I’m the mom of a teenage son with ADHD. Homework and chores are a daily struggle and we’ve tried EVERYTHING to try to motivate him but nothing seems to work. Help!
The relationship between ADHD and motivation is a complex one. While we neurotypicals can often just will ourselves into action, for those with ADHD it’s just not that simple. Before you declare your son to be an immovable force, here are some important points to consider…
Motivation may not be the problem
If you find that your child isn’t following through no matter how many rewards or incentives you offer, it could be that motivation isn’t the problem- his lack of skills is.
Children and teens with ADHD often have weak executive function skills which are responsible for things like planning, organization, time management, self-regulation, and starting and finishing tasks. Additionally, young people with ADHD tend to be three to fiver years behind their peers in terms of their “executive age” and ability.
While your son may actually be very motivated to do what you’re asking, he could be completely lost as to how to go about doing it. The next time he fails to follow through on completing a task, ask him (in a calm, non-judgmental tone), what makes doing that particular task hard and what might make it easier.
Resist the urge to say, “Yes but he/she should be able to do that on their own!”. It’s important to understand that when you have a child with ADHD, you need to meet them where they are, not where they SHOULD be. Even seemingly simple tasks like cleaning their room or a page of math homework can overwhelm a child with ADHD.
Make it a habit to check in with your child to help them identify where their challenge areas are, brainstorm solutions, and provide support until they gain traction and are better able to carry out the tasks independently.
But what’s in it for me?
While it would be great if kids were naturally motivated by the intrinsic value of say, working hard and getting good grades, that’s rarely the case. Kids and teens with ADHD have a particularly tough time considering how their present actions tie into larger, future goals. Additionally, an outcome that is months or even years in the future may be nearly impossible for your child or teen to grasp- there’s no “urge in urgency” so to speak.
Ask your child or teen what would make engaging in a particular task meaningful for them; what do they want? More freedom? Less scrutiny? Trust? Greater independence? Privileges? Once you know what your child wants, connect the dots and illustrate for them how those boring worksheets or completing daily chores are directly related to their ability to make choices, have greater freedom, earn privileges, etc.
Provide positive reinforcement, not bribes
Positive reinforcement is a crucial element of motivation and self-regulation for children and teens with ADHD.
The ADHD nervous system is constantly scanning the environment for stimulation and when the individual engages in a stimulating, interesting, or pleasurable experience, it triggers a release of dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that is integral to motivation and the ability to start and complete tasks.
ADHDers typically have lower levels of dopamine and therefore require a greater degree of stimulation than neurotypicals do. This is where positive reinforcement and rewards come into play. Providing immediate, positive reinforcement, not just when your child or teen meets a larger goal but as they make progress along the way, can dramatically boost motivation and follow-through.
The type of reinforcement you provide will really depend on the age of your child, their interests, and what you feel is appropriate. Examples include praise, privileges, money, activities, etc.
However, it’s important to make the distinction between positive reinforcement or rewards and bribery. Bribery occurs when you offer something in the heat of the moment in an attempt to get your child to do, or not do, something. For example…
“if you’ll just stop yelling, I’ll let you play your video game”
“If you promise not to go over the minutes on your cell phone again, we’ll pay the bill this time”
Bribery is NOT positive reinforcement; quite the opposite really. In these scenarios, the parent is offering something in the moment to make a problematic behavior stop, thereby teaching the child to behave only when a gift is being given. Rewards must include clear expectations and guidelines which the child must meet first. These are details that must be negotiated and spelled out so that your child knows exactly what is expected and that the desired behaviors must be demonstrated consistently.
Going back to our mom’s question, while it may seem that her son is apathetic and unresponsive , it’s important to understand that each and every one of us is motivated by SOMETHING; just because she hasn’t identified what is important to her son, doesn’t mean he values nothing. It could also be that he really does care and wants to do well (who wouldn’t want that?) but needs additional support in order to be successful. Or perhaps he needs to be shown that taking out the trash and getting homework assignments done on time are integral to the bigger picture and getting what he wants.
It all begins with having a conversation with your child or teen. Work together to identify challenges, provide the necessary support, negotiate possible rewards, and set clear expectations and guidelines.