You’re parenting a teen with ADHD. You’ve made it through some of the toughest years of parenting, including puberty. But shockingly, the symptoms of ADHD didn’t magically disappear the way a few well-meaning parents (or even professionals) led you to believe they might.
Now instead of parenting the independent young adult you expected, you find yourself the parent of a teen with ADHD who is struggling in ways that you fear will affect his ability to function well as an adult. You may even be treating your high schooler the same way you treated him in elementary and middle school, taking on the job as his daily conscience.
Does any of this sound familiar?
What should you do now?
While parenting a teen with ADHD can be as challenging as parenting that young child who could never sit still or be quiet, it’s not hopeless. While it’s true you probably won’t want to use the picture-filled chore charts of his childhood, there are ways you can help your teen learn life skills in a way that respects his growing maturity AND gives him the tools that will benefit him tremendously both now and into adulthood. By the time your child has become a teen, his own conscience should have taken over, but admittedly, that process is often delayed in kids with ADHD. It is important to get a handle on that now and help him make that shift from child to young adult as smoothly as possible.
Here are a few ways we are teaching life skills to our teen with ADHD.
Encourage better organization
This has been one of the most challenging activities in our house. No one (including the parents) are terribly organized, which has not served us well. It is easy for the piles of clothes, homeschool books, science kits, Lego, and more to take over our teen’s bedroom. Pretty soon he is unable to find his math book, wallet, or phone. To encourage better organization, we began by decluttering quite a lot so that everything had a home. Once that was taken care of, it has been easier to keep everything organized by taking a quick 15 minutes twice a day to put things away. When we get lazy about this it doesn’t take any time at all for the stuff to overwhelm him, and suddenly things are missing again. Be sure you are providing whatever your teen needs to stay organizing (bookshelves, organizing crates, and extra closet, etc.). Setting the example of simplicity in how you live will be helpful, too (for all of you).
Break the habit of dependence
It’s not unusual for moms of ADHD teens to still be doing a lot for their teens. Frankly, it’s just sometimes easier. But this job is too important to take the easy way out. It’s imperative that you begin forcing more self-responsibility on your teen. From doing his own laundry to making his own breakfast and lunch to making his own orthodontist appointments, give your teen every opportunity to “fend for himself” rather than continue relying on you to do things he is perfectly capable of doing for himself. I cannot stress this enough. I know, as moms, we like to serve our families, but you will be doing a disservice to your teen by not forcing more independence. This is also the time for your teen be become responsible with his own waking up and going to bed hours. A smartphone reminder or a simple alarm clock can help in this area. You may even have to allow him to miss something important or special (see more about natural consequences below).
Give him responsibility for taking his medication
If your teen takes medication for his ADHD, this can be a tricky area (if he doesn’t, you can just skip this one, and without judgement, please). It’s likely you’ve been reminding him every day for years to take his medication, and perhaps even watching him closely to ensure he actually took it. Making your teen responsible for this task takes a lot of diligence. Using a smartphone alarm can be helpful in reminding him it’s time to take his medication, but it will be very important to have conversations about the importance of actually taking it. I know given the choice, my teen would skip his medication every day.
Transferring ownership of this responsibility can be one of the most challenging tasks you will face. One of the most effective teachers in this area is having a hard day because he skipped his medication. When you see your teen struggling, gently confront him about whether he actually took his medication, and then remind him of how much better his day might have gone had he been responsible in this area. The truth is, he may need to take medication for years to come, and there will soon come a time when you have no control over that. Now is the best time to convince your child of its importance.
Teach time management skills
You’ve probably noticed your ADHD teen doesn’t have the best sense of time. You may have struggled for years getting anywhere on time because while you thought your child was getting ready to leave the house, they were distracted by Lego. Most teens with ADHD have a poor sense of how long it takes to do anything, including completing homeschool work (or homework for those who go to school). They have relied on mom to move them to the next task, but now is the time to give them the skills for successful time management they will need for college and work life.
For daily tasks, one way to do this is by using a timer. We have been using the Pomodoro Technique for the past year. This method uses a timer to focus work in short spurts, followed by short breaks. For teens with ADHD, short spurts of work, followed by short breaks, gives them the opportunity to move around a bit – something they still may have to do in order to function well. But be careful not to make the breaks too long or you risk allowing the opportunity for distractions to take over. Five to ten minutes every hour or so is usually plenty long enough, with a longer 30-minute break every few hours.
