While it may seem impossible to change the psychological processes with which your teen was born, there are compensatory strategies and behaviors that can help to facilitate stronger executive functioning. So, how can you help a teen who’s struggling to make these changes?
- Start building habits as early as possible. Healthy habits and routines are critical for overall health and success. Just like children are taught to brush their teeth or wash their hands, executive functioning strategies and behaviors must be taught and reinforced as early as possible. Imagine trying to get a teenager to start brushing their teeth at age 12 or 13! It would be so challenging. Yet, because the habit and skill was taught so early, it has become automatic and routine. Habits such as writing assignments down, making lists, and planning can be started as early as grade school, with support. It is never too early to start routines or use strategies that will be important as the child gets older. As described above, teens with EF difficulties have difficulty making the “correct” choice when it comes to doing a non-preferred activity over a preferred activity. The key here is to limit the number of choices that your teen has to make by creating clear rules and habits from a young age. For example, homework must be completed after school (with the exception of a clearly defined “break” of a set-amount of time). If the teen is in such a routine that no choices are involved, they are less likely to give into their brain’s urge to push them toward the preferred pleasurable activity because the habit has become the more adaptive “automatic response.”
- Identify “quicksand activities” and moderate the use of these. Quicksand activities are those activities that are likely to suck you in and are nearly impossible from which to disengage. For many, these activities fall in the category of screens, social media, or gaming. You’ve probably asked yourself, “Where did that hour just go? There’s no way I was lost on my phone for that long.” But, even adults are susceptible to these quicksand activities. Helping your teen to recognize what these activities are is the first step. Ask yourself and your teen, “What activities cause the most fights?” “What activities are the hardest to stop doing when asked?” “Where does time seem to disappear?” Once these are identified, their use must be closely monitored and avoided unless all responsibilities are accomplished. As can be seen, engagement with quicksand activities should never occur as a “break” afterschool or otherwise until non-preferred tasks are completed.
- Make the idea of behavior change relevant (to you and your teen). One of the most important factors in a person engaging in behavioral change is making it relevant and important. If a teen is unable to find any reasons for why trying new strategies could be useful, the change will be much more difficult to make. Ask your teen what the “pros” of change are. Have them clearly visualize how putting effort into a change may be good for them. Discuss what aspects of their lives might be better if they are willing to make the change. Your teen isn’t the only one who needs to reflect on how hard it is to change and why it might be worth it. You, as a parent, must also commit to making changes to support your teen. Being consistent and supporting the use of good compensatory strategies is hard. If you can’t commit to it, then your teen won’t be motivated to either.
- Consistently use rewards. In order to create new habits, the behavior must start. If your teen is resistant to trying strategies, consider using a reward system. These are typically most effective when they are salient (i.e., important/relevant) to the teen and when given in close proximity to the completed behavior. There is no perfect reward. This is entirely dependent on the person and what works. Teens have earned additional time on their weekend curfew by writing in their planners each day; Other teens are not allowed to have screens unless they’ve demonstrated their use of the habits. Other teens earn money for the use of the skills. Whatever it is that motivates your teen, use it!
- Model good behaviors. You’d be amazed at how observant children and teenagers can be. They see (and sometimes hear!) more than we’d sometimes want. With this idea in mind, this can be used to a parent’s advantage. If you consistently demonstrate the changes or behaviors you’d like to see from your teen, it will be easier for them to follow suit. If you consistently write down reminders, or if you are consistently physically active, or if you do your work before your leisure activities, they may be more likely to observe how these strategies and behaviors are effective. If you have bad habits, your teen will likely learn those habits. too.
Considering the above, parents should know that this is more than just an issue of your teen needing to work harder. That said, is hard work needed to improve executive functioning? Absolutely. Do teens and parents need to commit and put effort into change? Absolutely. Does this change require will-power? Absolutely. Is it harder for some teens than others? Absolutely. Parents need to recognize this and emphasize the need for consistency, concrete routines, and strategies to optimize your teen’s motivation. Hopefully by this point, it’s more clear that your teen is not trying to be this way, but is needing your help in navigating the obstacles that they are currently facing as a result of a larger issue such as ADHD, autism, mood or anxiety disorders.
-Alissa Ellis, PhD