by Chris Taylor, MFT, Author “Back to Basics"

As of 2017 6.4 million children in the United States had been diagnosed with ADHD.  That translates to roughly 11% of all kids.  So for those families, we need to give parent strategies that are practical and successful.

Parenting a teen is hard.  It can be made easier by following the suggestions I make in my blog and the “Back to Basics: Tayloring Your Teen for Success” book and workbook, but it takes hard work and a consistent approach.  Parents know how important structure and consistency is for any child, but when ADHD is present, parents often feel a sense of hopelessness that the same tried and true approach will work.  This is further reinforced by a lot of “evidence” that, says it won’t.  Now, I can say that ADHD makes the job harder, but not impossible.  Through creating and maintaining a highly structured environment, parents can ensure their teens have the best chance at overcoming the unique barriers of ADHD.  The question is what does structure mean in dealing with a teen that has ADHD.


Daily structure is key.  Spell it out and make sure it is reinforced on a daily basis.  Although inattentiveness, distractibility and hyperactivity make focusing on a single task much more difficult, conditioning a response is a basic behavioral truth.  All we need to do is pair a stimulus with a reinforcer and ensure that this is done enough times to make it automatic.  I have worked with many parents who do not believe they can condition a routine in their teens, but over time they find out they can.  So what does the structure look like?  3pm backpack put in room, 3:30pm snack is eaten at the table (if snack is missed then wait for dinner), at 4pm homework starts at the kitchen table and all electronics are turned in (computers are the exception but internet is only allowed for research.  At 4:30pm, a 10 minute break to re-charge.  So you get the idea of what the structure should look like but what happens when your teen refuses to follow through.  Well that is where we bring in reinforcers to help the conditioning process. 

Your teen just put their backpack away as laid out in their plan.  First point of reinforcement is praise.  “Thank you so much for putting your backpack away, you are really awesome!”  Ok that may sound over the top, but kids with ADHD have been getting a message for a long time that they are screw-ups who don’t care, think everything is a joke, or school is just not for them.  You would be amazed at how powerful simple praise can be.

Next level reinforcement.  What does your teen like?  An extra 5 minutes of break, a special snack, more time on electronics?  Let them participate in negotiating these “access to” reinforcers.  This creates immediate buy in and teaches them that there is not only a solution but that they can be a part of it.  Remember you are conditioning a response and the response is follow through.  The structure creates predictability for the teen who has a difficult time organizing.

It is a simple yet complex approach, but one I have seen work time and again.  Initially it is exhausting to keep on track but over time it will get easier.  Remember that success brings on more success, and punishment brings learned helplessness, and hopelessness that causes teens to shut down.