I just get so mad, but I want to do the right thing. She doesn’t do her work and I don’t know if she didn’t know about it or if she is lying about it. She doesn’t want my help and doesn’t seem to care if she doesn’t do well. And I know that ADHD makes her forget and get distracted and I still get mad anyway.
—Isabelle, mother of a 16 year old with ADHD
Being the parent of a teen with ADHD can be hard. The stress that wears on marriages and families is an under-addressed aspect of living with ADHD, which one of us (Dr. Bertin) sees often in his practice as a developmental pediatrician. That, along with Dr. Bluth’s experience teaching self-compassion to teens, and new research regarding the real-life benefits of self-compassion practices, made us want to offer parents ways to build their own resilience while raising a teenager with ADHD.
Moving through the challenging teen years requires seeing the experience of ADHD with both clarity and compassion—for your child, but also for yourself.
Our new book Mindfulness and Self-Compassion for Teen ADHD provides a way for your child to approach their ADHD with greater self-compassion, which then opens the door for them to take steps to learn the essential skills to meet academic challenges, improve time management, and deal with social encounters with greater ease. Meanwhile, what can you do for yourself so that you can maintain your own sense of well-being and, at the same time, be a steady and stable presence for your child? Here are four important steps.
Step one: Educate yourself about ADHD
ADHD doesn’t just involve challenges with attention; it affects overall self-management skills. You may have heard the term “executive function”—this is the process through which we make decisions, manage our emotions, monitor time, and handle multi-step projects. Executive function includes the skills we use to accomplish long-term goals. ADHD represents a wide-ranging developmental delay of these executive function abilities.
Most teens strive to be independent. They want to make their own decisions and often don’t yet know when, or how, to ask for help. With ADHD, they need extra support with self-management skills to set their goals, as well as meet the ones they do choose for themselves.
If your teen has ADHD, they may be bright and seem in some ways more like 15 years old going on 20—and yet, when it comes to judgment and planning, may have abilities that are more like 15 going on 10. While your friends’ kids are becoming more independent and planning their futures, thinking about college and beyond, your child may struggle to get this week’s science project done by Friday. It’s not their fault, and it’s not yours; it’s their ADHD getting in the way.
Getting to know the intricacies of ADHD is necessary for you to help support your child in establishing proactive, wide-ranging solutions. If your teen has a hard time planning or keeping track of their schoolwork, they may need an adult support system to stay on track and, over time, build independence. It isn’t something that can be overcome by willpower alone, as managing ADHD usually requires a combination of tools and habits. Realistic solutions meet children where they are developmentally: wonderfully energetic and creative in many ways, and needing support in self-management skills.
Step two: Start with mindfulness
Raising a teen who is striving to be independent but still not yet fully equipped with the skills that allow them to do so can be exhausting. No one handles difficult situations well when feeling overwhelmed. ADHD can create a cycle of ramping up stress in ways that not only make you feel bad, but make it harder to manage ADHD, which in turn makes you feel more stressed—which is true for teens, and for you.
Practicing mindfulness builds our ability to relate skillfully to whatever is actually going on in the moment. When we take a moment to pause and step out of our habitual way of reacting, we are able to choose the best way forward—which could mean making a more appropriate and effective decision, for example, on how to respond to our child rather than our usual knee-jerk response. A 2021 study in the Journal of Attention noted that after an eight-week mindfulness program, parents experienced less parenting stress, beneficial changes to their parenting style, and improvements in their children’s ADHD symptoms.
As often as you remember, you can take a breath and notice the sensation of the breath in your nose, mouth, or diaphragm area. Even for one moment, see if you can just feel your breath, and not think about your lengthy to-do list. Simply focus on what it feels like as you breathe. Then set an intention to manage whatever is going on around you with compassion, remembering that your child is struggling to make sense of their world and figure out how to accomplish tasks, and is doing the best they can—even if it sometimes doesn’t seem that way to you.
Step three: Put money in your relationship bank
As psychologist Wendy Mogel suggests, put effort into building positive connections with your teen when the opportunity arises. That not only builds an emotional support for them, it allows for your relationship to stay strong over time. To avoid a feeling of negativity and constant conflict, build up your relationship first: Value your child’s strengths, give them your full attention, and schedule and protect fun time together. Then when you have more challenging moments, it becomes like drawing from a bank of positivity—you tap into that bank account and your relationship can manage the bumps along the way.
