My 13-Year-Old's Impulsive Behavior Drives Children and Teachers Crazy!

Filed under: Medical Conditions, Expert Advice: Teens

Dear AdviceMama,

My ADHD son has impulse problems. He is 13 years old and his behavior drives other children away. His teachers are beyond frustrated. Any advice on what to do?

Frustrated Mom

Dear Frustrated,

The pre-frontal cortex (PFC) is the part of the brain behind the forehead that governs the inhibitory response in human beings. It creates a pause between having an impulse, and acting on it.

In the ADD-ish children and teens I've worked with, I almost always see up to a 30 percent developmental lag between a child's actual age and their PFC developmental function. In other words, while your child may officially be 13 years old, (and might be quite mature in some respects) he may be more like an 8 or 9-year-old when it comes to controlling his impulsive behavior.

Given how frequently he frustrates friends and teachers, he's probably highly sensitive to feeling scolded or reined in by those who try to force him to "act his age." Any effort you make to teach him how to behave more appropriately will have to come across as helpful rather than critical or shaming.

Here's my advice:

• Make sure your child sees you as his ally and champion, rather than a source of non-stop criticism. The more he feels safe to confide in you, the more receptive he'll be to asking for better strategies when he gets into trouble or alienates a new friend.

• Give your son plenty of opportunity to participate in activities he loves that come easily to him and fuel his self-confidence (other than video games or TV). Many impulsive children feel they're constantly failing or disappointing others, which keeps them in a state of stress that fuels their misbehavior.

• Make sure your teen is getting plenty of sleep, good nutrition, fish oils, and lots of time out in nature. All these elements have been proven to help ADD-ish children function better and are especially important when you fold adolescent hormones into the mix!

• Role play alternative approaches he can take when he's feeling restless in class and tempted to become disruptive, or when he becomes impatient with a friend and feels like saying something mean. Repeated practice -- in small doses -- often helps impulsive children stretch out that pause between wanting to do something and deciding it's not a good idea.

As frustrating as it is to have to deal with your son's mishaps, the more you accept him as is -- rather than comparing him to what I call your ideal, "snapshot child" -- the better able you'll be to gradually help him try new ways of interacting with friends more patiently, or holding his tongue in class when he feels the urge to blurt something out.

Yours in parenting support,

AdviceMama, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed and practicing psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.
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