Author: Anthony Gershenson, LMFT

ADHD Strategy Guide for Parents PART I: UNDERSTANDING

ADHD Strategy Guide for Parents PART I: UNDERSTANDING

Why I Made This Guide

If your son or daughter has been diagnosed with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), odds are that you already have experienced some of the parenting challenges that come with it. Even more likely is your growing concern about your child’s ability to handle the necessities of life both now, and more importantly, in the future. In my time as a Marriage and Family Therapist specializing in treating adolescent and adult ADHD, I am consistently astonished at the lack of information parents are given about ADHD after their child has received the diagnosis. In an effort to properly equip parents, I created the following guide to serve as a quick reference on Attention-Deficit disorder. It is outlined in 2 parts, each to address a different aspect of conceptualizing and working with the disorder. I hope you find it to be an informative and useful tool to: (a) better understand your child, (b) develop creative ways of connecting with him/her, (c) avoid parental burnout, and (d) give your child the best chance to succeed academically, personally, and socially. The following is part 1 of 2.

Part I: UNDERSTANDING

Managing Expectations

The first and possibly most important point I can emphasize to parents is that if your child has ADHD (especially if you do not) he or she probably does not think like you do. This goes beyond the simple differences that separate the priorities of adults and kids. We are talking about fundamentally different ways of mental processing, information absorption, and execution of behaviors. If these differences are ignored, misunderstood, or go unaccommodated,  they can lead to a number of emotional issues and detrimental habits that can carry into adulthood. Understanding these differences and how kids express them is a crucial first step in helping them to thrive.

Attention Span

THE CHALLENGES

  1. Often very short capacity to maintain focus compared to their peers when it comes to things ADHD kids don’t like (e.g. homework, listening in class). Conversely, attention span can be seemingly infinite when it comes to things they do like (e.g. video games, watching YouTube).
  2. Easily distracted by visual and auditory stimuli (things they see and hear).
  3. Often have a difficult time prioritizing incoming information. Trying to have a conversation with them in a crowded or noisy room can be a challenge because the ADHD brain struggles to determine which information it picks up is most important.
  4. Prone to daydreaming or random thoughts that pop up and draw their attention elsewhere.

THE BENEFITS

  1. Propensity for creativity and invention as time spent daydreaming is when new ideas are formed.
  2. Being easily distracted by one’s environment isn’t always a bad thing. This can make teens hyper-aware of their surroundings, giving way to fast reflexes and heightened spacial awareness. This can be particularly useful when playing sports. Teens with ADHD may appear to be naturally gifted athletes.
  3. Teens with ADHD can be highly observant, as their distractibility makes them curious.

Disorganization

THE CHALLENGES

  1. Consistent difficulty with planning, organizing, and creating/maintaining structure or routine.
  2. Likely to find complex objectives that require multiple steps to be tedious and a challenge. There is a deficit in the ability to prioritize tasks, to think linearly, and to focus on both long and short-term goals at once. Therefore those with ADHD are prone to giving up such endeavors due to frustration.
  3. The ability to place events in order of sequence can be limited. This may manifest in a number of ways such as difficulty recounting the events of the day, or in telling a story.
  4. Are frequently unprepared for tasks, projects, or assignments that require significant planning.

THE BENEFITS

  1. Due to inherent difficulties with strategic planning and forward thinking, teens with ADHD often compensate in the only way they know how: to adapt.
  2. More likely to be flexible in the moment and successful on the fly, adapting to the necessities of the situation.
  3. ADHD kids may seem witty or clever as they can process rapidly in certain situations.
  4. Resourcefulness: without organizational skills, teens learn to recruit the help of others.
  5. Are often self-taught, preferring to learn from experience in the moment rather than reading a manual or text book.

Forgetfulness

THE CHALLENGES

  1. Due to shortened attention span and high distractibility, encoding information and memories is often more challenging.
  2. Can frequently lose or misplace personal items due to lack of attention and organizational skills.
  3. Likely to forget to do things that are not seen as instinctively important to them (e.g. chores, checking in with parents).
  4. May resort to lying about completing chores or homework that they forgot to do in order to avoid punishment or disappointment.
  5. Can be prone to interrupting others in conversation. This is due, in part, to thoughts or ideas coming quickly and the fear that their contributions can easily be forgotten if not shared immediately.

