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Raising Our Teens with ADHD: Take a Deep Breath

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I had a major win last week.

My young adult child planned to get up early for her summer job.  Watching her make choices the night before gave me that familiar sinking feeling in my gut.  Should I say something while she stays up chatting with friends well into the night?  Should I step back and let her own up to her decisions? After mentioning that it was late (probably one statement too many, she knows how to tell time), I went to bed with a heavy heart.

Morning came, and I did not hear her moving about yet.  My girl usually starts her day singing, which thrills me, but there was no melody coming through her closed door.  Uh oh! I called to check that she was alive and listened as she frantically leaped out of bed, realizing she was running very late and had already missed the bus.

I had to physically keep myself in my room to hold myself back from racing in to save her and drop her at work.  While I waited in agony, the magic began to happen.  I heard her grab her bike, dust it off, and charge out the door at full speed, which she is great at.  She sent me a WhatsApp about half an hour later telling me how much she loved the bike ride, although it was really hard with all the hills, and that she had gotten to work almost on time.

When I mentioned how proud I was of myself to a friend, she looked disturbed.  Really?  Your great success was that you didn’t help your daughter?

Yup! As a mom of six children, a good number of them diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), allow me to explain why not helping my adult child was just right for both of us. 

People ask me all the time how they can get their older teens and young adults with ADHD symptoms motivated to get it together and grow up.  Here is a cold, hard fact.  You can’t get them going – they are already adults!  There are two secrets to helping them start engaging life seriously and taking charge of their own decisions.

  1. Our older children need to be exposed to failure and frustration as much as they need to enjoy success. Both are positive character-building experiences.  Success pushes them to want to do another victory lap, while failure helps them recalibrate.  In other words, they must either experience success or have a learning experience.
  2. Our big kids must want to succeed. We can’t want for them or force them to want. They will only put in the work to gain skills when they know they need them and feel uncomfortable without them or rewarded when they have them.

Where does that leave us well-meaning parents?  We make mistakes as we try to help our children succeed, and that’s ok because our mistakes are learning experiences for us, which hopefully leads us to be more sensitive and wiser.  Our first mistake is lecturing and reminding and turning ourselves into annoying flies buzzing around our kids’ ears, thereby forcing them to become professional mom-and-dad-swatters.  Our reminders are meaningless to them. They have to choose to do well.  Our next mistake is charging in to save our kids when they are irresponsible or don’t get the job done on their own.

Kids who always get help become helpless adults. Kids who always need saving become passive adults.  The more we save, the less our children see themselves as the masters of their destiny with the internal power to affect outcomes.  Bubble-wrapped kids don’t scrape their knees, so they never learn to avoid the branch that caused them to trip.  They are not happy that they always need our help to succeed, but they get very comfortable with it and expect little of themselves.  The result is a child who does not believe in her ability to succeed independently, followed by the development of a very low self-perception.

In my practice, I meet with adults who were saved too often as children.  While they are constantly disappointed with their nagging failures, they are missing the life-learned skills to succeed.  They don’t know the mechanism of seeing a problem, weighing options, making choices, and owning the outcome.  They have no confidence in their ability to succeed without assistance, and as adults, they hate themselves for it.  Our kids are healthy but still lack essential habits and skills, which they need to develop as they enter adult life.  Our “rescue and criticize” mentality is getting in the way of that process.

This is scary stuff for a parent. I am suggesting that we step back and let our older children make mistakes.  We will only pull this off if we gain some perspective ourselves.  Let us take a collective deep breath and understand that it is less important for this young adult to succeed today and much more important that he set himself on a path to success by experiencing failures now.

We must also internalize that our hope for him is not perfection. It is progress.  My daughter made great progress when she was able to think creatively and remember her old bike.  Even more progress, she realized that she had only herself to rely on to get herself to work.  The success was so sweet when she did it on her own.

And then there were the fails.  Staying up late and then oversleeping is not healthy. It’s a habit that needs repair.  Being forced to ride a bike rather than sit on a comfortable bus drove the message home for her. Will it take a few more times for this message to sink in fully? Probably.  The process is powerful as long as we can maintain some self-control and have faith in it.  Stepping back is not abandonment. It is a statement of confidence in our children.

Now we can discuss the second step, helping our older kids want to succeed and gain missing skills to get to that success.  Do we have a role there?  Yes, an essential one.  If we can pull back, stop with the buzzing warnings, reminders, criticism, and loud disappointment, we can allow our children to see us as sounding boards and allies.  This is the only way we can help them develop the skills they are missing.

A constructive conversation about strategy, analysis of how to make better choices, and what was learned from a bad choice can only happen with a supportive parent who is comfortable with the process and mistakes. In addition, if we are consistent in our own lives and are examples of people who live with passion and choice, our kids will turn to us for conversation and exploration.  A wise man once told me, “Talk to the walls. Your teens are not listening. But while they sleep, the walls will whisper all the messages into their ears”.  Instead of lecturing, be a good example. Be a person your child wants to emulate. She will see and feel it without all the words.

Raising healthy children with ADHD symptoms can be tough.  Trust me, I know!  If our mindset is that a child will succeed when we give her the space, and we celebrate success while being comfortable with learning experiences, she will engage in the process of “adulting.”  Our children are our greatest gift because they demand that we grow up ourselves and become healthy, driven, consistent examples.  They train us to gain insight into when to step in and when to give loving space.

Here’s the rule my husband and I have agreed to work hard to uphold.  With older kids, when in doubt, step out!  Be there to discuss, support, and advise when it is requested.  Don’t save, don’t scold!  And most important of all, know in your heart that the journey is long and wonderful, packed with success, heartbreak, and learning experiences that will escort our children to adulthood in the best and only correct way possible.  Here’s hoping that in this delicate and magnificent dance of raising our kids, we will have many wins and learning experiences.  Our adult children will thank us for our good judgment and faith in them.

About the Author: Avigail Gimpel, M.S.,  is a college lecturer, practitioner in private practice, parent educator, and author of the recently published book  HyperHealing – The Empowered Parent’s Complete Guide to Raising a Healthy Child with ADHD Symptoms.

Her passion is helping children and teenagers with ADHD, conduct disorder, or learning disabilities flourish and achieve their best.

Visit Avigail at https://www.hyperhealing.org/ or follow her on Instagram for daily tips and advice on how to raise healthy children with ADHD symptoms.

Want to read HyperHealing? Check out the link above!

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October is ADHD Awareness Month

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common neurodevelopmental disorders of childhood, affecting over 6.1 million children in the United States. Adults can also struggle with ADHD, as described in our 2020 guest blog post What Adult ADHD Is Like for People at Midlife makes clear.

The purpose of ADHD Awareness Month is to raise awareness of ADHD, remove the stigma, and highlight the available supports that enable individuals and families to thrive with ADHD.

Jay Boll
Editor in Chief

Photo by Jared Sluyter on Unsplash

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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