What might that look like? For Isabelle, the mom quoted at the start of the article, it meant getting back to the kitchen. She and her daughter loved cooking together, yet hadn’t done that much for a couple of years. So, they agreed to cook a meal together once a week, protecting that one night together, while Isabelle let her daughter select the recipes. The overall tone of their conflicts changed in part because of this emotional reconnection.
Also recognize that while your teen has ADHD-related challenges, they also have gifts and talents. You’ll benefit, and they’ll feel the difference, when you chose to value and focus on those strengths. Caught up in what is often called negativity bias, we tend to focus only on what seems problematic. We can create balance by remembering to attend to what there is to appreciate about them also.
Similarly, in your relationship, beware of the mental habit of comparison. President Theodore Roosevelt said, “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Notice when you’re comparing your child to someone else. It’s an insidious habit to compare our lives, and our children, to pictures of how things “should” be. We don’t have to be happy about everything in our lives, but letting go of comparison goes a long way to finding more ease with day-to-day family life.
Step four: Practice self-compassion
As the parent of a teen with ADHD, on one hand, you want to give them the room to grow that you know they need, and to make their own decisions. But it may feel like as soon as you give them a little rope to do that, it doesn’t turn out as you hoped. That creates an opportunity for a self-compassion practice—starting with you.
Basically, self-compassion is about giving yourself kindness and support when you most need it—when you’re in a place where you feel like you’ve failed or are failing, where you’re struggling, are frustrated, and can’t keep up. It has three parts:
- Mindfulness: It is an act of self-care, in a way, to fully acknowledge what’s going on in any moment. If something good is going on, we might otherwise miss out if we’re still caught up in an argument or anxiety. And if something challenging is going on, it’s valuable to simply notice: I’m feeling annoyed and frightened and kind of sad right now. This is what’s going on for me.
- Recognize your “common humanity”: When things feel bad or we think we’ve screwed something up, we tend to feel isolated. It often feels like we’re the only person who ever felt the way we’re feeling. Part of our practice can be the simple reminder that all people go through times feeling anxious, scared, or lonely—just like this.
- Focus on self-kindness: Most of us parents have an over-active, loud inner critic constantly heckling us about how we’re doing. You’re the worst, you blew it again, how come you can’t figure this out? We can build our self-compassion muscle by reminding ourselves that it is possible to treat ourselves like we treat our best friend. Capturing that feeling might mean something physical, like stroking your arms or putting your hand on your heart. Or you could say to yourself something you might to a close friend or child: Don’t worry, it’s going to be OK. Something will work out.
Research suggests that mindfulness and self-compassion for parents really helps—not only by making you feel better, but your teen, as well. In a 2014 survey study, when parents were more mindful while parenting, their teens had better mental health. Specifically, the aspect of mindful parenting that was associated with teens’ mental health was parents’ non-judgmental acceptance of their parenting functioning. So, when parents were less self-critical—read more self-compassionate—their teens had less anxiety and depression. Similar results were found in a 2018 Mindfulness study, in which parents who were more mindful had teens who were more self-compassionate, and those self-compassionate teens had better overall mental health.
Creating a safe and supportive container for your teen
The art of raising teens means giving them room to explore and learn from mistakes, while also keeping them safe through boundaries and supports. Those boundaries represent the outside of their safe container (another idea from Dr. Mogel), the times where you step in to keep them healthy and safe.
Within the container you create, let teens explore. Teens learn from experience. Think about it: How much did you learn from what your parents told you versus what you did—including the mistakes you made? Give your teen as much freedom as they can handle and still be safe and successful. For those decisions that they are capable of making themselves—let them at it!
At the same time, monitor for when to step in. There will be times when, because their executive function skills are still developing, they need support to make a healthy decision. Remember, executive function challenges may look like low motivation or even not caring, but quite often are their ADHD symptoms acting up. Try this once in a while: Examine an ongoing challenge that your teen experiences and consider what you would do if you knew it were 100% related to their ADHD and had nothing to do with effort, choice, or will.
Not only does ADHD affect their planning, but teens with ADHD are often not yet fully aware of the impact of their ADHD and therefore may resist the need for intervention. Part of the long-term plan is to help them understand and manage their ADHD independently, but short-term they may still require your more adult perspective.
Most of all, remember that the hardest job in the world is being a parent. Give yourself a break. That means when you mess up, or become exasperated and lose your temper, remember that you’re human, that you’re struggling along with so many other parents. And whenever you can, take some time to care for yourself. Like everyone else, you deserve it.