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Article: Raising Complex Teens With ADHD/Learning Differences/Anxiety

Raising a teenager isn’t easy, and neither is being a teen in today’s world. Add in ADHD, learning differences and/or mental health conditions like anxiety, and the challenges on both sides can multiply exponentially.

At MAIA Education Resource Center, we know how important it is for caregivers to have access to resources when their teens are struggling. In our recent panel, we brought together educational and child development experts who are invaluable to the conversation of how to help complex teens navigate what is already known as a challenging developmental time. Our panel included:

• Kenny Creed, MSEd, an educator and innovation consultant to schools • Scott Palyo, MD, a psychiatrist in private practice in Manhattan

• Scott Quasha, PsyD, a clinical and school psychologist

• Sharon Thomas, MSc, MSEd, an educator and Founder/ Director of MAIA Education Resource Center

Below are some of the panelists’ insights on strengthening your relationship with your teen:

Connect With Empathy

Due to pressures teens can feel that can come from academic deadlines and demands, sports and activity commitments, social pressures, social media and the pandemic, connecting with empathy is ever more important. Being a teen today is different from what it was when you were a teen.

“It’s really helpful when our teens know that we understand how hard it is to be a teen today,” says Kenny Creed. “We have to let our children know that we see their light and that we value them for who they are deep inside of themselves.

” Your teen’s stress may be fueled not just by school, but also by self-criticism and parental expectations, Creed says. Teens might internalize that their school performance is equivalent to their worth as individuals.

“Students in school are evaluated in a deficit fashion, starting with 100 and then points taken off for imperfect answers and performance,” Creed explains. Students often grapple with the pressures of that model and the uphill battle to improve grades after even just a single bad test result. Furthermore, the system at many schools is based on compliance. Children who are very creative or think differently might be stifled by the rigidity of a set curriculum.

Your teen may question whether their hard work, creativity and ideas are valued at school. In response, they may crawl under the covers, self-medicate or lash out, Creed notes.

While a parent’s natural response may be to react in anger, it’s important to remember that teens may not yet have the skills to cope with stress or how they’re feeling. By letting your teens know that you understand their struggles and want to help, they will feel less alone, Creed says.

Enlist the Right Resources

Whether your teen is quietly or outwardly struggling, one place to start is to enlist the help of professional resources and potentially expand your village.

If you’re a parent of a complex teen, you know by now how important it is to have a village. Your village might include your child’s therapist, psychiatrist, educational psychologist, pediatrician, tutor, educators and learning resource specialists. By equipping both yourself and your teen with the right resources, you will help your adolescent feel that their life is more manageable.

“When we see that there is a change that surprises us, that’s the moment to inquire with school and people who know the teen well,” according to Dr. Scott Palyo. He encourages parents to get curious about the details of a teen’s struggles — is it academic, friendships, mood? That can help direct your next steps.

“I always point to the least restrictive interventions … is there something that can be offered by the school, such as your teen meeting with a counselor, tutor or coach?” Palyo says. “If that approach doesn’t work, scale up as needed.”

If you’re seeing patterns that are prolonged and surprising with your teen, such as a dip in grades that last a quarter or semester, then it might be time to consider an evaluation, Dr. Scott Quasha suggests. Testing may include a psychological, psycho-educational or neuropsychological evaluation — with the goal to rule out specific barriers to the teen succeeding.

“Through the evaluation process, it’s so helpful to understand who the child is, including strengths, relative weaknesses, barriers and how they learn best,” notes Sharon Thomas.

Hack School with the Right Support

An evaluation can also be viewed as an action plan — by better understanding your child’s weaknesses, you can play to their strengths and figure out how to overcome or work around their challenges, Creed notes.

As a parent, let your child know that “we’re going to figure out how you can do school to a point where you can get through it, tolerate it, manage it and maybe even enjoy it,” says Creed, weighing in with his perspective not only as an educator, but also as a parent of a complex teen.

Support depends on the individual’s needs and may include:

• Therapy

• Tutoring

• Executive function coaching

• Classroom accommodations

• Other school-related modifications

• Medication for ADHD, anxiety or other conditions

“When figuring out what support will be most helpful, take your teen’s lead and give options rather than saying ‘here’s what we’re doing, here’s the solution,’” says Quasha. Knowing that the teenage years are a natural stage of building independence and wanting autonomy, bringing your teen into building a solution — essentially, getting their buy-in — is critical.

If the teen’s needs can’t be met in their current environment, it may be time to consider other school settings. “The right school can be truly transformative for individuals with complex profiles,” says Thomas. “We can’t underscore that enough.”

For more guidance and tips on parenting complex teens, access the recording of this panel session at

Raising Complex Teens With ADHD - Learning Differences - Anxiety Article (1)
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