Get in the Driver’s Seat of Your Teen’s Executive Functioning
It’s Monday morning and you’re pulling your hair out because you were up too late helping your teen finish a project. A project he’s had weeks to complete. It’s Monday afternoon and you’re driving back to your teen’s school to drop off his gym clothes, which he forget at the house. You find yourself asking (or screaming), “Why does this keep happening? He is a teenager for goodness’ sake! When will he mature and get it together?”
Many parents, educators, and practitioners have encountered the day-to-day frustrations associated with weak executive functioning in teens. While some delay in executive functioning is to be expected as the frontal lobes are not fully developed in adolescence, some teens experience more significant weakness, which can affect academics and family relationships.
Executive functions are the “driver” of the brain— they control behaviors needed for accomplishing tasks and maintaining goal-directed activities. Would it be easier to put your brain on autopilot and not be responsible for “driving”? Of course it would! Imagine relaxing on the couch, fully immersed in a Netflix series, when you remember that you need something from the store. How difficult is it to disengage from the pleasurable, relaxing activity to do the “responsible” thing and go to the store? This is how your teen feels when asked to stop playing video games or to get off their phone to do homework. Putting in the extra effort to engage your executive functions can be incredibly exhausting— especially for teens whose frontal lobes aren’t fully developed, or for those who are already having difficulties in this area. You may begin to think that your teen doesn’t have a “driver.” In fact, you may feel like he or she doesn’t even have the ignition on at all! So how do you fuel your teen to “rev up” their executive functioning? Simple: You take control of it.
You and your child cannot control whether he or she has executive functioning weaknesses. These are typically dictated by genetics, neurodevelopmental influences, or neurological problems. Executive functioning weaknesses can be particularly prevalent across youths with ADHD, but can also appear in youths with mood disorders, anxiety disorders, autism spectrum disorder, and learning disorders. In fact, teens can have moments of weakened executive functioning as they are incredibly vulnerable to outside factors such as stress, lack of sleep, lack of physical exercise, sadness and loneliness. These are all common, sometimes uncontrollable, experiences for teenagers. These stressors deplete resources needed to fuel executive functioning.
Luckily, you and your child can control how you choose to respond to these weaknesses and stressors by changing environments and behaviors. We know that weak executive functioning skills can be improved with behavioral strategies/interventions that are critical for regaining control and strengthening day-to-day executive functions. The brain is like a muscle that is capable of getting stronger. Since the frontal lobes are in their prime developmental stages, the effect of intervening early and changing behaviors/environment could potentially result in long-term changes in brain development. This is critical as we know that teens who display executive functioning weaknesses will go on to have similar problems as adults. They aren’t going to “grow out of it” without some explicit help.
As a parent, educator or practitioner, you might be wondering what you can do to help. You know that nagging your teen isn’t working, nor is just assuming that he or she will “get it” on their own. Before any explicit strategies can be taught, a number of key points must be considered and committed to, if you are seeking improvements in your teen’s day-to-day functioning.
- The strategy must become a habit. Imagine teaching a teen a new skill and only having them implement it in that moment. It’s not likely to stick unless it’s done daily. Remember, you’re exercising your teen’s brain. Just like exercise, if you’re only doing it once a week, you won’t see significant gain. Parents, teachers, and practitioners should work closely and establish a regular routine of checking in with the teen regarding usage of the skill, and set the expectation that the strategies will be used regularly. These check-ins can be reduced in frequency once mastery and habit formation is established.
- Start small! Choose one behavior that you’d love to see your teen do consistently and focus on that. Many teens can feel overwhelmed because creating new habits is HARD, and they see it as extra work. Beginning a new routine is challenging, so be sure to validate the task for your teen and explain why you’re asking them to try something new (i.e., to reduce their stress and yours).
