Dr. Carrie McMillin is a naturopathic physician that specializes in treating adults and children with ADHD and anxiety.
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I won’t sugarcoat it. Parenting adolescents is TOUGH, and when you add ADHD to the mix it certainly doesn’t get easier. Unfortunately, I don’t have a magic formula to make it a cake walk. But I do have some basic guidelines to help improve communication and ease frustrations for everyone involved. In part 1 of this blog post, I detail 5 of the 10 guiding principles that can be a game-changer for how you communicate and motivate your ADHD teen.
1. Don't take it personally
When your teen leaves a pile of dirty dishes on the coffee table for the eighth time this week, and you are left to clean up the mess yet again, it can be hard to keep your cool. Of course part of you understands that his ADHD plays a role in this behavior, but a small part of you probably thinks, "Does he think that my time is less valuable than his?" Try to pause in these moments and remember that he did not leave a mess due to a lack of respect for you. In fact, most of the kids I work with harbor some amount of guilt (often hidden) about their behavior. Keep a disability perspective and curb the anger. But this does not mean that he doesn't have to put away the dishes. Have him put them away, or do a different comparable chore if you have already taken care of the mess. Also, see #10 (part 2).
2. Wait for the moment and keep it short
Parents and spouses of people with ADHD become incredibly adept at knowing when someone is in listening mode and when she is not. So when you have something to say, wait for that moment. Keep what you want to say short and to the point. Don’t create elaborate explanations-- speak in bullet points.
3. Make rules and expectations clear
Whatever your expectations are, make sure they are realistic and crystal clear. "Keep your room clean" isn't a very clear expectation. “All dirty clothes must be in the hamper before bedtime” is much clearer. Keep tasks short and written in a highly visible location--visual reminders are essential. Consider posting a short list on the bedroom door or mirror listing what needs to be done each day. Aim for five tasks at most.
When discussing expectations, make sure that they are things that are in your teen’s control as much as possible. For example, instead of an expectation that they receive a grade of a B or higher in Language Arts, set the expectation that all assignments will be completed and turned in. Or that your student will spend 45 minutes studying for an exam with a tutor. Reflect on which piece is within your teen’s control, and set guidelines for the behavior around that piece. Make sure that your expectations are reasonable, taking into account other requirements, learning disabilities, etc. Not sure what is reasonable? Check in with your teen’s doctor or therapist.
4. Use positive reinforcement (incentives before punishment)
Focus primarily on motivating through rewards, instead of taking away privileges when something isn’t done. Something like: If you complete your math worksheet, you can watch your favorite show. Or if you do your three daily tasks every day Monday through Friday, you can walk to the coffeehouse with your friends on Saturday. More immediate rewards are usually the most motivating, but as kids get older they can start be motivated by rewards with a slightly longer wait time. For example, if you complete your math worksheet every day during the week, you can play video games with your friends over the weekend.
5. Be your kid's cheerleader
Your kid is awesome. Believe this. Teens with ADHD often spend the vast majority of their day in an environment that isn’t ideal for how their brain works. They are constantly reminded by teachers and peers that they aren’t doing what they should be. This is on top of the difficulties of adolescence-- trying to understand who they are and what their place is in the world. It can be easy for kids to start believing that they have little to offer. Help them to see their talents and strengths, even when they aren’t always used in school. And even when they have a setback, know that they can come back from it. It may require a new strategy, but they can do it. So make sure you are your kid’s #1 fan and that they know it!
Have I mentioned you are doing a great job? It is not easy to be in your shoes, but the fact that you are researching new ways to help your kids and your family shows that you don’t throw in the towel. Try some of the approaches I’ve listed here, give yourself a pat on the back, and stay tuned for part two of this blog post for more ways to improve communication with your ADHD teen.