How to Effectively Communicate with Your ADHD Teen

Posted on February, 27, 2024 by

During their teen years, our kids can become especially sensitive to what we say, or rather how they process what we say.  I remember asking my son when he was in 9th grade to do his homework for the 4th time.  His response was, “Okay, just stop yelling at me!” Yelling, who’s yelling?  I said something one way, and he heard the same words in a completely different way.  

We all know the words we choose and the tone in which we deliver them impact how we make others feel.  Adding in the emotion that comes along with being a parent, and communication can get tricky, especially with teens who are often smack in the middle of a rollercoaster of emotions typical of their phase of development.

Let’s look at some ways to communicate with your teen that may improve your desired outcome. 

Scenario 1: Your son is in 9th grade and has a math worksheet due every Wednesday. He rarely turns it in, and his grade is tanking. He has hockey practice every Tuesday night. Every week you say, “I’m not taking you to hockey practice until you finish your math homework” and he responds with, “I’ll do it when I get home!”, which he never does. Should you take him anyway? The answer is no, but you would feel badly because missing practice might mean he won’t play in the next game. Plus, the thought of dealing with the fallout is exhausting. But it’s still a “no” because you have to change the cycle.  

Try saying this instead, “as soon as you show me your math homework, I’ll be happy to take you to practice, so finish up and we can go!” In this instance, you removed yourself as the bad guy and placed the responsibility on him. The key is to communicate your expectations beforehand and then follow through. He will likely be shocked if you don’t take him to practice, but it’s also more likely he will get his homework done. When he shows you his completed math homework, reinforce the desired behavior.  “Yes! I knew you could do it! Let’s get you to practice!” Maybe do a happy dance on the way to the car.  

Scenario 2: Have you ever found yourself saying something like, “If your grades don’t improve, you’ll never get into college and spend your whole life serving up burgers and fries” or something along those lines? That’s called “catastrophizing”, and saying something dramatic like that in the hopes of lighting a fire under your child shows you are a frustrated parent and worried about your child. However, the “if you don’t do your homework, you’re going to flunk out and live on the streets” does not help. It will ramp up their anxiety and may cause them to shut down even more. 

When you feel yourself on the verge of exploding, take a time-out immediately. When you calm down and can think more clearly, ask your child if it’s a good time to talk. Ask questions like, “What do you think keeps you from getting your homework done on time?” If they say they don’t know, explain you understand it is stressful, but you truly want to help them. Possibly prompt with reasons, such as: are they struggling in a class or do they have enough time in their schedule?  Maybe their anxiety keeps them from getting started.  This kind of dialogue will help you pinpoint where the issue lies so you can help.

If your teen has ADHD, it is imperative to use supportive language. It’s easy to get frustrated, tensions run high and it’s common to blurt out, “You’re just lazy!”, and there goes their self-esteem because the word “lazy” means they don’t care enough or they’re not good enough.  Granted, ADHD often manifests in teens via a lack of motivation and effort and it’s hard to watch.  

A better way to handle this is to say nothing until you’ve calmed down.  Grab a coffee, meditate, call your therapist…whatever it takes. When everyone is calm, validate, “I know school is exhausting and having ADHD makes it extra hard to stay on top of things and that’s okay, let’s think of ways to help you with school.”  Students who have ADHD generally have beaten themselves up often enough for falling short even though they may look like they don’t care. I promise you; they do.

For more tips on how to communicate with your student, I suggest reading, What Do You Say? By William Stixrud and Ned Johnson.