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 often overwhelmed by “gut” instincts rather than guided by thoughtful reasoning.
Everyone with ADHD has an executive function disorder, but so do many without attention deficits.
Thanks in part to underdeveloped executive functions during these turbulent years, teens can be woefully impulsive. They may lack the ability to consider consequences of their actions, control their emotions, sustain attention, be flexible when faced with setbacks, and self-monitor. They are likely candidates to engage in risky behaviors, including substance abuse, unprotected or random sex, gambling, eating disorders, self-mutilation, and preoccupation with appearance. Emotionally they may experience difficulties such as mood swings, suicidal thoughts, and aggressive behaviors. In school their poor planning and organizational skills may result in poor academic performance.
Improving EF Skills
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 adolescents to internalize the skills and strategies to become independent learners 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 begin to 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 peers. They often find creative ways to address problems, 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 possibilities to keep in mind.
Since many teens with learning and attention 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 friendships based on positive shared interests.
This article is based on a presentation by Peg Dawson, Ed.D., sponsored by Smart Kids with LD. Dawson is a psychologist at the Center for Learning and Attention Disorders in Portsmouth, NH and a member of Smart Kids’ Professional 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.