Deb Toering is a Board Certified Professional Christian Counselor (BCPCC) in private practice at Trinity Family Counseling Center. In addition to working with a wide range of client populations and presenting issues, Deb is also an engaging public speaker. She has spoken in front of various groups across a range of topics including marriage, bullying, ADHD/ADD, and teen leadership.
A desperate parent, baffled by the discovery that their teen has 25 missing school assignments, will call me, pleading for help. The parent is devastated to discover their teen has been lying about the schoolwork, always reporting that it’s caught up. By this time the teen may be exhibiting signs of depression and anxiety.
This is such a common scenario with teens who have undiagnosed ADHD. Why?
Students may do well in elementary school, but middle school and high school bring new challenges; changing classes in middle school and the increased difficulty of high school assignments, may cause them to begin to fall apart and fall behind. Once they get behind, things begin to snowball. Some students may give up entirely and just stop making any effort at all. There is guilt then shame from the lying. They feel like a failure. Depression sets in.
ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) is a neurological condition that can present as hyperactivity, inattention or both. It affects the executive function aspect of the brain which includes attention, memory, self-control, following directions, organization, planning, follow-through; many of the things necessary for academic success. In addition, these students have an interest-based ability to focus. In other words, it is extremely difficult to focus on the things they do not find interesting or that are difficult. Those 25 missing assignments could be in math, if the student finds math difficult and uninteresting. Add to this mix an impulsive nature and need for excitement, they may already be seeking more stimulating experiences such as drugs, alcohol or sex. These things also offer some temporary relief from the pain of failure and shame.
The worst thing a parent can do at this point is to punish or demean or to say that if only they would try harder, have more discipline, etc. Parents, why would your teen want to fail? There is a reason if ADHD is in operation.
There may be other things that you as a parent have been battling at home in addition to the schoolwork. A messy room, constant video games, frustration that there is little follow-through in what you have asked them to do. The relationship is probably strained from all the nagging about homework and other problems at home. Your teen has already got the message that he is a disappointment, that he is lazy and that there is something wrong with him. He may be isolating in his room, fearful that whenever he emerges there will be more nagging, yelling and questions about why things aren’t getting done. It is a vicious cycle. As a parent, you are exhausted and desperate for some solutions. ADHD is an invisible disability. Your teen looks “normal,” but so few will understand the struggles. This is what makes the journey even more difficult and frustrating.
The first step is an evaluation by a mental health professional. Medication can be extremely helpful. A combination of the right medication, education about how the ADHD brain is wired, and coaching to help develop healthy habits of sleep, exercise, organizational skills and study habits can help your teen move into a more successful school experience, better image of himself and a better relationship with you.
A final note to you as a parent: the relationship with your teen is what is most important. If you have no relationship, the bond that you both desire is missing. If you have yelled and said things like, “you are so lazy” or, “if you would just try harder or have more discipline,” please apologize and ask how your words have affected your teen. Humbly admit that you do not understand the source of his struggle but you are willing to learn more about ADHD. That will be the start of healing in your relationship and will help your teen do the necessary work of understanding himself and learning to develop the necessary skills for success.