6 Ways to Boost Positive Communication with Your ADHD Teen

Knowing What to Say to a Struggling Teenager Isn't Always Easy

by Nancy Reynolds

This Post: 6 Ways to Boost Positive Communication with Your ADHD Teen

Written by: Marybeth Bock

As any parent of teenagers can attest, communicating with our kids can sometimes be a challenge. Depending on the day and their mood, our efforts to have a fruitful conversation can be met with non-verbal grunts, eye rolls, sarcasm, or a litany of complaints about how unfair their life is. 

But if you have a teen who has been diagnosed with ADHD, (or you’re beginning to suspect your teen has ADHD), it can be even more of a challenge to keep communication healthy and positive.


According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), “Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common mental disorders affecting children. Symptoms of ADHD include inattention (not being able to keep focus), hyperactivity (excess movement that is not fitting to the setting), and impulsivity (hasty acts that occur in the moment without thought).” It’s important to note that children and teens with inattentive ADHD – what was formerly called ADD – are often underdiagnosed because they are not disruptive in the classroom.

The APA states that if your teen is struggling with inattentive ADHD, you may find the following symptoms frequently occur:

  • Doesn’t pay close attention to details or makes careless mistakes in school or job tasks.
  • Has problems staying focused on tasks or activities, such as during lectures, conversations, or long reading.
  • Does not seem to listen when spoken to (i.e., seems to be elsewhere).
  • Does not follow through on instructions and doesn’t complete schoolwork, chores, or job duties (may start tasks but quickly loses focus).
  • Has problems organizing tasks and schoolwork (for instance, does not manage time well; has messy, disorganized work; misses deadlines).
  • Avoids or dislikes tasks that require sustained mental effort, such as studying and completing homework.
  • Often loses things needed for tasks or daily life, such as school papers, books, keys, wallet, cell phone, and eyeglasses.
  • Is easily distracted.
  • Forgets daily tasks, such as doing chores and running errands. Older teens may forget to return phone calls and keep appointments.

If your teen seems to be having difficulty with five or more of these symptoms, it’s important to first have them undergo a comprehensive evaluation, which typically includes a review of past and current symptoms, a medical exam and history, and use of adolescent symptom rating scales or checklists. 

Teens with ADHD can be treated with medication, psychotherapy, or a combination of both. Behavior management strategies, such as providing them with ways to help them minimize distractions and increase organization skills can prove helpful as well.

Diagnosing your teen with ADHD is half the battle. The other half is finding healthy, positive ways to communicate with them, especially considering kids with ADHD feel their emotions more intensely than those without the condition.

And, how you and other immediate family members communicate with your ADHD teen can profoundly affect relationships within the family as well as the overall family dynamic.

Dr. Caroline Buzanko, PhD., a licensed psychologist who has worked with children with neurodevelopmental disorders and their families for more than 20 years explains, “Because the underlying brain mechanisms that help manage emotions are affected by ADHD, emotional regulation development is delayed. Emotions hit them more quickly and more easily overwhelm them.” 

This is why nagging and negative communication has proven to be far less effective with teens who have ADHD. “Since down-regulating negative emotions is so cognitively effortful for someone with ADHD, up-regulating positive emotions is a better approach because it is easier to do and increases the likelihood of success,” says Dr. Buzanko.

Don’t get caught in the crossfire of negative communication with your child. Here are a few ways to boost positive communication with your ADHD teen:

1. Avoid Being Dismissive When Your Teen Faces Struggles

It’s often tempting to offer a quick response such as, “This isn’t a big deal” or “You’re going to be just fine!” But rather than dismissing their struggles and challenges as “no big deal,” understand that, to them, it is a big deal. Truly listen to what they have to say and reassure them that what they’re feeling is normal. Ask them if they’d like a suggestion about what they could do next and be prepared for them to decline. Learn to be okay with walking away after you’ve simply listened and allowed them the freedom to vent. Talking less and staying present (with empathy!) is key.

2. Don’t Fuel Complaints

You may be tempted to react to their complaints about life as if you’re a peer simply to validate their feelings and make them feel better. Agreeing with them that their teacher is horrible, or that their coach is a jerk, won’t serve your teen well in the long run. Teens need leadership and guidance, particularly teens who struggle with emotional regulation. The best way to help your teen is to be a caring adult role model who exhibits concern and fairness for everyone involved. Encourage your teen to come up with problem-solving solutions so they’re better equipped the next time they’re frustrated with a friend or an authority figure.

3. Focus on the Positives

Boost positive communication with your ADHD teen by making a concerted effort to discuss things your teen is grateful for on a regular basis. Maybe your teen is grateful that they’re doing well in one (or more) of their classes or that they’ve found a few great friends they can relate to and have fun with.

Whether it’s a  nightly discussion around the dinner table or a quick conversation during the ride to school, give your teen a chance to ponder the positives in their life.

If your teen is reluctant to vocalize these thoughts, give them a gratitude notebook or journal and encourage them to add three things to it every night. Life can be a lot more manageable for ADHD teens when they take the time to focus on everything good in their lives as opposed to harping on the negatives.  

4. Offer Consistent Positive Feedback

ADHD teens, especially, can benefit immensely from ongoing validation. Get in the habit of saying and/or writing “I Noticed” statements to your teen when they display behaviors like kindness, maturity, delayed gratification, and compassion. Getting positive feedback for prosocial behaviors makes everyone feel good. You can take it a step further by incentivizing with small rewards – never underestimate the power of a small surprise. 

5. Help Your Teen Practice Self-Compassion

Regardless of their age, kids who deal with ADHD often have more guilt and shame than kids who don’t have ADHD.  Self-compassion can go a long way in helping them cope and manage their feelings of insecurity. Help your child learn to accept their mistakes if and when they do happen, as well as the fact that having ADHD means they have to work a little harder to reach the same goals as other kids. Communicating openly and honestly about their strengths and weaknesses and teaching them to cut themselves a little slack when they feel they don’t measure up will help them take themselves and life in stride and help them build the much-needed self-compassion to manage day-to-day life with ADHD. 

Knowing what to say or how to respond when your ADHD teen is struggling isn’t always easy, but you can boost positive communication by responding with empathy, patience and understanding while acknowledging and praising all the positives and focusing on the good stuff. 

Resources: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/adhd/what-is-adhd https://www.additudemag.com/emotional-regulation-adhd-kids-strategies/

About Marybeth Bock:

Marybeth Bock, MPH, is Mom to two young adults and one delightful hound dog. She has logged time as a military spouse, childbirth educator, college instructor and freelance writer. She lives in Arizona and thoroughly enjoys research and writing – as long as iced coffee is involved. Her work can be found on numerous websites and in two books. Follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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