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Q: How Responsible Is ADHD for My Child’s Defiant Behaviors? - #ADHD

You finally know the reason for your teen’s lifelong challenges with inattention, impulsivity, and defiance: ADHD. Now, however, it can be hard to unravel where ADHD ends — and what behaviors are instead the result of laziness, boredom, or boundary-pushing on the part of your teen. Here, our Teen Parenting Coach outlines the root causes of ADHD and explains how parents can decipher symptoms.


Q: “My 15-year-old son was only recently diagnosed with ADHD, but I now realize I should have picked up on the symptoms when he was 8. All the signs were there. Now that we know the root cause, I’m left wondering: How responsible is he for his defiant behavior, lateness, and lack of application to school work? How do we motivate him to make more of an effort? What are appropriate consequences for defiant behavior?” —AussieMum

Dear AussieMum,

As I’m sure you’ve read, ADHD is a neurobiological condition marked by a lack of self-regulation. Based in the brain, it can have an impact on absolutely every aspect of a teen’s life.

So I want to start by saying that, “How responsible is he?” is the most important question you can ask when your child has ADHD and related challenges, like anxiety or a mood disorder. Because understanding why he does what he does — or doesn’t do, as the case may be — is essential to helping him find the motivation you want for him.

At ImpactADHD, we teach parents to ask themselves the question, “Is it naughty or neurological?”

How do you know? Well, if you try a traditional disciplinary approach, and it is effective, there is a natural cause and effect at play. If traditional discipline is sufficient to change behaviors, chances are the behavior was “naughty.”

But when traditional parenting techniques are ineffective — as is often the case when a child has these kinds of complex issues — you can presume that the behavior is, at least in part, neurologically motivated.

What difference does it make if his behavior is naughty or neurological? It has everything to do with how we should respond, how we should hold him accountable, and how we use motivation to help.

I’m not saying that we should accept unacceptable behavior without any accountability. But I do believe we should set realistic expectations, approach our kids’ behavior with an understanding of their diagnosis, communicate openly with them about it without judgment, and not add a “moral diagnosis” on top of their ADHD.

Your son’s circumstances are more common than you might think. A teenage diagnosis often sheds light on behaviors that were present at ages 8 through 10. Kids diagnosed after years of unidentified challenges often exhibit dangerous or reckless behaviors, do poorly in school, and exhibit defiance and other behavior problems. In short, they’ve been out of control for a long time, and they have not learned effective mechanisms for self-management.

To be honest, kids hate feeling out of control. But many give up trying to regain control because they don’t know how. It takes time to turn things around.

As a parent, you want to hold your child accountable, but on some level you understand that there is a level of self-management that he has never learned. And so you must begin by helping him understand how his brain is wired, and understand why he’s found it so difficult to succeed. Start with the assumption that he would want to be more effective if he could, but he’s given up after years of feeling a failure.

Helping him understand himself is key to helping your child take ownership of his life and learn to manage it. Help him identify what’s important to him, and what motivates him to do… anything!

When thinking about appropriate consequences for infractions, let him be part of the conversation. Ask him what he thinks, and come to an agreement that you can both point to the next time things go awry. Your job as a parent is to help your child (slowly but surely) learn how to come up with self-management strategies that will work for him — not necessarily for you.

And one more thing: Above all else, focus on re-building your relationship and your trust with your son. You want to be in this relationship with your kid for the long haul. Choose your battles, and don’t let the difficult teen years ruin your future.

Do you have a question for ADDitude’s Dear Teen Parenting Coach? Submit your question or challenge here.


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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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