Adolescents and Executive Function Skills

By Eve Kessler, Esq. and Peg Dawson, Ed. D.

Bleached vintage portrait of a sad and lonely teenagerThis article is based on a presentation by Peg Dawson, Ed.D., sponsored by Smart Kids with Learning Disabilities.

Have you ever wondered why adolescence is characterized by change, confusion, high emotions, and impulsive decision-making? It’s largely a function of brain development: The part of the brain responsible for decision-making—the frontal lobe—is still evolving, and will continue to do so until about age 25. Consequently, the ability for adolescents to make mature judgments is apt to be overwhelmed by “gut” instincts rather than guided by thoughtful reasoning.

Adolescents with learning disabilities and ADHD have increased challenges because their frontal lobes are compromised to a greater extent.

Everyone with ADHD has an executive function disorder, but so do many without attention deficits. Since executive functioning worsens during adolescence, teens may be woefully impulsive, failing to think before they act. Without the ability to consider the consequences of their actions, control their emotions, sustain attention despite boredom, be flexible when faced with setbacks, and self-monitor, teens may easily succumb to risk-taking behaviors.

Risky Behaviors

Weak executive functioning puts them at risk for compulsive, addictive behaviors, including substance abuse, unprotected or random sex, gambling, eating disorders, self-mutilation, preoccupation with appearance, emotional difficulties such as mood swings, suicidal thoughts and aggressive behaviors, and poor academic planning and success.

To reduce risk-taking behaviors, teens must explicitly be taught executive function skills. They will not learn them by osmosis or from their surroundings. Parents may initially serve as their child’s “external” frontal lobe, but the objective should be for an adolescent to internalize the skills and strategies to become an independent learner with the full array of executive functions.

For parents, it’s a struggle to strike a balance—to allow teens the independence they crave and give them the positive feedback they need, while teaching them the skills and strategies necessary to make good judgments. While it is easy for teens to view parents as “nagging” or controlling, once they feel more grounded and self-content and see positive results in their academic work and social relationships, they will understand the importance of making the skills their own.

Acknowledge and Address Challenges

For teens with executive function deficits, avoiding risky behavior is tied to taking responsibility for themselves. They need to move past denial to become comfortable with who they are; they need to acknowledge their strengths and challenges and learn to address their needs creatively and specifically.

The importance of this “buy-in” cannot be overestimated. Without it, teens struggle with their differences. They lack the self-esteem they need to succeed, become depressed and apathetic, and develop bad habits that are hard to break, such as making excuses and blaming others for their challenges and failures.

On the other hand, when teens are able to understand and confront their needs, they are likely to become efficient self-starters, more organized and goal-oriented than their typical peers. Overcompensating for their innate challenges, these teens often find creative ways to address problem areas, such as using cell phones as alarms, reminders and calendars for compiling lists and making notes throughout the day. Honing their self-advocacy skills, these teens feel comfortable describing accommodations or modifications in the classroom and, later in life, will be able to apply their advocacy skills in the workplace.

Finding a Passion

Another key to preventing risky behavior is for teens to find their passion. Many adolescents with executive function challenges thrive on out-of-the-box interests. Parents, in supporting their teen’s quest to find activities to pursue enthusiastically should allow all doors to remain open for consideration. Theater, dance, visual arts, stand-up comedy, creative writing, journalism, entrepreneurship and consulting are just a few of the possibilities to keep in mind.

Since many teens with learning and attentional issues are late bloomers, this may be a long process and involve several false starts. Once teens find what they are looking for, however, their passions may serve as replacements for risky behavior. Pursued zealously, they will bring excitement and “highs” similar to those associated with addictions. And, in addition, teens will gain self-esteem and self-confidence, learn important skills and create relationships and friendships based on positive shared interests and experiences.

Take Action: Improve Your Relationship

As parents, you must guide and respond effectively to teens with poor executive skills so they will think before they act, control their behavioral and emotional impulses, set goals, initiate, plan, prioritize, organize and follow through with tasks, manage time constructively, be flexible and persistent in the face of obstacles, and sustain attention. Following are some strategies to help you.

1. Assume laziness is not the issue.
Understand that teens with executive function challenges have skill deficits and getting through the day is more effortful for them.

2. Pick your battles.
Teens can’t do everything. Your child may not be able to clean her room and do homework perfectly, but it may be more important that she learn to meet deadlines and understand schedules. Initially, focus on completing the homework and handing it in without worrying about how well it’s done. Once your teen finds her passion, quality will not be an issue.

3. Use natural or logical consequences.
Make sure the “punishment” makes sense in relationship to the “offense.” Access to privileges should be contingent on performance. Clarify specific single-step requests (“Turn off the TV now”), and use “if-then” warning statements. If your child fails to comply, follow through consistently.

4. Be willing to negotiate.
Always be reasonable and willing to make deals based on the specific circumstances. It’s not about winning; it’s about teaching skills and responsibility.

5. Involve others when you can.
Seek help if you need it. Third-party mediators such as tutors, teachers, guidance counselors and coaches may help you and your teen communicate better.

6. Build in verification.
Don’t take it on faith that your teen handed in his math homework every day. Just because the homework was completed and put in his backpack doesn’t mean it was handed in. Work out a system with teachers or counselors so you know how he’s doing.

7. Offer effective praise.
Your teen’s self esteem is paramount. If she is working hard and improving, stress her effort as opposed to how smart she is.

8. Set realistic goals.
Sometimes the best you can do is to keep your child in the game until his frontal lobe matures enough for him to become more independent and self-directed. For example, consider a “gap” year or local community college as an option until he’s developed enough self-discipline to be successful at a four-year college further from home.

9. Offer a range of opportunities.
Don’t narrow your teen’s options to find her passion. Keep as many doors open as possible until she finds something that excites and inspires her to reach for the stars.


Peg Dawson is a psychologist at the Center for Learning and Attention Disorders in Portsmouth, NH and a member of Smart KidsProfessional Advisory Board. Eve Kessler, Esq., a criminal appellate attorney with The Legal Aid Society, NYC, is co-founder and President of SPED*NET, Special Education Network of Wilton (CT), and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.