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Parenting Teenagers with ADHD:
Finding the Joy

Chris A. Zeigler Dendy, M.S



Part II in a two part series published in CHADD's ATTENTION magazine:

In the last newsletter the academic and behavioral challenges that so often accompany ADHD were discussed. In addition the typical teen challenges of achieving independence plus more serious issues such as driving, drug use, suicide risk, and brushes with the law were reviewed. Several intervention strategies were suggested. (Please note that this article was published nearly 10 years ago. Our sons are older, more mature and still doing well.)

Part II

Thankfully the challenging teenage years are now behind our family. Our sons Steven and Alex are now 31 and 27, respectively, and have grown up to be responsible, productive adults. Steven, our oldest, is a college graduate, married, the father of two children, owns his home, and has a wonderful management job in a manufacturing plant. Alex is only two courses shy of college graduation and is looking forward to a career in the criminal justice or computer fields. Early on we made a conscious decision to accept the fact that our boys might be on a six to eight year college plan. In the overall scheme of a 70 year life span, two or three extra years in college are not a big deal.

Looking back

However, our lives have not always looked so rosy and optimistic. When our sons were in high school my husband and I both had serious doubts whether or not they would graduate from high school, let alone be successful in college. Fortunately, high school grades were not a good predictor of their performance in college. Although Steven struggled initially, he graduated from college making mostly A's and B's in his major classes. The same has been true for Alex; they both have been on the Dean's list several times.

Reframing: Taking a Second Look at Strengths

Thankfully, the perception of "good and bad" behavior changes with the passage of time. Certain behaviors that are not endearing in children may be highly valued in adults. For example, although hyperactivity is not particularly desirable in school, "high energy" and the ability to work long hours at the office is highly valued. So it is critically important for parents to learn to reframe, or look at "negative" ADHD behaviors in a positive way and share this philosophy with their child. In the following paragraphs, several examples are given for reframing some of our sons' so called, "negative ADHD behaviors".

  • Our son, Steven, with his classic ADHD combined type, was a charming class clown. His teachers always loved him. Sometimes he could get away with saying or doing things because his teachers liked him. Typically if he got into trouble, he was able to talk them into giving milder punishments. These adaptive skills serve him well in his present work. Like many youngsters with ADHD, he never meets a stranger. Customers find him personable and entertaining. He also gets along well with the employees he supervises.

    During the teen years, Steven and his father engaged in loud confrontive arguments. Steven could always hold his own with his Dad. He is very verbal and expresses himself quite well. He is not intimidated by anyone and is not afraid to express his opinions. Now that he is an adult, we can appreciate these skills more fully. The days of loud arguments are long since gone. Steven and his Dad love to fish together. Today, my husband can truthfully say, "Steven is my best friend."

    Steven also has a gift for working on mechanical things. He could repair just about anything on his car. His pride in his car was obvious: it was always spotlessly clean. Unfortunately, neither son had this same standard of cleanliness for their rooms or the garage. Now that they are older, their organization and cleanliness have improved.

    Steven started college prior to diagnosis of his ADHD. Although he never failed a course, "he was invited to leave" after his first year because of his grades. Ultimately, this was actually a blessing in disguise. He went to work in a graphic arts company where he learned the basic skills necessary for working in a paper board packaging company. At age twenty, his ADHD was finally diagnosed. He returned to college and took Ritalin to help him study. His grades improved dramatically from D's to A's and B's.

    After graduating, he accepted a management job with the company. He found a career that was a perfect match: a job that required constant activity, dealing with people, working with his hands, utilizing mechanical skills, plus having a high energy level that allows him to easily work long hours.

  • Our second son, Alex, has ADHD/inattentive so we dealt with a different set of issues with him. He had serious learning problems that were never officially diagnosed and as a result he struggled in school. Although intellectually gifted, he hated school and barely got through by the skin of his teeth. Unlike Steven, Alex was more reserved and distant from most of his teachers. Sometimes he couldn't even remember their names much less try to charm them.

    Surprise! Surprise! Alex actually did better in college than he did in high school. We found that college faculty members were more flexible and accommodating than most of his high school teachers. Pursuant to Section 504 he received critical accommodations in classes plus took a lighter load of 12 hours. He had untimed tests, early registration, pick of the teachers, and scheduled classes later in the morning so as to work around his sleep disturbance. Interestingly enough, college students actually spend fewer hours in class each week than high school students do-12-15 hours vs. 30.

    Alex has always loved electronic gadgets. He loves operating them, taking them apart, but not always putting them back together. But even this irritating behavior ultimately has produced a positive outcome. Thankfully, at his present age, he is much better about putting them back together. As a result of his curiosity, he has learned a tremendous amount about electricity, electronics, electrical wiring, and operation of business machines.

    Computer science and electronics are major strengths for Alex. He is a wizard working on his computer. He can repair them, rebuild them, and program almost anything. If any of my business machines, phones, or our VCR breaks down, Alex is the one we call to repair it. Although Alex's college major is criminal justice, his minor is in computer science.

    Alex has also become quite proficient at home repair. After renting an apartment that looked like a bomb shelter, he spackled the holes in the ceiling and walls, installed a ceiling fan and air-conditioning unit, replaced plumbing, plus repaired the electrical wiring. I'm certain his grades suffered some but he still passed everything. But what wonderful life skills he learned!

Leaving You with Food For Thought

Most parents do the very best job they can raising their children, yet often worry that it isn't good enough. Consequently, Dr. Russell Barkley's comments provide much needed reassurance, "The good news is that most parents of ADHD children are doing things right....typical parental mistakes are not irreparable or long lasting."

