For Parents

How to Motivate a Teenager with ADHD

By Peg Dawson, ED.D.

Any parent will tell you: No teenager succeeds at something without really wanting it. And conjuring that motivation is half the battle. Help your teen tap into her innate (but often buried) motivation by understanding what she really wants (besides video games and clothes), and using those desires to help her set goals.


What Teens Want

Teens and tweens all essentially want the same four things:

  1. The chance to do what adults do
  2. To make their own choices and decisions
  3. To have their opinions valued
  4. To decide what rules apply and how

The challenge, of course, is using these central desires wisely when working to motivate a teenager to move toward adulthood, and take on more independence.


Set the Tone

From the start, make sure your teen understands that you want to help him accomplish something that benefits him. Together, you will focus in on something your kid wants, and work together to find a way to make it possible. She is more likely to participate and feel motivated to act is she feels like she is a partner in the process instead of simply following orders.


Let Teens Choose the Goal

Emphasize your child’s goal, not your own. The First goal your child chooses might not be a school related one. It can be easier to start with your child’s interests. Ask, “What makes you happy? What would you like to become an expert it?” Then say, “Gee, I wonder if there is a goal we could relate to that.”


Ask Questions

Help your teen set a specific, realistic goal, and create an outline of how he will spend their time to get there by asking questions or requesting more information. Parents say:

  • What’s your plan?
  • Do you have a strategy for that?
  • Tell me your schedule.
  • When do you plan on starting?
  • How will you remember all the moving parts?

This puts the responsibility of thinking about how to reach a goal on your teen instead of relying on you to manage things. If your child answers, “I don’t know,” or looks at you blankly, say, “Well, here are a couple of options for starting. Which do you think might work?” or “Do you have another idea?”


Focus on Independence

Hone in on how the desired change, or goal, will boost your teens independence. For example, you can say, “Once you’ve done X,Y and Z, that means that you’ve shown me you’re responsible, and you’ll get to do [insert a thing your child wants].” If you are worried that a goal or part of the plan is unrealistic, present that in a respectful way. Say, “Here’s my concern about what you’ve said. Here’s what I want to see happen. Is that what you want to see happen? Can you go over your goal again?”


Work Together

Create a to-do list with them. Teens with ADHD and executive function deficits often think their working memory is better than it is. They think, “I won’t forget to do it.” Writing a to-do list when they think they will remember seems pointless. So, start by making a to-do list for them. Once that is working well, make the to-do list as a team. Then, have the kids independently making a list for themselves. Work toward providing the minimum support necessary for your child to be successful.


Create Rewards

Set up an incentive system that supports the goal. Many experts and parents have mixed feelings about using rewards. For teens with executive function deficits, practice will help them build skills – and rewards can encourage them to practice. If your child’s goal is to do better in school, create a points system that will allow them to feel like they are making progress. They could accumulate points for getting a grade of B- or above on tests, for handing in homework, or for writing down assignments in a planner. If the goal is to fo two chores a day, then kids can choose from a menu of chores where some are harder that others and worth different point values. They choose how many points they want. Then, the accumulated points can be a trade in for something they value.


Be Fair

If you decide to use rewards, make sure it is a fair system. Typically when incentives fail, it is because parents ask for too much for too little payoff. For example, offering payment for getting As on a report card doesn’t usually work well because it is a long-term goal that kids can’t visualize that far in advance. Instead, create rewards for daily behaviour that moves them toward a goal. A fair reward is one that kids can earn 70% of the time. A success rate lower that that often means the demand is too great, or the incentive is not powerful enough.


Build Persistence

Focus on building goal-directed persistence. This is a late-developing executive skill that means working to achieve a task without getting distracted by other interests or giving up when the going gets tough. A teen may not really appreciate that how he performs in school will affect what college he gets into in four years. Parents need to help teens to understand that and bolster skills to work toward a goal. They can also help by modeling. Kids notice when you persist over time – especially once they move beyond high school. Help them set up and achieve little goals that don’t take very long, but add up over time. This shows them that continuing to work at something pays off. Praise effort rather than traits or results. Say, “Wow, you stuck with it. You figured it out. I can’t believe how hard you worked for that. Nice goal-directed persistence.” Use that term, talk with them, explain why starting tasks can be hard for them, and agree to work on it – together.