The Fine Art of Raising a Teen With ADHD

Parenting a teen with ADHD is a delicate balance of teaching independence and responsibility and then reining it in when necessary. ADHD Expert Eileen Bailey shares step-by-step tips that she has gathered through years of experience to help guide you through these challenging years.

The teenage years are enough to make any parent cringe.  Living with a teen is spending your days waiting for the next battle to erupt, only to be surprised once in a while with a hug or a long talk.  Parenting teens involves devising ways to help them become self sufficient, make good decisions and use good judgment while keeping track of where they are going and who they are with.  As parents of teens, we walk a tight rope of teaching independence and reining it in.

When the teenager also has ADHD, this often bumpy road can become more of a roller coaster ride.  Children with ADHD tend to be emotionally immature.  Their chronological age may differ widely from their emotional one.  As my son was growing up, we would see periods of time when he acted much younger than his age and others when he would show maturity beyond his years.  Trying to keep up with his emotional needs throughout this time was almost impossible.  When teens are emotionally immature, they cannot handle the responsibilities normally placed on someone their age.  They may not be able to hold a job or may not be able to keep up with schoolwork.  Their social interactions will be impacted even more so. 

For parents, this places them in a constant battle with their teen. While friends or classmates may show signs of self-reliance and be awarded with privileges, your teen may not be ready.  You may want to provide opportunities for freedom by letting them stay out later or leaving your teen home by themselves for extended periods, but may be wary of the consequences of these actions.  It is important to understand your teen and what they are capable of handling.

It is possible to learn to balance their need for independence while providing support and guidance.

Determine where your child is emotionally.  Work your expectations based on where they are right now, rather than where you feel they should be.  Keep your expectations realistic based on their emotional age rather than their chronological age.  Teens often want to stay out later and get a part time job.  Based on where your child is emotionally, determine if these are good ideas.  Try to find some compromises that will work for both of you.  Maybe you can find work around your house or ask friends and relatives if they have some chores that they could use some help with.  This way, you can monitor the situation and see if there are some areas your child needs help with before getting a “real” job.  Do they need to work on following directions or staying on task?  Do they need assistance in creating a goal or completing steps?  If your teen is looking to stay out later on the weekends, maybe you can gradually increase the curfew, letting them know that if they do not follow the curfew, it will be decreased by ½ hour.

Set up house rules.  Divide your rules into two categories: negotiable rules and non-negotiable rules.  Negotiable rules would be items like curfew, where your teen would be able to modify the rules based on their behaviors.  Non-negotiable rules are those that cannot be tolerated such as no drugs or no alcohol.  For the negotiable rules, determine beforehand what behaviors will allow for modifications.  If they hand in all homework for the entire week, will they be able to stay out later on the weekend? You might even enlist the help of your teen in setting the rules and the limits and changes.  Rules always have a better chance of being followed when the teen participates in creating them.  For the non-negotiable rules, decide ahead of time consequences for their actions.  This way, when something happens, you will not react emotionally but can deal with the situation in a more controlled manner.  Work with your spouse on setting up consequences so that you both know exactly what will happen and let your teen know how situations will be handled beforehand.

Keep track of their progress in school.  Although your child may now be in high school, they will still need you to monitor schoolwork.  Check with teachers on a regular basis to be sure they are handing in work and keeping up with assignments.  If it is necessary, look into tutoring programs.  Many schools offer tutoring for free.  Your teen may be embarrassed at having trouble in school, so be understanding. During the teen years, fitting in is extremely important and working with a tutor may be something they reject.  Be persistent if you feel it is necessary.  Let your teen know of the consequences for not doing well at school.  Are they going to be grounded?  Will they need to give up their part time job?  Stay consistent with your approach.

Social lives become of paramount importance to teenagers. Social skills, however, are sometimes lacking in teens with ADHD.   If you see your teen spending much of their time alone or they don’t seem to have many friends, try to find some activities in your area they can join.  Does a local church or YMCA have a youth group?  Are there extra classes in a subject they are interested in, such as art or music?  The sense of belonging can go a long way to improving self-esteem.   

Driving is another area teens want to develop their independence.  Start slowly and determine if your teen is ready.  Some parents prefer to wait until a teen is older, either 17 or 18, before allowing them to drive.  This would depend on your child and whether you believe they are responsible enough to be behind the wheel of a car.  Start off slowly and provide lessons on driving as well as driving safety.  You might want to insist on a driver’s education course.  If your teen does start driving, limit the number of passengers that can be in the car.  Go over the rules before they begin and let them know of the consequences well in advance.  If you set the limit for passengers to one and you find out they had three friends in the car with them, what will happen?  Make sure you set consequences that you are willing to follow through with the first and every time.

Modify your reward and consequences on a regular basis so that they are appropriate for your child.  What works one month may not work several months later.  Although consistency is important, being sure your discipline is centered on both their chronological and emotional age is just as important.  Rewards and consequences that are based on their wants will be most effective.  If they want to stay out late, then curfew may be a good place to start.  If they want to drive, then use driving lessons or the use of the car as a reward for certain behaviors.  They will be more apt to follow your rules if they will receive some benefit from it.  Keep feedback as immediate as possible.

Teenagers can be moody and depressed one moment and upbeat and happy the next.  With ADHD, there are certain co-existing conditions that are common.   Depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder are several of them.  If your teen is showing signs of these disorders, make sure to take them to the doctor.  Depression is serious and can be mistaken for normal teenage moodiness.  If your teen is really having a hard time, a doctor would be able to help you sort out whether it is something more serious. 

Take the time to enjoy your teen.  Find ways to spend time together.  Find times to talk together and listen to their concerns about their life.  Many teens with ADHD feel isolated and alone.  Make sure your teen knows that you are there and that you want to help them without overwhelming them.  Let them know everyday that you love them.


Robin, PhD, Arthur. "Principles for Parenting the Adolescent with ADHD." Attention Deficit Disorder Association. <>.

"Behavioral Treatment for Children and Teenagers with AD/HD." National Resource Center on AD/HD. <>.


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