Do you remember the Budweiser Clydesdale commercials? They’re surprisingly touching and sweet. One of them portrays a young horse entering a barn where it spots an unattended carriage. In an attempt to seize the moment, it steps into the oversized harness. This naive yet determined young horse tries to push the carriage forward with all its might, to no avail. It keeps trying until the carriage finally starts moving forward. What this young horse doesn’t know is that the carriage is actually being pushed from behind by two fully-grown Clydesdales. The commercial ends with the owner saying, “I won’t tell if you don’t.”
Like the young Clydesdale, teens that get easily distracted need extra support in a way that leaves them feeling empowered and autonomous.
As you know, most teens are major multitaskers. At any given moment you may find your kid Snapchatting, texting, IMing, talking, listening, studying, eating, drinking, reading, walking, dancing, building, crocheting, drawing and doing their chores. OK, maybe not the chores.
For most teens, this is just how it is now. While there are pros and cons to so much multitasking, many teens can handle it and do just fine. However, if you have a child that has ADHD or is easily distracted, their reality is different. The world that these teens inhabit typically feels more stressful and overwhelming. If they don’t get specific types of support and encouragement, they often end up wondering why they can’t do things as easily as everyone else seems to. This leads to feeling embarrassed and inadequate, which can end with them giving up and acting like they don’t care as a way to save face.
You’ve surely put some time into thinking about this already. Below are 10 tips to help your easily distracted teen.
- Don’t let meds become the solution. 20% of high-school-age boys take medication for ADHD, but only about 10% have actually been diagnosed with it. Too many high-school-age kids are relying on medication to solve their problems instead of putting in the effort to learn new skills. It’s our very difficult, but necessary, job as parents to help make sure this happens.
- Help them develop the skills they haven’t learned yet. Avoid assumptions like your child doesn’t care, is oppositional or is lazy. Instead, focus on helping them develop the skills they’re lacking. This may include: organization, follow-through, stress management or social skills. Remember, it can take years for some teens to learn these skills, so be patient. Intellectual ability is rarely the issue for most kids.
- Appreciate how frustrated they are too. If they don’t seem to care it’s probably because they feel hopeless or are embarrassed and trying to save face. Teens who have a difficult time focusing or sitting still often have low self-esteem. This is because they have experienced repeated judgment, rejection or getting into trouble from peers, teachers, family and/or other adults. As a result, these teens can be very sensitive to criticism.
- Provide active and ongoing help with organization in all areas of their life. Giving her a planner won’t cut it; she’ll need help learning how to use it over and over again. They’ll have to develop habits which will take time and repetition to form.
- Don’t try to do it all yourself. Utilize school counselors, friends, family, neighbors, teachers, homework coaches or a therapist to help. Sometimes, getting the other parent more involved can help a lot as well. Having another adult that your child trusts to help deal with this can really be helpful not only as a parent, but for the child as well. And often just a meeting once a week with someone at school to go over their schedule, planner, classes etc. can go a long way.
- Figure out what their complementary strengths are. Many teens that have a difficult time with focus and attention also happen to be exceptionally creative, empathetic, thoughtful, eager or energetic. Build on these strengths and ensure they have healthy outlets to express them. Because so many of these kids have come to identify themselves in negative terms, they can become very removed from the unique strengths they do have. Justin Timberlake, Michael Phelps, Will Smith, Ty Pennington, and Eleanor Roosevelt all have/had attention problems.
- They may require movement and activity on a daily basis. Physical activity has been found to have a calming effect on overactive brains. Make sure your child has an outlet for this daily. If they aren’t into sports then you may need to be creative, but don’t let this one slide.
- Make sure they’re clear about the plans and agreements. Don’t assume that because they are nodding and looking at you that they get what you’ve said. These kids get very good at faking it. Many kids are too embarrassed to admit that they don’t get something because they don’t want to look stupid. So, follow up with something like, “I want to make sure we’re on the same page, so what do you understand about what we just agreed to?” Or, “What did you hear me say?”
- Don’t micromanage. A lot of teens that act like they don’t care feel powerless and incompetent. Telling these kids that they’re smart and capable often makes them feel worse. Provide guidance, availability and opportunities for them to experience success and make mistakes on their own. Micromanaging results for short-term gains comes with a lot of long-term costs.
- Don’t be too hard on yourself. It’s highly likely that this has been a struggle for your child from a young age and is just part of the way their brain works. If you’ve noticed your teen’s struggles with attention only recently, then there maybe some external sources of stress that are contributing to it. In this case, do your best to talk with your child in an open and non-blaming way about your observations and concerns. If that doesn’t seem to help then it’s probably a good idea to see a family therapist.
I understand how frustrating it can be when your child has so much potential and opportunity but is still struggling. This problem isn’t about you or them. Your teen is an intelligent and capable individual with many strengths and one who may need some extra help to learn skills like focusing, organization, and/or stress management. Hang in there and let me know if I can help.