THE BENEFITS

  1. ADHD teens may be better able to let go of anger and frustration by moving on quickly.
  2. Teens develop a stronger sense of what is important to them as indicated by the things they choose to remember.

Pleasure Drive

THE CHALLENGES

  1. Extremely strong attraction toward excitementactivities that are pleasurable, or anything enjoyable or new.
  2. Likely to prioritize fun over obligations.
  3. May lie or be deceitful to get out of responsibilities in order to resume pleasurable activities.
  4. May require constant reinforcementvalidation, or reward to see obligations as worthwhile.

THE BENEFITS

  1. Frequently seen as fun-loving by friends and family, the life of the party.
  2. Often regarded as charming.
  3. Can use creativity to find ways to make the mundane more exciting and interesting. 
  4. Like to make others happy.

Impulsivity

THE CHALLENGES

  1. Those with ADHD are prone to low impulse control, which is the difficulty resisting sudden intense urges or desires that they feel must be met in order to avoid sadness or frustration.
  2. May suddenly blurt out words, thoughts, sounds, songs, etc…
  3. Behavior can often come across as rampant silliness or juvenile.
  4. Likely to act without thinking.
  5. Likely to be more reactive to their environment than their peers.
  6. Can develop a sudden desire or “wanting” of something, and can act out emotionally or aggressively if this desire is not met.
  7. Can be more susceptible to peer influence.

THE BENEFITS

  1. Impulsivity can take the form of spontaneity, leading to adventure.
  2. Less likely to “over-think” things, teens with ADHD are more likely to try new things and have new experiences.
  3. May demonstrate bravery, and are more likely to take risks.
  4. Like to joke and keep the mood light.

Frustration Tolerance

THE CHALLENGES

  1. Teens with ADHD often have a significantly lower frustration threshold than their peers.
  2. Likely to exhibit a strong resistance toward things that cause mental fatigue or frustration.
  3. May abandon interests or pursuits that they are not instantly good at or that suddenly become harder over time (e.g. school, sports, creative arts)
  4. Difficulty with things that require sustained mental effort.
  5. Can be emotionally explosive when efforts are not fruitful, are interrupted, or result in failure (e.g. throwing a tantrum when losing at a video game or team sport).
  6. Will frequently turn to pleasurable activities quickly when frustrated rather than work through challenges.
  7. Highly impatient, usually with themselves, likely due to unrealistic expectations of their abilities or of how rapidly a task should be completed or a skill learned.

THE BENEFITS

  1. Dramatic examples of frustration and emotional reactivity make it easier for parents and educators to identify when a teen with ADHD is struggling.
  2. Due to frequent frustration, teens with ADHD are more likely to know what soothes and calms them based on the activities they seek out when they reach the limits of their frustration.

Boredom with Routine

THE CHALLENGES

  1. Tendency to be easily bored correlates to the need for newness.
  2. May succeed for a period of time with routine when it is still “new,” but will frequently fall apart or intentionally deviate from routine when the “shine of newness” wears off, or if frustration sets in.
  3. May initiate conscious or unconscious efforts to sabotage routines just to break the perceived monotony.
  4. Require unique and evolving means of maintaining their interest.

THE BENEFITS

  1. To avoid boredom, teens with ADHD are more apt to find new and creative ways of doing something.
  2. Likely to employ and nurture skills of ingenuity.
  3. Often find more than one way of solving a problem or completing a task. Can occasionally find a more efficient way through trial and error.
  4. As with impulsivity, boredom with routine leads to trying new things.
  5. Drawn to activities or interests that are unique or out of the norm.
  6. May seek professions as adults that involve what they “love to do” rather than those which merely pay the bills. This can lead to a more fulfilling work life.

Constantly Changing Interests

THE CHALLENGES

  1. Very common in those with ADHD due to a combination of the excitement drawn from new things/passions/endeavors and chronic abandonment of those very same things when they become challenging, routine, or frustration sets in.
  2. Likely to struggle with following through when it comes to pursuits.
  3. Many projects get started, few are seen through to completion.
  4. Prone to difficulty in one or more of the following areas: starting somethingmaintaining effort, or finishing something.
  5. Can be extremely confusing and frustrating for parents as ADHD kids may seem “all-in” with a passion or activity one minute, then “totally over it” the next.

