Welcome to Capable Kids Q&A, where you send me your dilemmas about lovingly nudging your kids towards a thriving can-do spirit, and I pull together the research, expertise, and wisdom out there to bring you encouragement and ideas. (Thank you for sending your great questions; keep them coming.)
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Q: My 16-year-old son has ADHD and LD in reading and writing. I struggle all the time with understanding when to help and when to let him be more independent. Any suggestions on how to figure this out?
A: Summer is the perfect time for all of us to think about how our families approach schoolwork, which is what I think you’re asking about. The pressure of right-now homework is gone, we’re enjoying a break, and we can take some low-key time to think about what worked last year, and what could go better next year.
To help with the best approach for kids to capability with ADHD and/or learning disabilities, I reached out to the wonderful Debbie Reber, founder of TiLT Parenting and author of Differently Wired: Raising an Exceptional Child in a Conventional World. I highly recommend Debbie’s work—please check it out.
Meanwhile, here’s Debbie on this tough question:
It’s tricky finding the right balance when supporting our differently wired teens’ fledgling skills, whether it’s executive functioning, emotional regulation, or academics, especially because they’re all on their own unique timeline. But keeping in mind the ultimate goal—launching young adults who have a good grasp of their strengths, have identified personal “hacks” for navigating their challenges, and have the confidence to ask for the support they need—it’s critical that our kids have many opportunities to struggle and yes, fail, so they can do the necessary work to get there.
Ultimately, we want to engage in thoughtful scaffolding—having supports in place and gradually removing them to give our child room to grow. The challenge is that many parents of neurodivergent kids have been acting as their child’s prefrontal lobe for years, and so we want to move slowly, focusing on one or two specific skills at a time to give our kids a chance to gain competency. Ideally, we do this in collaboration with our child, and we explain why (to help them develop the skills they need to be successful) and how (gradually and deliberately) we are removing support.
Lastly, I love the suggestion William Stixrud and Ned Johnson write about in their phenomenal book, The Self-Driven Child, which is to put on our “consultant” hat when supporting our teens. This means that we offer support but we don’t overstep. Instead of imposing our strategies or guidance for things like organizing assignments, we let our kids know that we’re available if they need us. We ask them open questions like “What’s your plan for tackling that assignment?” rather than telling them what to do. It may feel messy and uncomfortable at first, but it gives our kids much needed control over their lives and a chance to discover what they need to succeed, all while protecting our relationship with them by taking our “parent as nag” role off the table.
So wise, and I’m also a huge fan of The Self-Driven Child—full of great advice, particularly for the teen years.
So, what now in your family? Summer reading might be the perfect way to begin your slow, gentle approach. As Debbie says, we need to start small, explain, and collaborate. If you’ve already discussed this—that you’ll be transferring more and more academic responsibility and independence to your teen—then you can probably begin with the Stixrud and Johnson’s “What’s your plan?” question about summer reading. You might get a brusque “Mom-I’ve-got-it!”, and that’s OK. Wanting to take responsibility without your help is a sign he’s on his way, even if the follow-through is still hit or miss. If he brushes you off with assurances that he’s taking care of it, bite your tongue. I know it’s hard, but he needs a chance to try for himself. In a month or six weeks, you could ask, “Still on track with your summer reading? I know you said you wanted to handle it, and that’s great. Let me know if you have any questions.”
On the other hand, if your teen is used to lots of hands-on support when it comes to managing schoolwork, you may want to start a few steps further back by having a collaborative conversation about resetting expectations and offering more scaffolding towards independence. “Hey, I know how overwhelming it can be when schoolwork is coming fast and furious. I’d love to help you manage it a little more independently next school year since you’re getting older, and you’re probably tired of me looking over your shoulder. Why don’t we try a new approach with your summer reading this year? I could help you develop a schedule for your reading and journal entries, and then you could be in charge of it without me nagging. Or maybe you’d prefer to come up with your own plan, and then we can check it every few weeks to see how it’s going? What do you think would be best for you?”
Either way, you’re sending a clear message: It’s getting to be your turn to manage this. I’ll give you a chance. I’m here to support you. Let’s work together—but ultimately, it’s up to you.
I hope that’s helpful—and I’d love to hear how it goes. Good luck, and please let me know!
p.s. If your teenager doesn’t have summer reading, choose something else to practice transferring responsibility to him this summer. Maybe you’ve been doing his laundry or managing his sports equipment or cooking all the dinners. What can you begin to transition to him in the gentle on-ramp of the summer months?