Here are a several parenting suggestions that my family has found effective:

     1) Praise or reward good behavior and impose reasonable consequences for inappropriate behavior without obliterating the teen's self esteem.
     2) Take charge and change the things you can. Actions that parents can take to influence a child's successful outcome include: seek accommodations at school to ensure academic success, fine-tune medication, use positive parenting practices, provide supervision, avoid hostile interactions and harsh punishment, avoid nagging and personal attacks, and last and perhaps most importantly, believe in your child!
     3) Consequences should be instructive, not just punitive! Teach your child skills or to compensate for his deficits, rather than simply punish him for lacking essential life skills.
     4) Be positive. Reframe ADHD behaviors! Parents must continually monitor their negative thoughts, comments and actions and make a special effort to recognize and praise the child's strengths and successes. View the "cup as half full rather than half empty". Just as we did with our boys, take a closer second look at ADHD behaviors to find and nurture their positive elements.
     5) Stay centered and steady in your belief in your child's ultimate success! Parents may see their teenager struggling at school, having conflicts with authority figures or perhaps even having a few brushes with law enforcement. As a result, the family is often bombarded with negative messages from a variety of sources: the school, counselors, doctors, or the juvenile court system. We hear the classic lines: "He could do it if he would only try. You've got to punish him. He has to be responsible for his actions.
      A positive self-fulfilling philosophy is very powerful: if you convey by word and action that you expect your teenager to be responsible, he will usually rise to your expectations. In other words, if parents believe their teenager is "good and will succeed in life, then he probably will. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true. If parents think their teenager is "bad" and treat him as though he is "bad", the teenager will have greater difficulty succeeding.
     6) Treat your teenager as a partner and involve him in the problem-solving process. Empower teenagers, treat them with respect, listen to and address their concerns.
     7) Listen to your teenager! For example if medication refusal is a problem, you may find-if you ask-that they are too embarrassed to go to the office to take it.
     8) "Keep a disability perspective" is excellent advice given by Dr. Russell Barkley! For some of these children ADHD is truly a disability. I frequently have to remind myself of these words of wisdom. The invisible nature of ADHD as a disability makes it so easy to assume that the child could do the task if he would just try. A child with diabetes would not be blamed or punished for his inability to regulate blood sugar levels. Similarly, children with ADHD can't regulate the level of their neurotransmitters and should not just be punished for their "ADHD behaviors".
     9) Remember that "ADHD behaviors" are part of the condition; not malicious misbehavior! Because of their four to six year developmental lag, they may act less mature and assume less responsibility. Because they are impulsive, they don't always think of the consequences before they act or speak. Because they are forgetful and disorganized, they may forget chores or assignments, lose things or have a bedroom that is a wreck. Because of their impaired sense of time, they are going to be late. Because of their sleep disturbances, they have trouble falling asleep or may be extremely difficult to wake up. Because they don't learn from punishment and reward as easily as other children, they will be more difficult to discipline and may repeat misbehavior.
     10) Try a few of my favorite parenting strategies:
       a. If you can't change the "ADHD behavior", change the environment. Buy your tardy child a wrist watch alarm or beep him when he is due home.
       b. Use depersonalization. Try saying, "Teenagers with ADHD often have trouble remembering their homework assignments. Sometimes this seems to be true for you. How can I help you solve this problem?"
       c. Give choices. Teenagers who are given choices are more compliant, less aggressive, and produce more school work. "Do you want to start homework at 7:00 or 7:30?"
       e.Teach skills. Teach time management, social skills, study skills, or anger management.

In Closing

Sometimes we forget that ADHD is no picnic for our children! They did not ask to have this disorder. An eight-year-old child prayed, "Dear God, please don't let me have ADHD." A teenager cried, "Am I going to feel this way all my life? I feel like I am going to die of anxiety or go crazy."

Although parenting these children is often more difficult, requires more energy, and takes longer than for other children, don't give up. Continue to believe in yourself and in your teenager! Hopefully, you will be as lucky as my husband and I: as young adults, our sons are our best friends.

Please spend a few minutes now and take a second look at teenagers from a fresh vantage point. What are their strengths and special talents? Involve them as a partner: a partner who, with your love and support, will try their best to cope successfully with this challenge called ADHD!

Written in loving memory of my father,

JUDGE William L. ABNEY, JR
ADHD at its best!!
October 24, 1916      June 15, 1997

References:
Barkley, Russell A. Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. New York: The Guilford Press, 2006.
Dendy, Chris A. Zeigler Teaching Teens with ADD, ADHD, and Executive Function Deficits, 2nd ed. (Summary 28). Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House, 2000, 2011
Dendy, Chris A. Zeigler Teenagers with ADD and ADHD. Bethesda, MD: Woodbine House, 1995, 2006.

Chris Dendy has over 40 years experience as a teacher, school psychologist, mental health counselor and administrator plus perhaps more importantly, she is the mother of two grown sons and a daughter with ADHD. Ms. Dendy is the author of three popular books on ADHD and producer of three videotapes, Real Life ADHD (DVD), Teen to Teen: the ADD Experience (VHS) and Father to Father (VHS). She is also cofounder of Gwinnett County CHADD (GA), former member of the national CHADD Board of Directors from 2001 - 2005, and a recipient of CHADD's Hall of Fame Award.

For more information contact CHADD at 8181 Professional Place, Suite 201, Landover, MD 20875; www.chadd.org