’t available, the best course is to communicate more with his teachers — either with a weekly check-in, a form that teachers sign when your son completes his work each day, or something similar. Oftentimes, a little more supervision is enough to get a teen through a slump, especially when — as in your son’s case — it appears that he can complete his work, when properly motivated to do so.

If you still suspect that your son just doesn’t want to do his homework, try implementing a simple reward system. Tell him that if he completes his homework by a certain time on X number of days, he’ll get an additional privilege or item that he’s been asking for. Teens with ADHD who push back against homework often do so because they don’t think it has a purpose; adding external incentives is a good way to make the benefits of homework concrete for teens with ADHD.

Thomas E. Brown, Ph.D., is a member of ADDitude’s ADHD Medical Review Panel.

This advice came from “The Teen Years with ADHD: A Practical, Proactive Parent’s Guide,” an April 2018 ADDitude webinar lead by Thomas Brown, Ph.D., that is now available for free replay here.

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The opinions and suggestions presented above are intended for your general knowledge only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your own or your child’s condition.