Teens with ADHD

Abandon Your Pre-Conceived Notions of ‘Success’ (and More Advice for Parents of Teens with ADHD)

The transition to adulthood is a roller-coaster ride — for teens and their parents, too. We worry incessantly about their future, and never know when to intervene or pull back. Here, learn how parents can strike a balance that actually empowers their teens.

Watching teens with ADHD transition to adulthood is not for the faint of heart.

When our children are younger, our energy is spent on behavior — helping them manage outbursts, make friends, and take responsibility for chores and schoolwork. But when our kids with ADHD hit high school, we experience a marked shift in focus and priorities.

We turn our attention to their inevitable launch — leaving the nest and independently building the life they want. We become increasingly preoccupied by unknowns. Will they be ready? What will they do? How will they manage? What if, what if, what if…?

All of this worry likely contributes to our kids’ stress and holds them back from becoming resilient, independent adults. From adjusting our expectations to focusing on better relationships, here’s what parents can do to better empower their teens with ADHD.

The Transition to Adulthood: 3 Key Steps for Parents

Revisit Our Ideas About Success

Our ideas about what a successful future “should” look like can present real barriers to our children. Dan B. Peters, Ph.D., a psychologist and the executive director of the California-based Summit Center, says parents need to recognize that kids with learning and attention issues are living on their own timeline, and balance that awareness with our own goals for them.

[Click to Read: Your Teen’s Brain — and How to Unleash Its Superpowers]

“Our differently wired kids need time to grow, and to recover from whatever terrible schooling or social experiences they have had,” Peters says. “Those experiences affect their development, attention, focus, and executive functioning. And so we want to take a step back and ask, How are we going to approach our teen’s launch?”

Our ideas about success are a legacy handed down from our parents and even theirs. Until we stop the cycle and reconcile our own vision of success with our teen’s ideas, we’ll impose a similar stamp on our kids. They’ll respond, react, and rebel accordingly.

Any time we stumble on a premise that feels like a “has to happen,” we should take a closer look at that belief. Is it true that the only way my child will be happy is if she attends a four-year college? Am I certain my daughter needs to get a part-time job to be able to live independently? When we question our own fears, our kids will be freer to discover what’s right for them.

Invest in Our Relationships

Teens are wired to prioritize relationships with peers, but they still crave (and need) connection with us. Dr. John Duffy, author of Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety (#CommissionsEarned) , describes investing in our relationships with our kids as the key to keeping our joint “emotional bank account” in the black. We want our teens to feel safe sharing their dreams and fears with us.

[Have a Teen with ADHD? Encourage Communication & Avoid the Drama – Here’s How]

We can do this by showing our curiosity and respect, and by letting our kids know we believe in them. We want our teens to feel seen and known by us. And we want to see and know our teens. Instead of imposing our goals on our children, we should help them discover and invest in their own. Some ideas for connecting with your teen include:

  • Make time for walks and talks. Get out for walks (or bike rides) to create screen-free opportunities for conversation. Don’t feel the need to fill the silence or have an agenda — this is about creating the space for connection. If your child does start talking, ask open-ended questions. Use the phrase “Tell me more…” to keep things going, and take pauses (count to five) when she’s done speaking rather than jumping right in.
  • Instead of praise, ask about process. Praising or rewarding accomplishments may feel like the right move, but doing so can foster division, as well as send the message that we value accomplishments over who they are. Instead, ask your teen about the inspiration behind their accomplishments (What inspired your painting?).
  • Stay calm, no matter what. If we want our kids to trust us with the big, difficult stuff, they need to know we can handle whatever they’ve got to share. Don’t react externally when they tell you something that sets off your internal alarms. Listen, nod, and remain calm in the moment. Then, get the support you need afterward to process, and circle back with your child when you can do so with a clear head.
  • Respect before all. Part of having a deep connection with your teen is respecting their budding independence and agency. It can be hard to retrain ourselves, especially if we’ve spent much of a child’s early years acting as his frontal lobe. Feeling respected and capable is key if your goal is for your child to be self-motivated.

Help Our Kids Engage Authentically with Life

These days, teens feel pressured to do and be everything, and to take advantage of every opportunity. They know they need a passion to stand out on college applications or build a foundation for the future. They worry when they don’t have one. Yet research shows that this focus on “passion” misses the mark, and it may be a stumbling block to our kids’ realizing their potential.

Instead of pushing our teens to identify a passion, we want to help them engage with their own lives. We do this by showing interest in their interests, by noticing what sparks them, and by encouraging their exploration of ideas from different angles without trying to shape their experience. Doing so helps them become self-aware and feel empowered to make the best choices for themselves.

“If they can do that in a healthy way,” Peters says, “I don’t think it matters which direction they go, because they’re building essential ingredients to health and wellness — the knowledge that they have choice and that they can cope when things don’t go their way.”

And that they can count on and reach out to us for help when they need it.

The Transition to Adulthood: Next Steps


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Updated on October 8, 2020

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