You really can help motivate your teen with ADHD. Just don’t expect it to happen overnight or all on your terms.
As your child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) enters their teens, you may notice symptoms such as physical restlessness lessening. But other challenges can affect teens with ADHD, including getting and staying motivated.
Adults often expect adolescents to do independent work. Your teen with ADHD may not be ready.
ADHD is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by inattentiveness, hyperactivity, or a mix of the two. ADHD symptoms, including impulsivity or distractedness, may derail your teen from initiating or following through on goals.
By middle school, your teen with ADHD may have developed a self-perception or reputation for being a poor or distracted student. This may also discourage them from trying.
According to this 2022 study of audio-recorded therapy sessions attended by 121 teens with ADHD (ages 11–16), adolescents may even lose motivation for therapy, if they believe it’s ineffective.
While challenges exist, Dr. Jeffrey Sprague, professor of special education at the University of Oregon, observes, “Everyone is motivated. Teens with ADHD and other conditions just may not be motivated by what we think they should be motivated by.”
“Observing, listening, and asking your teen what gets them going is a good start.”
The American Academy of Childhood and Adolescent Psychiatry states even teens without ADHD find it challenging to show sustained motivation to pursue tasks and goals. Teens with ADHD have brain processing differences, such as:
- being led by the amygdala, (reactive and emotion-driven)
- not being led by their frontal cortex, (less aware of long-term consequences)
Most teens take risks, says Sprague, as a part of growing up. But teens with ADHD may experience differences developmentally that may interfere with motivation above and beyond what might be expected for their age.
For many, however, impulsivity remains a challenge into adulthood, and restlessness may express itself as an inability to settle in and plan.
Common symptoms of ADHD likely to affect your teen’s motivation include:
- less intrinsic motivation, due to dysregulation of dopamine, according to this 2019 study of 162 eighth-grade adolescents with ADHD and 140 without
- executive functioning differences can make it harder to start and sustain goal-oriented activities — even with external rewards
In middle and high school:
A recent study of 907 people, ages 14–24, used the German Diagnostic System for mental disorders to rate the intensity of their ADHD symptoms plus the KINDL-R questionnaire to assess their health related quality of life (HRQoL).
Teens and young adults who reported more significant ADHD symptoms such as distractedness and impulsivity also reported lower HRQol.
Participants who felt they had a reputation for poor performance academically and socially tended to show:
- depressive symptoms regarding their future
- learned helplessness about their ability to change academic and social standing
- depression and anxiety, which was more prevalent in girls than boys
In a 2019 webinar, Dr. Margaret Sibley, a psychologist in Seattle, suggests when years of homework hounding haven’t seemed to help, parents may resign themselves to become hands-off with their high-school-aged child.
Without accountability to parents, however, many teens give up.
Alternatively, parents may lose faith that their teen will ever be able to work independently.
Doing everything for your teen may keep them afloat academically and socially, but only for so long. It may be more helpful to find a less stressful or more interesting academic program with them than trying to force their success in the most rigorous program or life path.
1. Cultivate a respectful approach
Sprague says “it’s quite [typical] to feel impatient with a perceived lack of progress with your teen, and it’s critical to remember that progress won’t be linear, but rather up, down, backward, and forward.”
Louisa Brandeis Popkin, a special education administrator for Arlington Massachusetts Public Schools, says parents might find the following mindsets and practices helpful:
- Remember ADHD is a neurological difference. Kids need to learn specific skills to manage this difference.
- Create systems in your home to help teens, including homework routines and chore charts.
- Balance helping with promoting independence. You can review homework after it’s done versus along the way.
- Remember, your teen has strengths too!
2. Practice collaborative goal setting
Popkin has found that setting goals with teens, and incorporating their interests work best. You might try:
- linking short-term goals to their long-term dreams
- encouraging “SMART goals” — specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely
- developing an action plan and a check-in schedule
- enlisting other adults to help
- asking your teen what they think has — and has not — worked to manage their ADHD
- linking rewards to their demonstrated use of strategies, applying 1-1 reinforcements.
3. Keep rewards real
Sprague reminds that parents are most effective when they’re sincere, since “teens have a ‘radar’ for fake praise and reward.” He recommends:
- aiming for frequent postive, simple interactions, like saying “good morning” or “glad to see you”
- developing a contract that specifies what rewards are available and when
- praising effort (variable) versus characteristics (fixed)
- “I noticed you studied with a deliberate focus this week for your midterm.”
- “I really appreciate how you tried to stay organized between school tasks and sports practice.”
- “You’re so smart!”
In the webinar mentioned above, Sibley suggests that your efforts to motivate a teen may take 10 or more years to manifest.
In the meantime, you might try keeping your approach:
- focused on your teen’s own goals
Sprague advises, “Give your child (and yourself) a little grace.”