Parenting a neurodivergent teen

Parenting a teenager can be stressful enough as it is, but adding neurodivergence (ADHD, autism spectrum disorder [ASD]) to the mix may make things feel complicated. Parents may feel overwhelmed and not know where to turn for help or how to get on the right track. Below is a beginner’s guide to parenting a neurodivergent teenager:

  • Do your research! Find out as much as you can about ADHD, ASD, or other neurodevelopmental disorders that affect your child. Set up an appointment with your child’s doctor or therapist to learn more about neurodivergence. The more you know, the better able you’ll be to help them navigate through the challenges they face on a day-to-day basis. Parenting a teenager with ADHD or ASD requires an understanding of the symptoms and behaviors associated with these disorders. It’s important to realize that your child’s struggles are not “all in their head” or just “bad behavior.” Help your child learn about themselves and their different abilities by encouraging self-exploration through reading, art, research, or talking with a therapist.
  • Set up social activities with friends early on in adolescence so they become comfortable making friends (without you).
  • Learn about their sensory needs. Do they seek high impact activities with loud music, physical activity, or bright lights (e.g. going to a roller skating rink) or prefer quiet, low stimulation activities such as reading, making art, or spending one-on-one time with a friend at a coffee shop or book store? Learn to recognize the signs that your teenager is over- or under-stimulated. For example, they may become irritable or angry, lose ability to control impulses, engage in self-stimulating behavior (known as “stimming”), or they may shut down and retreat to their room. Encourage them to create a safe space in their room with activities that help them calm down and feel grounded (for example, coloring books, noise canceling headphones, puzzles, favorite fidget toys, scented lotion, stuffed animal). A “coping box/bag” can contain these items if they are on the go.
  • The process of creating a routine for your teenager is going to be different from the one you set up for them as a young child due to their new independence. Set aside some time to sit down with your teen and create a weekly schedule that will work for you AND them. They may need a laid out daily or visual schedule depending on their individual abilities. Parents will want to set expectations and limits early on so there are no surprises. In addition, make sure to provide verbal reinforcement during the adjustment. A positive, reassuring attitude goes a long way when it comes to helping your teenager adjust to the new routine.
  • If you feel yourself getting frustrated or discouraged, this is normal! Parents need support, too. Therapy, support groups, talking with another parent, spending time with friends, and engaging in intentional self-care can alleviate stress.
  • Is your neurodivergent teenager having trouble academically? Set up a meeting with their school guidance department to discuss creating a 504 or individualized education plan (IEP) to provide appropriate accommodations.

Your teen’s primary care provider and therapist can help you experiment with different treatment options if your initial approach is not working. There are many interventions available and some methods may not work for every neurodivergent teenager. Try researching cognitive behavioral therapy, family therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, play therapy (yes, even for adolescents!), art therapy, drama therapy, equine therapy, applied behavioral analysis, and other supportive therapies.

Remember, you are your teen’s number one support as you advocate for their needs and provide on-going love and encouragement!


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