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Q: Why Does My Teen Behave Differently — and Worse — Around Me? - #ADHD

If you’re the one doing the lion’s share of parenting, disciplining, and limit-setting, your teen is infinitely more likely to push back against your rules — even if he behaves perfectly around his other parent. Here’s how primary caregivers can re-connect with oppositional teens.


Q: “Why does my 16-year-old son with ADHD have more outburstsaround — and less respect for — the parent he’s with most?” —Almomof3

Dear Almomof3:

Your question perplexes many parents. Why does a teen with ADHD behave the worst with his or her primary caregiver? While there are many possible answers, the common thread is a feeling of connection and safety.

Why Teens Create Distance

Adolescence is a time for asking, “Who am I?” and “Where do I belong?” Until now, our kids have identified first as a family member. As they age, their focus shifts outward to their peer groups, their ethnic or religious cohorts, and their affiliations with activities such as sports, music, art or drama. They try on new roles and see which ones they like best. Separating from parents is natural but rarely smooth, even for kids who don’t have ADHD. As teens dance between separation and closeness, they attempt to define a relationship with you that fits their burgeoning identities.

It’s Normal for Teens to Test Limits

Teens push back when they feel safe. They challenge and test the limits of the parent they know and understand best. While it’s no fun being this parent, this behavior is a testament to the solid bond you have formed together since childhood. Believe it or not, your son feels safe enough to challenge you because he knows you’re there for him. Conflict, while very unpleasant, is an intense form of connection.

Familiarity Can Breed a Teen’s Contempt

The parent who’s around the most usually does the lion’s share of the disciplining and limit-setting. The parent who isn’t always present may be unaware of daily hot-button issues and may let things slide. A teen is less likely to waste his or her precious and limited time arguing with this parent.

Instead, he may cooperate more readily to keep the peace and keep things positive. For now, it may seem unfair that, after all you do for your son and all the time you spend together, you’re getting the worst behavior he has to offer. This frustration may also contribute to some of your difficulties with your son.

Calmly Connect to What’s Good about Your Teen

All of the positive input you’ve given your son is still hiding in there. The trick is using that connection as the basis for more cooperation and less yelling. I bet your son doesn’t like the negative tone in the house either. He just doesn’t know how to assert his wants and needs appropriately.

Instead, he loses it to create separation and exert his emerging autonomy.

Try to manage your feelings and stay calm in the face of your son’s shenanigans. The less you react, the more you can thoughtfully respond and break the cycle of drama and outrage. By staying centered and making collaborative agreements about issues, you can reduce his outbursts and encourage respectful behavior.

Five Ways to Diffuse Conflicts with Your Teen:
  1. Choose a quiet time and place where you can calmly discuss your conflicts. Perhaps you talk after dinner or before bed. Start by telling him you would like to collaborate on finding a better way for the two of you to resolve arguments and get along.

  2. Ask his opinion on things you do that bother him. Repeat back to him exactly what he says and write it down. Then ask, “Is there anything else?” When he finishes his list, share one or two things that he does that get under your skin. Write those down, too.

  3. Look at your list and see if any of the issues overlap or relate to one another. If they do, pick those two things as the ones you will address first. If they don’t, go through the list together and pick one issue from each list.

  4. Agree to specific actions.

  • You will each make sincere efforts to alter the behavior that most drives the other person crazy.

  • If either of you break the agreement, agree on a consequence. Perhaps you put a dollar in a jar, or lose precious screen time, or do a chore of the other person’s choosing.

  • Create a system to measure your progress. If you want him to stop cursing at you and he wants you to stop nagging him about his room, figure out what words he can say and what reminders you can give that are mutually acceptable compromises.

  • While eliminating the behavior would be ideal, that’s not very realistic right now. Instead, shoot for reducing it.

After a few weeks, meet again to assess your progress toward greater calm. Stick with this plan for a few months. If things are going well, move on to another item on the list. Remember, your son actually loves and respects you or he wouldn’t act this way toward you.


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The opinions and suggestions presented above are intended for your general knowledge only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or disease without consulting with a qualified healthcare provider. Please consult your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your own or your child’s condition.

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