How to cope with a troubled, tearaway teenage son

I feel I have failed in being a mother. I have run out of ideas on how to talk to my ADHD son

Struggling to cope: sometimes, teenage blow-ups are in the context the teenager trying to work out their identity and who their family is. Photograph: Getty/iStock

Struggling to cope: sometimes, teenage blow-ups are in the context the teenager trying to work out their identity and who their family is. Photograph: Getty/iStock


Q: I am a single parent of a 14-year-old boy and 12-year-old girl. I need help in parenting my son. I am lost, angry, confused, desperate and sad when it comes to my son. He’s been hard work from about four years of age but the last year has topped them all. He was been diagnosed with ADHD at age 12 and on medicine since 13. Ritalin did not work so now he’s on Concerta XL 57 mg a day. (I still think it’s not working).

He’s schoolwork is really bad and no matter what I did to help improve it he’s not motivated or interested in trying a bit harder.

At the end of last year he started getting in trouble in school. Stealing from his classmates, from shops, from my purse, from everywhere he could see an opportunity. To top that off, he now has a girlfriend behind my back despite me trying to keep a close eye on him.

I feel like I have failed in every aspect in being a mother because I have run out of ideas on how to talk to him, how to make him understand his choices of being the way he is are very wrong.

I am looking to get advice in getting better at parenting my son and not let him ruin his life.

A: I am sorry to hear you are going through such a challenging period with your son and It is good that you are reaching out and seeking support. When children develop behavioural problems at home and school it can take a lot of patient effort to turn things round and get back on track especially during adolescence when the normal process of teenage rebellion can exacerbate existing problems.

ADHD can bring extra extra problems, causing young people to struggle at school and to act more impulsively getting themselves into more trouble.

Getting professional help

When dealing with ADHD, rarely does one approach such as as medication work by itself and usually it is a combination of strategies and supports that work best.

For example, your son might need some individual educational support to help him in school as well as a consistent and positive behavior management approach at home. I would suggest you contact the school and ask them what supports and referrals they can provide.

It would be also useful to you to attend an evidence based parenting course such as the Strengthening Families or Parents Plus Adolescent Programme which could support you to communicate better with your son, and to establish good family routines and to discover effective discipline strategies.

Even if there is not a course in your area, there may be individual behaviour management support or family therapy you can attend. Go back to the professional who made the diagnosis of ADHD or contact your GP or local health centre or contact one of the ADHD parent support services such as and ask for recommendations.

Your son might also benefit from individual support himself such as youth counselling (e.g. or by accessing a specialist youth worker ( or by joining a mentorship programme such as Big Brother Big Sister run by Foroige (

Managing his behaviour positively

In dealing directly with your son’s behaviour the key is to communicate positively while holding him to account. The aim is to strike a balance between trying to understand and listen to him, as well as directly employing consequences for his behavior.

Sit down with him and explain to him, that you care for him and as a parent that loves him you can’t sit by and let him get into this trouble. Without judging him, try to get him to explain what is going for him – ask what exactly happens when he gets to the point of stealing?

What does he need the money for? Then negotiate with him different solutions – how can he avoid these situations again? How can he get money more legitimately?

Consider consequences for what he has done – he has to pay back what he has stolen or make some reparations, as well as possible motivating rewards going forward.

If he works hard at changing, you will look at him getting some of the things he wants. Certainly try to make his everyday privileges dependent on good behavior – he only gets access to his phone and technology when he keeps to some agreed rules, for example.

Finally, try to keep the channels of communication open between you – no matter what happens try to keep talking and keep persisting in trying to sort things out. If you attend one of the parenting courses or other services above, you should get more ideas on management strategies you can put in place over time – I will send you on a copy of my book, Positive Parenting, which outlines more ideas also.

Getting family support

Going through a challenging period with a teenager is hard for any parent, but can be extra challenging when you are a single parent. Reading your question, I wondered if there was a way you could gain more support from your family. You didn’t mention your son’s father, but is he involved with your son? If not is there a way he could become more constructively involved and even attend some of the services above with you?

Sometimes, teenage blow-ups are in the context the teenager trying to work out their identity and who their family is – having both parents work constructively together can help greatly.

If it is not possible to gain his father’s involvement are there other extended family members who could help out. In some families I have worked with, having an aunty or uncle becomes supportively involved (e.g. perhaps agreeing to help out weekly over an extended period) has made a difference.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He will be delivering a series of talks and courses on Parenting Children and Teenagers in different locations starting on 10th October. See for details