Teenagers Need Reward Systems Too!!

reward system

A Humble Surprise

My beautiful daughter and I recently had the honor of presenting at a conference on the topic of Girls and Women with ADHD. As we worked on our presentation, I asked her what she thought parents should do differently to better support teenage girls with ADHD. Her answer both humbled and surprised me.

She said, "You guys always compliment and reward my brother when he does the smallest thing, but you never reward or compliment me unless I do something really big. It would be nice if I got recognized for the good things more often, too.”

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Wait – does my teenager need a reward system?

In spite of all my years of coach training and ADHD education, the first thought (god help me) that popped into my head was this: "I shouldn't have to reward you for doing the stuff you should be doing anyway!” Yup. Shocked even myself.

Thankfully, I kept that thought to myself.

Because she was right. Again.

My teenager deserves recognition and incentives, just like her younger brothers – and honestly, just like most adults do, too.

In our home, we celebrate loudly and often when my younger sons with ADHD remember to throw away their trash, hang up their coats or brush their teeth. Both were diagnosed at an early age and needed systems and structures from the start to accomplish basic tasks.

On the flip side, our daughter was already 15 when she was finally diagnosed, and she didn't need (or so we thought) systems and structures at all; she'd being sailing through basic tasks for years!

But it turns out, she does need and deserve systems and structures that support her challenges. Because even though she has no trouble doing the things her brothers struggle with, she has major challenges when it comes to decision-making, time management and impulse control.

As I reflected on the situation, I realized that it had been at least 3 weeks since she had an “issue” (i.e. gotten into trouble for making a bad choice.) Unfortunately, I also realized that I had not once acknowledged her for her hard work, nor praised her for making choices that kept her out of trouble. If I were in her shoes, I think I'd wonder if all this hard work was worth it? She'd been struggling every day to make appropriate choices, and was not getting recognized for it! I admit, I was embarrassed and ashamed.

So, what to do? How do you parent reward and encourage a teenager (in this case, a 16-year-old girl) for making good choices and refraining from risky behavior?

Turns out, reward systems for teenagers work just as well as the ones we use for younger kids with ADHD. The rewards change, but the process is similar. Here's what a solid celebration plan could include:

1. It must be simple.

Pick one behavior you want to reinforce or change. Make it clear what you're measuring and what the payoff is.

2. It must be time bound.

For younger kids, you would want to start with a time frame of 30 minutes to an hour (possibly less, depending on the behavior you want to change). For teenagers, I recommend starting with a half day at first (less if you find your teen isn't able to be successful) and then working up to a full day, then 2 days, etc.

3. The reward must be immediate & meaningful.

I could promise my kids with ADHD a first class trip to Disney World and Universal studios if they could stay out of trouble for a month, but it's a safe bet because that trip will never happen! A month feels like forever to a kid with ADHD. Teenagers can typically delay gratification a bit longer than younger kids, but they still need immediate reinforcement. So, talk with your teen to determine what rewards work best for them (and for you! This isn't intended to break the bank!) before you put your plan into effect!

Putting It Into Practice

I took my daughter to Starbucks after school today (one of the options on her list of preferred rewards) to recognize her for the amazing job she did presenting at the ADHD Conference. And tomorrow (if all goes well), she'll get to go shopping with friends because she's used social media appropriately for the past week.

So, you tell me – does your teenager need a reward system? A little verbal acknowledgment – and a gift card or two – can work wonders as an incentive and reinforcement for teenagers. So ask your teenager – and find out what will work in your house.


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