- Your child may need more support than you want to give him. Often, parents balk at what is being asked of them in supporting their teen’s executive functioning development. It seems paradoxical that parents are required to be more hands-on when the end goal is their teen’s independence. The problem is that, for many people, executive functioning is not a problem. Many successful people automatically implement strategies that increase productivity and efficiency without needing explicit instruction on how to do it. This creates the assumption that your teen should be able to use strategies and manage his or her tasks. But, unfortunately, they can’t. The mindset must be shifted. Instead of thinking “My teen should be able to do this,” you should attempt to alter your thoughts to “My teen isn’t wired to do this naturally and needs to be taught.” Once taught, he or she will be able to implement the strategies.
- Model Good Behavior. Some parents of teens with weak executive functioning will also have problems themselves. Structuring good behaviors to model for your child is critical. If you’re leaving on a vacation, sit down with your teen and create a packing list for each of you to follow. If you have a list of errands to run, take a moment with your teen to discuss the most efficient route to aid planning and time management skills. If you’re helping with a big project at your teen’s school, show them how you break down the tasks involved over multiple days to reduce the chance of feeling overwhelmed. Then, help the teen identify how similar behaviors can be implemented into their own projects.
- The “Do Nots”: There are many behaviors that are not encouraged. First, do not do the strategy for your teen. Don’t write things in his or her calendar, don’t create their to-do lists, and don’t scramble at the last minute to “save” your teen from not finishing a project. These parental behaviors worsen and maintain weak executing functioning as they reinforce the idea that the teen does not need to put effort into trying new behaviors because they will always be saved. Second, do not nag your teen. In my experience, parental nagging leads immediately to your teen turning off and ignoring you--and the executive functioning strategy. Rather, use prompts with your teen (e.g., “Wow, that does seem like a huge project. Perhaps we can break it down to make it more manageable). Eventually, they may be able to identify that a big project needs to be broken down, but they are likely not there yet. Help your teen to identify when a good strategy/behavior can be used. Next, if you notice that your teen is not moving forward (and you notice that you’re vulnerable to nagging), note this with your teen and ask how you can help. For example, “I see that you haven’t started that project. Maybe I can help you break it down.” As noted above, you won’t do it for them, but you will support them in doing it on their own. The idea is that if your teen cannot yet use the skill— you need to help your teen until he or she is doing it on their own (which should be your expectation).
- Meet your teen where he is. Parents must meet their teen where they are. Yes, in the perfect world, your teen would be managing his or her responsibilities on their own--but, they’re not. Therefore, your expectation as a parent cannot be that he or she will miraculously start doing a better job. If your teen isn’t using a strategy or behavior, you need to be more proactive with prompts and check-ins.
- Rewards are encouraged! Many parents will indicate that they do not think it’s appropriate to reward a child for doing something that is expected. While this may be true, you must ask yourself, “Is providing a reward better than having my teen continue to not display the behavior I want?” Remember, you cannot begin a healthy habit if one never starts.
- Identify “quicksand” and don’t get near it. Quicksand is the term I use to describe those activities that we engage in that suck our time away in unproductive ways. Common examples include social media apps, television series, YouTube, and video games. Quicksand activities should only be engaged in when all tasks/chores/homework are completed. Otherwise, your teen is setting him or herself up for even greater difficulty, and even failure.) with pulling himself out of the quicksand to do the more aversive, yet necessary, task.
- Set expectations and boundaries. Remind your child that activities such as having a smart phone, playing video games, and seeing friends are all privileges...not guarantees. Request that a new strategy be tried in order to do one of those activities. This may cause distress but may increase motivation. It is okay to have high expectations of your teen’s behavior! All of the effective executive functioning strategies are easy to use and can be implemented by nearly all teens. So, it’s okay to expect that your teen follows suit!
- Be patient. This may not be easy, but it will be worth it!
Alissa Ellis, Ph.D is a clinical neuropsychologist and the creator of the thinkSMART® program, an intervention for executive functioning in teens. For more information, please visit alissaellisphd.comalissaellisphd.com.