THE BENEFITS

  1. Teens with ADHD can be natural problem solvers, finding quick resolutions to problems and moving on to the next issue before their focus/interests change.
  2. Frequently changing interests can provide ADHD teens with exposure to many different pursuits, giving them a larger pool of passions to draw from.
  3. Driven to variety, potentially expanding worldview and understanding others and their interests.

Achievement vs. Potential

  1. Those with ADHD often demonstrate intelligence, creativity, brilliance, passion, quick-wittedness, which suggest strong potential for success. 
  2. Due to combinations of the cognitive processing/behavioral issues mentioned above, productivity and achievement are often far below what is seen as their potential.
  3. Performance continues to drop precipitously due to chronic disappointment exhibited by family members, educators, and mentors because those with ADHD appear to be squandering their innate talents.
  4. Those with ADHD are often aware of their abilities and are just as bothered by their inconsistency as those around them.
  5. Secondary emotional symptoms often develop (e.g. depressionanxietyanger) resulting from years of shame, living with disappointing others, peer rejection, and feeling misunderstood.

In Conclusion

It’s important to consider the mental and behavioral traits of adolescents with ADHD with an open mind. Not all teens necessarily exhibit these characteristics and not all have the same level of functionality. Many kids have developed “ADHD-like symptoms” where they demonstrate some of the behaviors above, but not enough to qualify for the full-blown clinical diagnosis. However, these teens struggle just as others do, and so we must address the symptoms they bear, regardless of their label. To do so, parents unfortunately must ask a lot of themselves regarding increasing their patience, mental flexibility, and by adapting their parenting style to meet the needs of their child. All of which will be outlined in PART II of the ADHD Strategy Guide for Parents, coming soon…

 

 

 

 

But, Why? The Key to Self-Discipline

But, Why? The Key to Self-Discipline

 

The best way to motivate yourself to do something you really don’t want to do is to find a worthy reason of doing it in the first place. Too often we set out on a project or personal goal with the best intentions and gusto only to watch our enthusiasm wane causing our endeavors to fall apart. New Years resolutions are a good example of this. Most people vow to get into shape, eat better, be more proactive about obligations, but few (if any) see their promises through to completion. The reason, I sincerely believe, is because people don’t answer the simple question, Why?

Why should I exercise more? Why should I eat healthier? Why should I call my parents more often? Or flake less on plans with friends?

Interestingly, we often have a sound rationalization for setting these goals. I should exercise more so I can have a more attractive body. I should eat healthier foods so I have more energy, or live longer. I should call my parents because they like hearing from me. I should be less of a flake so my friends don’t think I’m too busy for them. These are all legitimate reasons to change our ways. But here’s the thing. If those rationalizations were enough, we wouldn’t have problems with consistency.

This is where the word WORTHY comes into play. A worthy reason is not a rationalization, it’s something that speaks to a part of your soul that can hear it. It’s a simple, yet profoundly powerful idea that means something to you on a personal level.

I’ll give you a real life example.

I went to a conference a few years ago for young professionals looking to develop strong business practices. To be honest, most of what was taught bored me to death and I found myself sadly playing games on my phone under the table. But there was one part that stood out to me. It was when the presenter began talking about the tedious, annoying aspects of running a business and how hard it can be to consistently stay on top of the “unsexy” parts like book keeping, cold calling, or endless paperwork. He handed out business cards to everyone in attendance that had only one short sentence on them. When I read it, I was instantly floored by its simplicity, yet amazed at how it somehow cut right through me. It read: “Because I said I would.”

Suddenly, all my languishing over how hard or repetitive something was just felt like BS. I left the conference with my head swimming and as a few days passed an idea began to crystallize. Motivating yourself to do something you really don’t want to do (but know that you must) is not a matter of skill, but a matter of will. Full disclosure, I’m not a man with the world’s strongest will power. But I realized the reason I lacked will power was because I lacked genuine purpose in why I did something.

So, I’ve been trying the following personal philosophy to motivate myself and so far it’s been going pretty well. I have my off days, I have my on days, I have my brilliant days, and I have my “what’s wrong with my brain?” days. So here it is. Hopefully you will find it as helpful as I have.

