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Helping your ADHD teen

Published on: February 01, 2010

Got a kid? Then you’ve also got a built-in emotional Wi-Fi system. We telegraph our emotions to our kids. Brain scanning studies have demonstrated that our brains convey and “catch” emotions from one another all the time. The normal level of moodiness, emotional reactivity and risk taking that accompany adolescence can drive parents batty. Watching boyAdd to that brew the impulsiveness, sensation seeking, distractibility and academic difficulties that come with ADHD, and the teen years can really be a roller coaster for the teens and the parents alike.

Setting aside the important issue of medications for now (that’s another article!), here are some ideas for the parents of kids with ADHD. These parents often demonstrate extraordinary patience when they avoid judging their teens harshly for inevitable tough teen behavior … then wind up taking even more grief when they impose the extra structure and boundaries that teens with ADHD need.

Parents of these kids need to say to themselves, “My kid can’t help these behaviors any more than a child with asthma can help wheezing.” It is monumentally challenging to avoid giving excessive negative feedback to kids with ADHD. They come by the “symptoms” of ADHD as innocently as a child with any other chronic condition. The difference is that they often receive moral judgments for their symptoms, while children with other disorders receive more empathy, support and praise for coping with theirs.

Focus on strengths

We need to remember that kids with ADHD can become some of our most productive, creative and impressive members of society. Mozart, Edison, Einstein and many others are thought to have had this so-called disorder. The “dis” in “disorder” is relative. Perhaps the rest of us are deficient in switching tasks, being alert to multiple simultaneous stimuli and acting with zeal in intense situations. This “reframing” of ADHD will help us remember that children with ADHD have plenty of strengths, but many of their weaknesses make them impatient with sitting quietly in class, focusing on the teacher’s instructions and delaying gratification. They tend to be high energy, eager to jump into novel projects, and motivated in social and stimulating situations. Do you know how many firefighters, emergency medical professionals and people in sales have ADHD? Quite a few.

We want to keep these attributes in mind as we help guide these teens in discovering their signature strengths. Although “finding your passion” has become a bit of a cliché these days, it is critical in the parenting of these teens, because passion stimulates their focused attention and enables them to reach lofty goals.

Academic anguish

School settings exacerbate many of these kids’ weaknesses, and it gets even tougher in middle school and high school. As they proceed up the educational ladder, their challenges become more pronounced because of their difficulties with concentration, delayed gratification, completion of a project in working toward a long-term goal (“follow-through”) and impulse control. Therefore, for those kids with school problems, I am a big believer in tutors, white boards and tracking weekly progress with explicit rewards for fulfilling expectations. Educators often talk of the importance of teens “taking responsibility” for their work, but I say “humbug!” when it comes to expecting the same level of “responsibility” and independence from teens with ADHD. That’s like asking teens with hearing impairments to listen the same way their classmates do.

Teens with ADHD are at risk for school problems and often need extra support. Weaning them off tutors and parental supervision at some point is desirable, but it should happen gradually when they are clearly taking the helm as their brain and abilities mature. Yes, tutors can be costly, so sell the TV, the second car and whatever else is necessary. Tutors can save these teens from dropping out and wrecking their chances for higher education.

Many teens with ADHD have experienced dread, failure and anxiety about their academic performance. Homework elicits almost phobic levels of aversion for this subset of students. I imagine that if we had a brain scan of these kids when they faced their homework, it would reveal activation in the amygdala, the “fear and anxiety” center of the emotional brain. We see a pile of books, but they see something like a snarling panther. We need to have empathy for these kids, who have often suffered an emotional toll from poor grades, parent complaints, “brain lock,” feeling dumb, getting in trouble in class and the horrendous boredom associated with schoolwork. On the surface, the teen may demonstrate off-putting behaviors, such as a bad attitude, noncompliance, avoidance, moodiness, defiance or even indifference, but deep in their emotional brain, the core emotion may be anxiety about external expectations.

Getting help

Really good tutors dilute the torture of homework with positive emotions. Sitting with an attractive, happy, engaging and fun-loving tutor helps the pill go down more smoothly. Tutors can elicit positive emotions in the resistant teen and assist the underactive motivational centers of the teen brain to kick into gear. Yes, the tutor will have good ideas about outlines, rough-draft paragraphs and proofreading, but I think the emotional jump-starting and nudging of the ADHD brain is as important as any technical aspect of “studying and writing skills.”

Ideally, such teens are weaned from tutors by the end of high school. However, neuro-imaging research has found that brain maturation is not complete until the early twenties, and teens with ADHD are two years behind teens of the same age. No wonder teens with ADHD have such a hard time with school. The “executive functions” of the prefrontal cortex (“PFC”) include planning ahead, reasoning, judgment and impulse control. Parents and tutors act as “auxiliary PFCs” for teens while their brains are maturing. Medications help with focus and concentration, tutors help with academic skill-building, and parents help with everything else.

Ultimately, we can only control ourselves, not our children. Even though they might be surly and sour, we can choose to be loving, empathic and even silly. Since moodiness and emotional reactivity are part and parcel of the teen reality, adults need to bring as much positive energy to the equation as possible. That is our job. That is how we can influence the “mostly positive” relationship.

Clinical psychologist Laura Kastner, Ph.D., is the co-author, along with writer Jennifer F. Wyatt, of Getting to Calm: Cool-headed Strategies for Raising Tweens and Teens, published in 2009 by ParentMap Books.

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