Does My Teen Have ADD, or Is He Just Too Lazy to Do His Homework?

Filed under: Expert Advice: Tweens, Expert Advice: Teens

Dear AdviceMama,

My 14-year-old son is an intelligent young man who is failing school due to his inability to turn in his homework assignments. We have tried many avenues that have been unsuccessful, should I have him tested for ADD?


Signed,
Wondering About ADD



Dear Wondering,

It's possible that your son has attention and organizational challenges, even if he doesn't qualify for a diagnosis of ADD. Some kids do start poorly with schoolwork as they move into adolescence. Social distractions, hormones and stress can all play a role in causing a previously conscientious youngster to fall slightly behind in the academic realm.

But it is also not uncommon for a youngster to be bright and do well in school up until 13 or 14 years old when the work becomes more demanding, at which point they might start demonstrating symptoms that could suggest ADD. Intelligent children can often get away with doing the bare minimum on their school work and still maintain good grades, if the work is easy enough. Once it gets more demanding, however, signs of ADD may become more apparent, which could warrant a formal evaluation.

Whether he does or doesn't merit a formal diagnosis, below are some recommendations that might help with the homework problem. If these don't make a difference, and there is a family history of attention problems, impulsivity issues, organizational challenges or addiction (often an offshoot of ADD), I suggest that you consider having him tested.

• Help him develop a system for managing his homework.You might have color-coded folders for each class, or a special section in his binder where all completed homework is placed.

• Encourage your son to create a ritual, whereby he grabs his "Completed Assignments" folder as soon as he enters each classroom. Tell him to check that folder, even if he doesn't recall having something to turn in for that specific class. Memory and attention issues (not to mention hormones!) can fog up a youngster's brain, making them believe they don't have homework to give the teacher when they actually do.

• Stay in close contact with his teachers for a few weeks. Discuss options for enlisting their support in making clear requests for homework to be turned in. While it may seem your son is old enough to remember to hand in assignments without prodding, an attention-grabbing announcement might be all it takes to help him get back into the habit of turning in his work. If he is ADDish, the distractions of the classrooms may derail his otherwise good intentions to turn in his assignments.

• Make sure he's getting plenty of sleep and good food. I can't emphasize enough how important it is for kids to be well rested and nourished. If your teen is staying up 'til all hours of the night or racing out the door without a good breakfast, it is much more likely that he'll have problems keeping up with his schoolwork.

Work with your youngster as his ally to help him develop the skills and strategies that will help him succeed. Don't ridicule or punish him; be perceived as his ally and supporter, rather than his adversary.

If the situation doesn't improve after trying these ideas, and especially if there is a family history of similar problems, consider having him tested. A thorough evaluation should also rule out any medical issues that could be contributing to the problem.

Yours in parenting support,
AdviceMama

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