Take a minute to think of a part of your personality that consistently stands in the way of your goals. For me, this meant constantly telling people about my grand plans and then losing steam somewhere in the process and inevitably abandoning the project. Perhaps this is why “Because I said I would” was so profound. It spoke to that part of me that felt like an imposter. Making promises to myself and others I consistently didn’t keep. I would find excuses as to why something didn’t work out, convincing myself that it was anyone or anything else’s fault but my own lack of self-discipline, just so I could protect my fragile ego. It’s one of my deepest sources of shame that I have yearned to conquer for my entire life.

Unearthing this part of ourselves can be challenging and may take a fair amount of soul-searching, but rest assured that you will definitely know when you find it. How? Because it will likely turn your stomach with guilt or regret.

The next step is to come up with the “antidote,” a worthy reason for fighting our well-rehearsed habits that sap motivation. This can come in the form of a simple, powerful thought or mantra that we recite when we need a reminder of WHY.

This brings to mind another real life example.

At one point I took boxing classes at a local gym. The instructor was a no-nonsense guy who always pushed us. I remember we would consistently complain about conditioning exercises he put us through at the outset of every class. One day, when more than a few of us (myself included) began to “phone-in” the exercises, he stopped the class and told the following story.

He talked about Muhammad Ali, the legendary heavyweight boxing champ, and his approach to training. He said that once, Ali was asked how he felt about preparing for a fight. Ali remarked that he HATED every single second of the hellish, relentless workouts his trainers put him through. However, no matter how bad it got, he was somehow able to push forward. His secret, our instructor told us, was repeating to himself the same sentence over and over whenever he wanted to quit: “I do it, because I want to be a champion.” And that was enough for him. I have no idea if any part of our instructor’s story is true, but I can tell you it sure was effective. Nobody complained about anything for the rest of the class.

From here you can probably guess the next step in this process. Take that thought which ignites your will power and use it as a weapon against complacency, against doubt—then rinse and repeat. Say it to yourself when every part of you wants to quit. Remind yourself what you fight for. I heard a great lecturer on motivation once say that “We can’t wait around for the ‘feel like it’ feeling. We must create it for ourselves.”

The final step involves something we often lack—kindness. Not to others, but to ourselves. I can say from experience that I regularly lack patience and compassion for myself when I hit my stride only to stumble and fall. We all do. We get frustrated, compare ourselves to others who appear to handle life effortlessly, and we shut down, wondering what’s wrong with us. And this is why the last step is far and away the most important. The reason we lack consistency is because we refuse to embrace failure as part of the process. Rather, we assume failure is a sign that we are engaging in the wrong process or don’t have what it takes to succeed. This simply isn’t true. It’s a distortion of reality our impatience and self-loathing create.

We have the ability to see our dreams realized. All it takes is two of the biggest four-letter words in our vocabulary: hard work. This isn’t news to anybody. But when you find a reason worth fighting for, worthy of your absolute best efforts, you will be astonished at what you can endure and what you can accomplish.

Healing Without Therapy

Healing Without Therapy

The Power of SELF-CARE

While it may sound like a no-brainer, we frequently overlook “taking better care of ourselves” as an integral part of our mental health. At any age, nourishing the mind, body, and soul is some of the best medicine out there. Luckily, there is much we can do in our own spare time to achieve better self-care in each of these three categories. Therapy is not necessarily the first answer. After all, the purpose of therapy is not to foster dependency on a professional to solve our problems, but to empower us with the tools necessary to heal ourselves. Keep in mind that no two people are alike, so finding the right combination of self-care habits for you and your schedule is important for effectively  mending emotional wounds, reducing stress, and improving over-all quality of life. Below are some basic ideas to help get you started.

BODY

When contemplating how well we care for ourselves, the way we treat our bodies must be at the top of the list. Why? Because if our physical health is compromised everything else becomes affected. Think about it. How often do we become impatient and irritable when we’re hungry or have a headache? The wellness of our mind is so directly linked to our body that the standard of care in therapy demands ruling out physical symptoms that might be contributing to emotional issues before even considering a mental health diagnosis. Here are key ways to care for your body.

Regular Exercise

For children/adolescents many reputable sources recommend 60 mins of physical exercise every day. Most of which should be moderate-intensity aerobic activity (e.g. running, jumping, biking, team sports). Growing bodies also need an additional 60 mins of muscle/bone strengthening activity three times per week (e.g. climbing, gymnastics, sports, and playing on the playground). Exercise is crucial in child physical and mental development and should be strongly encouraged. If you’re a parent struggling to motivate your child to be physically active, try being a little creative. Make exercise or outdoor play a game, and/or something you and your child do together.

