Preteen with ADHD and anxiety takes frustrations out on family

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Q: Do you have any recommendations for discipline strategies for a preteen with anxiety and ADHD? Home seems to be the dumping ground for all of our preteen’s school angst. I try to balance understanding and a little bit of flexibility against boundaries that you can’t treat your family badly. I’m wondering whether there are specific books that would give me a road map.

AT: Thank you for writing in. I have yet to meet a parent who enjoys feeling like a “dumping ground” for their preteen. It can become exhausting, day after day, to try to stay kind and compassionate, only to be snarled and snapped at. And although discipline (a euphemism in our culture for consequences) is the natural go-to, we need to take another look at our parenting goals. I’m going to provide you with some books, but let’s also look at other possibilities to help with this tough situation.

The goal of parenting this preteen is to help them understand themselves better, so co-create solutions that grow confidence and resilience. You can already see what you should not focus on: getting your child to start or stop certain behaviors. Of course, you want your preteen to stop dumping everything on you. I want that, too. But if we step over why your child is doing this, we will miss the opportunity to help your preteen mature.

It is important to remind yourself every day that, as personal as this behavior feels, this is your preteen doing their very best. It is probably the case that, while at school, your child is managing both ADHD and anxiety like a pro. They are desperately trying to focus and keep their nervous system in check. Unfortunately, these two issues are the worst buddies: The more anxious you get, the harder it is to pay attention. The more you try to pay attention (and can’t), the more anxious you feel. How tiring! As you work on developing a better system for home, please be sure your preteen is well-supported in school. Ensure that an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or 504 plan is up and running, and keep in touch with your child’s teachers, so you can spot the overwhelm before your preteen spirals at school or home.

Remember, as psychotherapist Merriam Sarcia Saunders says: ADHD is not a behavior disorder; it is a neurological disorder. It is not a willpower issue.

This means your child is struggling with their brain; the behavior is a symptom of that struggle, not the primary struggle.

Send parenting questions to Leahy at [email protected]

Because we know your preteen is coming home filled with frustration, what are we supposed to do? I turned to John Duffy, my friend and the author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” for his thoughts. “Kids respond best when they know the rules ahead of time,” he says. “When they suffer anxiety and ADHD, poor behavior tends to result from a lack of clarity, structure and rules.”

With that in mind, you need to have regular meetings with your preteen to co-create and reassess the structure. Duffy also recommends that “these families come up with a few nonnegotiable household rules. It’s important to be clear about the consequences for violating those rules as well,” he says. “You also, however, want to reward positive behavior. When your kids are managing themselves despite their anxiety and ADHD, a brief nod to that positive behavior carries an awful lot of weight with these kids. Remember: The goals here are symptom management, competence and resilience.”

There is also some excellent advice in “The Essential Guide to Raising Complex Kids with ADHD, Anxiety, and More” by Elaine Taylor-Klaus.

Again: Rewards carry more weight than punishments, structure and consequences need to be clear, and you need to believe that your child is doing the best they can. Good luck.

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