ADHD Kills Motivation

How ADHD magnifies motivation problems in teens and what you can do about it

Posted Oct 15, 2017

     Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder kills motivation. Some even think that ADHD impacts motivation as much as it does attention. Though medication is often necessary, in focusing too much on the biological aspects of the disorder, I fear we sometimes overlook its psychological effect. This happens no place more than with motivation, which is one of the reasons that I wrote He’s Not Lazy: Empowering Your Son to Believe in Himself.

     ADHD is like a big magnifying glass that makes every problem with motivation larger. The first issue is a teen’s need for independence. A teen definitely wants to make his own decisions, but what he won’t tell you is that he also wants to stay a little kid so he can keep depending on you. When he is arguing about getting a later curfew your son is asserting independence. However, when he does not pick up after himself, forgets to bring his history paper to school, or acts like a two year old, he is acting out dependence.

       So how does ADHD magnify this problem? Most parents of children with ADHD do more for their kid than parents of children who don’t have the disorder. This added involvement was a good thing when he was younger. You kept him organized and focused, However, just when school becomes more challenging (changing classes, keeping things in lockers, harder material) puberty strikes! The ADHD teen often rejects his parents help even more vehemently than his non-ADHD friends. That’s because parental intervention becomes an even bigger threat to his burgeoning independence and need to separate from you. This is why teens with ADHD can be even more oppositional and defiant than their peers.

       There is one more issue that wreaks havoc on the teenaged boy with ADHD. Unlike girls, boys and men have to prove their masculinity; not to girls, but to each other. They do so by being competent, in charge, and always knowing what to do. So for a boy who has trouble doing school because he is inattentive or disorganized having ADHD can present an indirect threat to his masculinity. He will rationalize that school does not really matter, because he would rather compromise his grades than his self-worth as a confident and capable man.

      So if ADHD can kill motivation, how can we resuscitate it? The key to helping a boy with ADHD develop the internal motivation to succeed can be summed by the Three C’s: Competence, Control, and Connection. In this post we will focus on the first two:

      In order be self-motivated to do anything a person has to feel both competent at it. They also have to feel in control of the how they do it, and of the outcome. Self-Motivation rests on a sense of autonomy, which means making choices and dealing with the consequences of those choice. Autonomy is what teens want, though they are not always happy with the accountability part.

        In order to tackle these problems parents need to back off gradually.  The best way to do this is to follow the maxim ‘less is more.’ If you take less responsibility for your teen, eventually he will pick up the slack. Remember this is going to take some time. But your son does not have to grow up all at once. Nor does he need a 4.0 average to get into a college that’s a good fit. However, the more you let him take responsibility for his high school self, the higher are the chances his college self will see graduation. 

Here are a few suggestions to help make this transition:

     Provide Structure without control: Kids need structure in the form of limits, both in and out of school. However, telling your son he has to be home by 11 is different than spelling out how he does it. The same goes with grades. Set a minimum expectation for grades (which is never straight A’s no matter how smart your son is). Ask him if this is reasonable, and then let him figure out how to get there.  Check in every three weeks or so, but not every night. If he is not on the right track then you might need to add more structure (limit time playing video games, put the phone in the kitchen during homework hours, curb his social life) until his grades improve. The idea is “it seems you are not spending enough time on your work, so we need to limit your other activities”.


     Use scaffolding. Scaffolding dovetails the progression of child development. Abilities and skills do not surface overnight, they emerge progressively. Scaffolding is what happens when a parent or teacher helps a child master a skill or ability that the child is almost able to do. It’s very different than over-parenting. Scaffolding supports your son’s executive functions: over-parenting takes control of them. For example, your son might need you to put important due dates on a calendar, but then he can look at the calendar himself and keep track of what is coming up

.     Stop doing too much: Make a list of all the things you do for your son in a week. Think about the things he can actually do for himself, almost do for himself, and can’t do. Remember there is a difference between can’t and won’t. Cross off as many of the things you know he can do for himself, thinking through which of the consequences are ok to let happen. If he can call the orthodontist to schedule a check up and does not, give it some time before you jump in. But don’t nag. If somethings are too complicated, like applying to college all on his own, break things down into the steps he can do. This is how you scaffold taking responsibility. And pay close attention to all the chores you do for him that he can do for himself.


     Don’t Be a Superhero: Rescuing your son from every problem robs him of the opportunity to learn the skills he will need to function on his own. It also gives him the message that he he is not competent, and can’t exist without you. Think of three baskets: Situations he definitely needs you to step in because the consequences are too great (a health problem, a teacher who is not just tough, but destructive, a deadline for a long term activity, like an entire sports season), situations that he might need your assistance, but can do a lot of it on his own (applying to college, teaching him to advocate with a difficult teacher, reminding him once about an upcoming deadline), and things he can do all on his own (his homework, remembering his sports equipment, doing the dishes….)

I am doing a webinar on this subject for Additude Magazine. I hope you can tune in Tuesday, November 14 at 1 pm. If not, it will be available for streaming after the airdate.

https://www.additudemag.com/webinar/motivating-teens-with-adhd/