For adults, sources recommend 20-30 mins of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise daily (e.g. hiking, long walks, biking), muscle-training activities twice per week (e.g. weight lifting, sports, yoga), and 75 mins of higher intensity cardiovascular exercise weekly (e.g. running, swimming, stair-climbing). But let’s be realistic, life often impedes our attempts at a consistent exercise schedule, especially if we work a demanding job or have children. It may feel like we don’t have time in our day to commit to even 30 minutes of brisk walking, but here is the unavoidable truth: we have to make time. It may not pay the bills, but self-care is just as vital a part of our day as clocking in at work. If our bodies aren’t well maintained, everything else suffers.

Ways to Be More Active:

AEROBIC ACTIVITIES  (high cardio-intensive)

Running/Jogging, Spinning, Biking, Stair-climbing, Boxing/Kickboxing, Swimming, Surfing, Soccer, Basketball, Hockey, Tennis, Cardio classes, Challenging Hikes

DAILY ACTIVITIES  (low-moderate cardio intensity)

Long Walks, Light Hiking, Stretching, Playing with a pet, Go to the park, Light exercise

MUSCLE ACTIVITIES  (targets large muscle groups)

Weight-lifting, Rock climbing, Yoga, Pilates, Surfing, Stair-climbing, Jungle gym, Boxing/Kickboxing, Cross-fit, Rowing, Gymnastics

A Word on Proper Diet and Sleep

As I am a Marriage and Family Therapist and not a nutritionist, dietician, or sleep specialist, I cannot tell you what to eat or how to sleep to be healthy. These factors depend heavily on age, lifestyle, personal physical health, and resource limitations. However, a properly balanced diet and consistent sleep patterns are not only essential to sustaining physical energy throughout the day, but to how well the mind works. If you are curious about appropriate diet and eating habits, please consult your doctor or a licensed dietician. For information about proper sleep hygiene, contact your doctor or a sleep study specialist.

MIND

Mental Stimulation

Higher brain function, or executive functioning, involves the complex thought processes we use countless times every day. Think of it like a muscle that needs regular exercise. Relying on routine daily activities to stay mentally sharp is like using the same weight in the same direction every time you work out in order to get into shape. Your mind, like your body, is an adapting machine that will quickly adjust to the amount of effort it needs to generate to get the job done.  However, the brain, like skeletal muscles, needs to be regularly challenged in order to strengthen and grow. Stimulating the mind helps to build new neural pathways, allowing us to think faster, more clearly, and make better choices.

Mind Workouts

Puzzles, Strategy games, Reading, Start a personal project, Exercise, Plan a trip, Join a hobby club, Visit an “escape room,” Write, Be crafty, Drawing/Art, Come up with jokes, Play sports

Mental Relaxation

Few of us need to be reminded that relaxing is an important component of a healthy mind. Yet the reason many people neglect relaxation is similar to those who neglect exercise—it gets de-prioritized due to a busy lifestyle. Arguably, those who live fast-paced, stress-laiden existences have the greatest need for “pencilling-in” down time. This is especially true of parents where the risk of burnout is high. Feeling burned out is when a demanding, repetitive obligation causes irritability and exhaustion that shrinks our patience and increases emotional reactivity. Taking time for ourselves to slow down can help curb burnout significantly.

Ways to Relax

Listen to music, Go for a walk, Visit nature, Watch a funny movie, Laugh, Light exercise, Read a book for pleasure, Play a game, Meditate, Deep breathing, Find a quiet space, Catch up with friends. In essence: DO WHAT MAKES YOU HAPPY (so long as it’s safe).

SOUL

Last, but certainly not least, is the care we take to nurture our own spirit. The human soul is our essence, our persona, that which makes each and every one of us unique. As with any priceless artifact, it needs regular care and attention to remain intact. Feeding the soul is a challenging concept to categorize as it varies so widely from person to person. However, the best advice I could possibly give is to connect with whatever makes your heart feel full. Here are some broad areas where you might begin to look…

Spirituality

Whether or not you identify with a specific religion or faith, connecting with a ‘higher power’ can be a wonderful source of strength, inspiration, and comfort. People frequently turn to some version of spirituality in their darkest hours, praying to whomever or whatever may be out there listening for support and guidance. To be clear, by faith I’m not referring solely to organized religion, but to anything that can be classified as ‘greater than ourselves.’ Here are some ways to connect with the spiritual world:

Visit your place of worship. Visit someone else’s place of worship. Speak to a spiritual elder or authority. Re-invest yourself in your faith. Contemplate your personal religious or spiritual beliefs. Read religious texts. Explore new faiths. Find something uplifting to believe in.