For long-term time management, have your teen begin using a monthly calendar. This can be done electronically (with reminders) or on paper. Your teen can begin developing the habit of filling in important dates and appointments and checking his calendar on a daily basis so nothing gets missed. In addition to that, whether your teen is homeschooling or going to school, begin having him keep track of daily coursework, assignment due dates, library books, and other school related or extracurricular activities, instead of constantly being his calendar for him (yes, I am working on this, too!). This can be done with a school planner or electronic calendar that can be synced between his computer and smartphone.
Speaking of extracurricular activities, this is also a good time to begin teaching your teen with ADHD the power of the word, “no.” By nature (or diagnosis), ADHD kids tend to be people-pleasers. We recently had a situation at our home where my son said “yes” to too many people and found himself in a quandary. His response? He didn’t want to disappoint anyone. We are living in a culture of “too much and too busy.” Start discussing this now and as your teen with ADHD is transitioning to making his own choices and decisions, counsel him as often as you can on how to make them wisely.
Insist on financial responsibility
Hopefully, you’ve been encouraging financial responsibility all along, but during the teen years, it becomes especially important. ADHD kids tend to be impulsive spenders and find it difficult to save money. You may have always allowed him to do what he pleases with financial gifts or allowances. Now is the time to change that and begin to insist on financial responsiblity. Having a place other than a dresser drawer to “put money away” can help keep your teen from having money burning a hole in his pocket, plus balancing a checkbook is a valuable life skill.
Go with your teen to open a bank account, if you haven’t already, so he can begin managing money he receives as gifts, from chores, and even from a job. A good rule of thumb is 60/30/10 — save 60%, spend 30%, and give 10%. Another good rule of thumb is to have him deposit all but what he needs now. Also, begin having discussions about the responsible use of credit as well. So many teens go off to college and are inundated with opportunities to open credit card accounts. Before they know it, they are in debt, faced with high interest rates and making minimum payments. A good education in the dangers of credit cards now can help prevent financial disaster later. If your teen has a job, start sharing ideas about long-term financial goals, such as investing in the stock market and saving to buy a house.
Speak openly about healthy peer relationships
It’s likely you’ve had a lot to say about who your teen’s closest friends are, especially if you homeschool, but soon he will be choosing his friends without your direct influence. He probably already is to some extent. By having conversations now about the importance of healthy friendships, with like-minded teens, you will hopefully be setting your teen up for making good decisions about relationships in the future.
Use examples of poor decision-making in the life of close friends or family, or even in your own life, to look honestly at the influence other people can have in our lives. It’s time for the hard conversations now. And no sugar-coating your own life experience. If you made poor choices as a teen, this is the time to use those for the greater good. Time is flying by and soon your teen will be out of your house, choosing for himself who will have that influence on him. Point out the excellent qualities in your own teen and in his current friends to give him a strong frame of reference in the future. And do the same with your examples of poor friend choices.
Allow natural consequences to happen
It is difficult to watch our kids make mistakes and allow them to suffer the setbacks of poor decision-making or impulsive behavior. As a mom of a younger child with ADHD you may have been guilty of protecting your child a little too much from natural consequences (I know I was). But now is the time to let natural consequences teach valuable lessons, while your teen has you to help them navigate these years of learning that every decision they make has them. It’s easier to make excuses for him, or step in to “fix the problem,” but in doing so you rob your teen of gaining valuable experiences that might prevent worse consequences later.
Be his accountability partner
Teens can be pretty persnickety about being held accountable for anything. You may find that your teen with ADHD is even more opposed to sharing his life than your other kids. I believe this is because kids with ADHD have faced a lot of judgment in their short lives, maybe even from his own family. Having discussions about the necessity of being held accountable both now and for his future success a necessity. Establishing accountability in different areas of life now will help him when he must do so later in life (think college professors, employers, spouse, etc.).
Hopefully, you have established a trusting relationship with your teen with ADHD so that he feels free to come to you for accountability in his relationships, money management, faith walk, online use, and more. If not, then do take the time and whatever else it takes to repair and build that relationship now, before he’s out of your house in a few short years.
Remember . . . easy is not our goal here. Parenting is not for sissies. Parenting a teen with ADHD is for sure not. It may be one of the hardest, most rewarding things you will ever do. Take the time to be intentional now. The future success of your teen with ADHD may depend upon it.
Are you parenting a teen with ADHD? How are you training him in life skills for future adulthood?