The journey from adolescence to independence can be a long and bumpy road for teen boys: they’re dealing with rapidly changing bodies, emerging feelings of sexuality, and establishing a sense of self-worth while managing increased academic demands and complex social interactions. That’s a lot for any adolescent, but when ADHD is added to the mix, the transition is even more fraught for teen males and their families.
Inattention, impulsivity, and restlessness—all characteristics of ADHD—leave these boys lagging behind their peers cognitively, socially, and emotionally. Rising testosterone levels and poor impulse control increase risk-taking behaviors; co-existing disorders, such as anxiety, OCD, or ODD intensify behavioral challenges; and changing brain chemistry causes executive function delays, which have greater consequences now that higher demands are being placed on them.
Next throw in the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, and getting through the day becomes even more challenging: These kids are fearful about the future, anxious about the lack of predictability, and frustrated by months without rewarding extracurricular activities. Changes in quarantine-related education continue to place tremendous demands on their lagging executive functions. While one of the most important developmental tasks for teenage boys is to separate from parents, their ADHD brains are not in a position to let them go it alone.
Many successful adults with ADHD acknowledge that the crucial factor for their achieving independence was the guidance and encouragement of an adult who never gave up on them. “The good news,” says Mary Anne Richey, a licensed school psychologist, “is that you can be that person for your son. You can teach him that his ADHD isn’t going to stop him from being successful.”
The following practical strategies can help promote your son’s growth and ease your own path as you guide him toward self-sufficiency. For each strategy, Richey suggests you begin by establishing open communication with your teen and hone your listening skills to form a strong partnership.
- Set realistic expectations. Make sure your dreams are in line with your teen’s capabilities. If not, re-think them and set reachable goals with agreed-upon check-ins, accountability, structure, and boundaries. Quarantine offers the luxury of time to understand your teen’s communication style and gain insight into his mindset.
- Identify what he can’t do for himself. Together, discuss and list specific things he needs help with and those he can do independently. For the “can’ts” encourage him to detail what causes the struggle and, if he’s unsure, brainstorm possible reasons: Is he overwhelmed by the scope of the task? Is it a novel task he’s never tried before? Does he have the required skill level? Is he stymied by anxiety or depression? Once you have a better understanding of the problems, you’ll be able to provide temporary supports that can be removed gradually as he masters the required skills.
- Implement needed support strategies. Maybe your teen can wake up independently and eat breakfast you’ve prepared but can’t get out the door—or onto his Zoom classroom—on time. Make a visual timed morning schedule: list each task; the time he predicts it will take; and the time it actually takes (eg., shower/ 5 minutes/8 minutes; eat/ 8 minutes/10 minutes; pack backpack/ 2 minutes/7 minutes). Review the areas that took him longer than expected and discuss what would help him stay on task without becoming distracted or wasting time. Implement strategies that can become automatic habits for life, such as having him organize his clothes and pack his backpack the night before or, during distance learning, have his morning classwork ready to access on the computer.
- Focus on specific strengths and passions. Characteristically, teens with ADHD are “big picture” thinkers rather than detail-oriented. They thrive on risks and being able to handle chaos. They tend to hyper-focus on things of interest, and are often creative with a keen sense of humor. Say your son excels at singing and performing: Read stories about actors and singers with ADHD, such as Justin Timberlake or Adam Levine, to motivate him to use his strengths. Review Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences (e.g., visual-spatial; verbal-linguistic; bodily-kinesthetic) and see if he can become more engaged as a learner to reach goals that are both appropriate and exciting.
- Shore up weaknesses that may be keeping him from using his strengths. Teens with ADHD struggle with weak executive functions (e.g., organizing, planning/problem solving, managing time, self-regulating). Have your son choose one area to focus on first—for example, managing his time to complete homework before nightly theater rehearsals. Give him strategies to strengthen his planning and time management skills. For instance, prioritize what’s important; chunk tasks into doable steps; keep complicated long-term projects in step-by-step order; and schedule each part in a calendar. Establish reachable goals, such as accurately estimating how long homework will take 80% of the time. Help him appreciate his progress, even if he’s made small steps. Don’t give up; if he continues to struggle, re-group and try another strategy.
- Help him recognize what’s holding him back from success. Does your teen have a balanced life with adequate sleep, nutrition, exercise, and down time? Does he understand his ADHD and how it affects him? If he is taking medication, is he taking it properly and is it working? When is he most successful and what contributes to that success? What stumbling blocks can he identify? For example, you and your son might determine that listening, especially for long periods of time, is a major problem at home and in school and that he listens best after his morning exercise routine or while he’s active.
- Discuss how to advocate for his needs. If movement is essential for successful listening and focus, request academic classes scheduled early in the day or after recess/gym, with a movement accommodation. During distance learning, plan movement breaks after each subject; allow him to stand or walk in circles around the desk for short lessons; exercise as a family at the end of the workday. Pinpoint additional supports, such as teachers who present information clearly and succinctly; making eye contact with teachers; and repeating important information or directions, even sub-vocally. Encourage him to figure out his own ways to recall information best (e.g., short-hand notes; quick drawings; voice-recording pens). If the listening activity involves follow-up, settle on a time when the task should be completed.
- Set the right example by modeling behavioral control, problem-solving skills, respect for others, and resilience after setbacks. Your son is watching and learning from your language and behavior. Share your thought processes for making choices and taking action and demonstrate how your decisions impact your sense of self-worth. For example, by advocating for your son’s special education services or Section 504 accommodations and modifications, you are demonstrating your problem-solving abilities and determination to work with others to find thoughtful solutions. As he watches and listens to you prepare and attends his team meetings with you, he will gain insight into how to advocate for himself as he transitions to his post-secondary path. If you’re unsuccessful with a request, show respect and self-control at the meeting and, afterwards, discuss with him how to handle setbacks thoughtfully and professionally.
This article is based on Game-Changing Strategies for Raising Teen Boys with ADHD, an ADDitude webinar, by Mary Anne Richey, M.Ed., a licensed school psychologist in private practice in Florida, who speaks about ADHD, executive functioning difficulties and learning disabilities, and has co-authored four books on ADHD, including Raising Boys with ADHD and The ADHD Empowerment Guide (Prufrock Press). Eve Kessler, Esq., a retired criminal appellate attorney, is the Executive Director of SPED*NET Wilton (CT) and a Contributing Editor of Smart Kids.