Humanity

The old saying goes, “There are but two guarantees in life: death and taxes.” However, I would propose a third certainty—that people need people. As human beings we are biologically driven to be social and rarely survive, let alone thrive, outside of a community of support. Ironically, when we are at our most vulnerable (depressed, anxious, etc…) we tend to isolate ourselves from others, effectively cutting ourselves off from those very people who can help us feel safe and cared for. Reconnecting with others can be powerful medicine to shepherd us through difficult times. There are countless ways to do so, but here are a  few ideas:

Call an old friend. Make a new friend. Help someone in need. Random acts of kindness. Volunteer for community service. Visit with family. Visit with a neighbor. Join a community. Strike up a conversation. Ask someone you trust for help. Resolve conflict with a friend or family member. Tell someone how much they mean to you.

The Evolution of Anxiety

The Evolution of Anxiety

Anxiety is a funny thing. It can be our best friend, or our worst enemy, and originates from the most basic instinct we have: survival. Every organism on this planet tends to naturally prioritize survival above all else in life. And for good reason. Without survival, there is no life. This instinct is innate and does not require thought to be activated. Even as complex creatures, humans are no different from the rest when it comes to self-preservation. If you need proof, tell a friend to sneak up on you sometime when you’re completely unaware. Odds are you will flinch, jump, recoil, or adopt a fighting stance. Why? Because you sensed danger and experienced fear.

When we experience anxiety, our bodies release a number of hormones such as adrenaline, norepinephrine, and dopamine that heighten/intensify our senses so that we stand a better chance of surviving the perceived threat. We become more alert, display faster reflexes, and experience a rush of energy to accommodate our next move: fight or flight.

While our knee-jerk reaction to danger has allowed us to thrive as a species, it can become over-developed when constantly bombarded by stressors. In the modern world, the specter of life-threatening harm is far less common than it was for our ancestors thousands of years ago. Yet in many ways our instinctive brains experience similar sensations of stress when they perceive danger to our emotional well-being. A commonly used example would be public speaking. Often regarded as the number one fear among people (out-ranking even death), speaking in front of crowds is terrifying to many. But why? There is an extremely low probability of death when presenting in front of a classroom or pitching an idea to a group of colleagues. The answer lies in the evolution of our species. A new form of survival has emerged out of the creation of modern civilization: social survival.

As humans we are a predominantly communal species. Just as wolves form a pack, or dolphins live in a pod, people largely require social relationships to thrive. However, due to our advanced brain structure which allows for complex thought, humans differ from animals in that we are far more selective when choosing members of our social group. We often hand-pick our friends,  rigorously vet our employees, and otherwise proceed with extreme caution when letting people into our lives. An unfortunate side effect of this highly evolved form of social selection is that the margin for error shrinks dramatically. It becomes quite easy to make social mistakes, even relatively small ones, that can cost us our protective community. The need for acceptance by others is innate within us. And so our awareness of how easily that acceptance can be stripped away becomes abundantly clear, giving rise to the fear of being alone. In a sense, loneliness can be equated to a type of death: social death.

Here is one such example of “social death”:

Now fully aware of what’s at stake, a 6th-grader in the school spelling bee becomes petrified with fear. She knows that making a careless mistake has a high probability for embarrassment as hundreds of students laugh and jeer at her expense. The overwhelming notion of potential humiliation on this scale triggers a series of biological responses akin to those necessary for surviving a life-threatening event. Her heart begins to pound as her breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Her thoughts race, eyes dart around, and hands shake uncontrollably as adrenaline courses through her body. As mentioned before, human biological survival protocols circumvent higher brain function and complex thought in order to provide a quicker response to danger. The 6th-grader can no longer think as clearly as she would if she were calm. Her turn comes to spell a very simple word she has spelled a thousand times. Consumed by her anxiety she forgets to include an obvious letter. Suddenly her worst fears are realized as the buzzer eliminating her from the competition is met with roars of laughter from the student body. She turns to her parents standing in the back row for comfort only to find looks of embarrassed disappointment on their faces. Crestfallen, the child cannot help but begin to sob, now exposing the most vulnerable of emotions to the ridicule of hundreds of students she must face for years to come.

