Dealing with Defiant ADHD Teens and Tweens in this Strange COVID Summer

Mother on the phone looking stressed working from home while her tween boy with ADHD plays with a loud boombox in the backgroundNow, more than ever, there seems to be very little we can predict and hold onto. Everyday, we hear new reports about climbing COVID cases as we struggle to practice safety measures, keep up with work, manage bored kids and keep our sanity intact. It can all feel too much to handle. Of course, in the midst of trying to keep your head above the water, there’s nothing like a defiant ADHD teen or tween to put you over the edge. How do you cope with the overwhelming stress? What can you do to help your child manage their big feelings and reduce family conflict?

Why teens and tweens with ADHD are engaging in more defiant behavior

Angry and frustrated with the many changes to their lives wrought by COVID, and feeling helpless to do anything, many kids are acting out in ways that are often inappropriate. It seems that they’ve taken a giant step backwards in managing their distress. With their executive functioning challenges related to emotional and impulse control, scattered kids are prone to intense pushback and aggressive anger.

Defiant ADHD teen girl getting upset and yelling at the camera in front of a pink background

Teens and tweens with ADHD, whose brains mature more slowly than their neurotypical peers, are particularly torn between what they would like to be capable of doing and what they can actually accomplish. They’re often very frustrated with themselves, and, unable to tolerate their shame, act out their personal dissatisfaction towards others–often their parents. They unconsciously want you to make it better for them, just like a young child would.

Teens are still struggling with how to tolerate disappointment appropriately and how to pivot when faced with limits they don’t like. With all of the changes surrounding COVID and losses of familiar and beloved activities, the natural challenges with shifting, flexibility and planning for transitions for many kids with ADHD are intensified. Of course, when they are triggered, emotional and verbal impulse control fly out of the window. 

Frustrated defiant ADHD teen looking angry and putting his fingers in his ears to block out noiseUnderneath all of their bluster, many defiant ADHD teens and tweens suffer from low self-esteem and shame. They need tools for expressing themselves appropriately and signs of parental support for their attempts to use these techniques, even if they’re not completely successful. You’ve got to remember that, while they may seem to enjoy the sense of power in the moment, they really don’t like the conflict any more than you do. It’s just that they lack certain skills which could help them.

Steps to disrupting cycles of defiance for ADHD teens and tweens:

1. Acknowledge their frustration:

Instead of convincing your defiant ADHD teen or tween why things aren’t the way that they perceive them, validate their feelings. Mirror what you hear them saying with language like, “I hear that you are upset about X” or, “What you’re telling me is Y.” When kids feel seen and heard, they’ll begin to slow down.

2. Set ground rules about acceptable behavior:

Discuss with your kids what ways of expressing anger or displeasure is appropriate and what are not. Be specific about language and physical actions. In addition, set up incentives for cooperating and logical consequences for obstruction. For instance, “If you curse at me, you will not earn the privilege of your phone for the rest of the day.”  Or, “If you can go through a day and not scream or break something, you’ll earn extra screen time.” Work with incentives that matter to them. 

3. Plan for arguments:

Let’s face it, you will get into fights. Instead of being surprised each time this happens, identify signs that you are heading into the red zone and how to take a planned, timed break. Make a list of acceptable choices for this “Calm-me-down” time and post it in the kitchen and bedrooms. Separate for an agreed-upon time until you can re-convene without hot tempers from defiant ADHD teens or tweens. For some kids, this break may need to be a few hours. That’s okay. 

4. Decide what’s next:

Mom joyfully dancing with her adolescent with ADHD

Instead of trying to teach a lesson, talk about what’s needed to move on. Ask questions, listen and reflect back what you hear. Wonder about alternative choices you both could have made in that instant or could make in the future.

Collaborate on an action for moving on. Refer back to your agreement about ground rules while staying compassionate but firm. You can talk about any lessons at another time, perhaps the next day in the car or perhaps at a scheduled hour.

It’s really important to notice and validate the activities and emotions that your defiant teen is becoming triggered. This type of validation will lower their rage and shame. Your goal is to cool the flames in the moment and follow your collaborative agreement. Teaching lessons will come later.

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