Raising teens with ADHD: Redefining what ‘success’ means

Let’s face it, raising teens today is challenging. With 24/7 access to screens, peers and entertainment, it’s tough to set boundaries, especially during a pandemic. Regardless of their words, actions or attitudes, most teens dislike family conflict as much as their parents do. Parenting “a successful teen” means working together on setting up expectations, goals and strategies to foster connected independence. Everybody has a different definition of “success”: my belief is that meeting teens with ADHD where they are and not where you think they should be embodies a strong, parent-child connection that sets the stage for successfully addressing any issues.

While there is a lot of emphasis on getting good grades, admissions to  schools and colleges and awards for extracurricular activities as demonstrating ‘success’ for teens with and without ADHD, I believe that true ‘success’ for teens depends more on building lifelong tools for resilience and self-worth. When Neurodiverse teens are able to tolerate and recover from disappointments, to see mishaps as learning opportunities instead of failures and to believe that they have personal value regardless of their accomplishments, then they can be successful. 

Parents can cultivate these aspects of ‘success’ by doing two main things. First, offer encouragement and validation of your child’s efforts as much as their achievements. Secondly, nurture positive connections in your parent-teen relationship because this connection fosters self-esteem and self-confidence. When teens with ADHD feel like their parents believe in them, value their opinions and listen to what they have to say, they are more likely to feel better about themselves, to bounce back from obstacles and to believe in their own capabilities. This is what ‘success’ looks like in an adolescent. 

Here are some tips for parents to raise “successful teens”:

  1. Practice compassion for yourself and them:  Everybody is doing the best they can with whatever tools and resources they have available at a given moment. The push-pull of this stage of development is confusing and challenging for all of you. When kids are acting out, they lack adequate coping skills for whatever situation they’re facing. Try to recall what your adolescence was like: the awkwardness, the peer pressure and the insecurity. This empathy makes a huge difference. Be kind to yourself and patient with them as you navigate this territory. 
  2. Offer less advice and collaborate on goals: Teens want to feel listened to more than they want you to solve their problems. Use reflective listening so they feel heard and validated: repeat what you hear them say before giving advice or telling what to do. Work together on establishing goals for school, chores and self-care. When kids with ADHD participate in setting up expectations with their parents, they are far more likely to buy into whatever plan is created.
  3. Create consistent routines that build executive functioning skills: Aim for steadiness not perfection. You want to teach them tools for organization, planning, prioritizing, time management, initiation and self-care. Routines foster these skills. Use incentives instead of punishments to enhance motivation and connect the have-to’s to the want-to’s such as extra screen time, driving lessons with you and going out. 
  4. Set screen limits: Assist your son or daughter in making gaming, social media, and surfing the net a part of a balanced life not the main attraction. They can’t do this themselves.  Create screen free family times such as meals, walks or games where you can be with each other and have fun. Remember that, despite what your teens tell you, screen time is a privilege not something they are entitled to. 
  5. Encourage efforts not just accomplishments: Paying attention to the process of working on tasks and not just their completion encourages teens to keep trying and stick with goals. Underneath whatever bluster they present, teens with ADHD want to feel like what they do matters and is acknowledged by their parents.  Little positive comments go a long way.

Want to learn more?  Read more about ADHD