This is but one of countless ways that chronic anxiety can be formed.

Why Teens Don’t Talk to Their Parents…And What You Can Do About It

Why Teens Don’t Talk to Their Parents…And What You Can Do About It

If you’re the parent of a teenager and feel that communication has broken down, an important first consideration is why communication has fallen apart. Here are four common, and often over-looked, reasons that teens avoid talking with their parents.

1.) NATURAL DEVELOPMENT

Any developmental psychologist will tell you that the hallmark of the adolescent years is the pursuit of identity and the biological drive toward seeking independence. These are not choices teens make, they are based on human development and instinct. This can often be a difficult transition to grasp for parents that (until now) are accustomed to their children relying on them for nearly everything. And with such reliance usually comes open communication and dialogue between parent and child. Parents know just about everything that goes on in their child’s life: who their friends are, performance in school, hobbies, interests, dreams, etc…until kids enter those pivotal teen years.

Since teenagers are new to the idea of independence, their efforts to obtain it are mostly trial and error. As a result, often the first instinct a teenager exhibits is to distance his/her self from their parent(s). This includes such behaviors as: intentionally doing the opposite of one’s parents, questioning rules and expectations, resisting or outright rejecting parental advice, and a notable drop in communication.

Teens begin to shift their focus from family to friends when it comes to advice, emotional support, camaraderie, and bonding. These are the first strides teens take toward individuation—which is considered the healthiest form of independence. As adults, this is represented by people who are independent, self-reliant, and yet are able to ask for help and support from others. In order for teenagers to achieve individuation, parents have to embrace the most terrifying of activities: learning to let go.

To clarify, “letting go” doesn’t mean handing your teenager the keys to the car, a wad of cash, and saying “good luck with your life.” It means empowering teens to develop life skills through their own experience. There are number of ways to help your teen to feel empowered, but here are two of the big ones.

Decision-Making:Seize every possible opportunity to encourage your teen to make as many ageappropriatedecisionsas possible. This gives teens a sense of control over their lives and builds confidence in their judgment and ability to make good choices.

Give them some space: Take a step back, both literally and figuratively, to see what your teenager can do. Let them make and learn from their mistakes. Teenagers desperately need this time to learn to problem-solve and become more self-reliant. Be sure not to step too far back, teens thrive on the knowledge that a parent is right behind them if they need support. And when your teen does seek your counsel, it’s important to avoid shaming him/her by meeting them with empathy rather than judgment.

 

2.) FEAR OF JUDGMENT

Nobody likes to be judged. Especially teenagers. Especially by their parents. As a parent, it’s more than likely you are aware that teenagers are not only hypersensitive emotionally and often insecure about who they are, but have an impossibly strong drive toward acceptance. Interestingly, teens don’t just crave acceptance by their peers, but by their parents as well.

Judgment is a form of rejection, the opposite of acceptance. So if a teenager is crying out for acceptance and is afraid you as a parent might judge him/her, that teenager is far less likely to approach you to talk. It’s hard enough to be rejected by your peers, but when a teen feels rejected by a parent it becomes a betrayal. The scary part is that parents often don’t even realize they’re doing it.

In my work I have observed countless instances where parents make judgmental comments to their teenage child about his/her interests, choices in friends, use of free time, even appearance. Regardless of circumstance, parents represent two crucial themes to their kids that cannot be betrayed if you want to foster a healthy family relationship: safety, and unwavering acceptance.

As a parent, you don’t need to share your child’s interests in order to appreciate them. You don’t have to dress like your daughter to know she has style. And you don’t need to account for every second of your son’s free time so long as you know he is safe and responsible. If you can make space in your heart and mind to accept your teenager’s differences rather than judge them, you will find a much stronger bond.

To help your teenager feel more accepted, you as a parent need to do only one thing: embrace their weirdness. Whatever your child is into (assuming it is not something dangerous or harmful) be curious about it, try to find the merits in it, and join in with them when possible.

Example: If your teenage son plays video games like they are going out of style (which he probably does), ask to watch, ask to play, learn more about the games he is interested in.

Example: If your daughter is upset about something seemingly trivial a friend posted on social media, resist the sigh and eye-roll that often accompanies parental attitudes toward “Millennial Drama.” This is the reality of the world teens live in, embrace it and the closer you will become.

 

3.) NOT LOOKING FOR A SOLUTION

Parents are by far the most influential figures in a young person’s development. Yes, friends, siblings, and mentors are important, but nothing compares to the power of MOM & DAD. Parents are the verbal and non-verbal role models kids observe every day to determine how to exist in this world. As a result, parents quickly realize that their children look to them for instruction, solutions to problems, and knowledge about how the world works. Since this dynamic is repeated constantly for years as a child grows up, it becomes a well-learned routine.

However, as stated above regarding a teenager’s natural development, teens start seeking independence, which means finding their own answers. Unfortunately, most parents aren’t prepared for this sudden shift and default to their normal routine of trying to solve the problem.

Example:A 14-year-old boy comes home from school looking gloomy, avoiding his mother’s gaze.

MOTHER – Hey, how was school?

SON – Fine.

MOTHER – What’s wrong, honey?

SON – Nothing, I’m fine!

MOTHER – Oh, come on. You’re clearly upset. Tell me what happened.

SON – It’s just that I haven’t been able to make any friends at my new school. It sucks. I sit alone at lunch like a complete loser.

MOTHER –I’m sorry, honey. You know…tomorrow you should go talk to that Jason boy you mentioned last week. Or maybe you can try out for a sports team? Or maybe you can join a club?

SON – Ugh, never mind!

The son promptly gets more irritated and storms off to his room. Why? Because he wasn’t looking for his mother to solve his problem.

If your teenager entrusts you with his/her private dilemmas, this is a big responsibility on the part of the parent to handle it appropriately. What I’ve noticed throughout my work is that teenagers usually just want support, not solutions. They want to feel competent enough to find the answer to their own problem while feeling safely held (emotionally) by their parent(s). Here are some alternative responses the mother from the example above could have used that might be more effective:

I’m sorry to hear that honey. Are you okay?

Do you want to talk about it?

               Do you need some space?

               Yeah, that really stinks. Let me know if you need me.

               I’m here if you want to talk.

              What do you want to do about it?

              Do you want my advice, or do you just want me to listen?

 

4.) REACTIVE PARENTS

There are two ways human beings can reply to incoming information: reactingor responding. Though they may sound similar, they are completely different. A reactionis quick, based solely on emotion and instinct. A responseis slower, based on carefully considering the appropriate reply. Because a reaction comes from our instinctive brain, it serves only us, not the source of the information to which we are reacting.

EXAMPLE:A teenage daughter brings home a report card with several F’s and sheepishly hands it to her father. The father, to whom academics are extremely important, can’t believe his daughter failed so many subjects. Consequently, the father is instantly disappointed, and begins yelling and lecturing.

Guess which parent (if any) that teenage girl will approach with the next report card. Hint: it’s not going to be dad.

Emotional reactivity, more than any other factor I have come across, is the primary reason why teenagers don’t approach their parents with problems, concerns, or trust them with their secrets. Put quite simply, highly reactive parents are unsafe. What’s worse is that this dynamic can foster unhealthy habits in teens such as chronic lying to avoid punishment and developing their own explosive reactivity.

Responding is far more difficult, and requires a higher degree of patience and restraint than reacting. To respond to your teenager appropriately, there is one main question you should ask yourself: Is what I am about to say the best thing to help my child?This does not suggest the father has no right to be angry with his daughter for her poor academic performance, but when it comes to anger, remember this philosophy: telldon’t show.

We already know how showing your anger, such as yelling or lecturing, can negatively impact a parent-teen relationship. So how does a parent let their child know how they feel without reacting? Let’s use the same example of the report card from above.

When father sees his daughter’s poor grades, he looks up at her and in a calm voice says the following:

“I’m really disappointed and angry about this. Can you tell me what happened?”

“Where do you think you had the most trouble?”

More constructive and empowering responses than lecturing would be:

“What can WE do differently next time to improve your grades?”

“What can I do to help you succeed?”

A final note to parents. Be patient not just with your teenager, but with yourself. This is really tough stuff that often has a ton of emotional weight and family history behind it. The tools I’ve laid out can definitely help, but just like developing teens learning independence, it is going to be mostly trial and error.