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Why Your Smart Teen

Does Stupid Things

(and how to keep your cool)

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Over the decades, we’ve laughed at Wayne and Garth living in the basement, giggled at Tripp failing to launch out of his childhood room, and almost wet our pants laughing at Matt Foley living in a van down by the river.

These fictitious basement dwellers are a reality for many parents of adult children today.

Why DO so many young adults live at home?

Experts cite that millennials are choosing to live at home due to rising housing costs, college tuition baggage, and no jobs.

While some of those are real concerns, I believe there is something else at play here.

Adulting is Hard

Meet Bobby. (name has been changed) An 18 year old that lived in his mother’s dark, dusty basement for close to 20 years past his high school graduation. He struggled to hold down a job and moved several times between his divorced parents’ homes.The real reason adulting makes you tired. | madeformath.com/ef

Showering was not important.

Work was a pain.

People were annoying.

He vacillated between resolving to do better and lying in bed for days. In other words, adulting was hard in every aspect of his life.

Now it would be easy to label him as a lazy, unmotivated dude. As I reflect on how his life went from 18 – 34, I saw dysfunction in the brain.

Failed Launches

Bobby lacked the skills he needed to be successful. He had tried several times to launch himself out of his childhood home, but yet the dysfunction in his brain prevented him from doing so.

He didn’t become impaired at 18, rather this dysfunction got more unruly at the age of 11. This same issue is starting in your own tween and teen right now.

We know that starting around age 11, teens pre-frontal cortex is under construction which is a gift as it is the dysfunction that needs to happen so your child will want to launch from home.

Related: Why Your Smart Teen Does Stupid Things Sometimes

But why do failed launches occur?

It’s due to poor executive functioning. These skills reside in the pre-frontal cortex and continue to develop as late as 30 years of age. (Maybe that’s why Wayne and Garth got it together a little more in the sequel)

Good news?

There is plenty of time to help your teen develop the skills to live a happy life.  If you are a parent with an adult child living with you, it’s not too late. I tell my students, there is always time to learn.

Bad news?

Many teens and adults have impairments to the front part of the brain. Executive functioning issues coexist with ADHD, autism, dyslexia, sensory processing, auditory processing, anxiety, depression, and many others. This makes typical development happen at a slower rate.

I think Bobby had an undiagnosed issue that led to his poor executive function skills.

Could your teen be battling an undiagnosed issue? Keep reading and see if any of this resonates with you.

What is Executive Function and How Does It Affect My Teen?

Carrying out multiple steps can be challenging. Let’s look at the processes needed to complete a math homework assignment.

Why is homework so hard? It's complicated. Check out the executive functioning connection to homework. | https://madeformath.com/ef

Click to enlarge

Does this help you have empathy for what your teen is trying to do with a set of skills that are not fully developed?

Each of these steps are found within the 8 Key Executive Functions.


Graphic of 8 Key Executive Functions

Click to enlarge

Now is the time to start working on these skills. But before we launch into that conversation, first let’s stop and talk about something that will 100% affect the outcome of your work on executive functioning.


Children look to you when they are forming their identity. What messages about your teen’s behavior are you sharing?

Seth Perler, an educational coach, taught that many well intentioned parents share these 3 common shame messages with their teens:

  • The Laziness Lie – Here, adults will directly or indirectly communicate to a child that he is lazy.
  • Try Harder – Here, adults tell a child that they just need to put in more effort
  • Don’t Care – Here, adults communicate to a child that they must not care about school, grades, learning, etc. “If you really cared, you’d do something about it.”

I’ve watched this unfold with my own students and myself. Last year, I was frustrated with my son because I knew he was smart, but he was struggling. He lacked the ability to be organized and I did label him as lazy and uncaring about his grades.

It wasn’t until I found Michelle Icard’s book, that I was reminded about executive functioning. Since then, I’ve worked harder to operate as my son’s assistant manager instead of sending these shame messages.

For example, today I looked at his grades. I channeled my favorite boss (Doug) and I emailed my son about his grades. I requested that he take a look at the missing assignments. Then I asked him to follow up with his teachers.

When he read the email, he came to me and reported what had happened. I ended the conversation by letting him know that I would be checking back in next week to see how he was doing. My husband saw the grades and was frustrated, but I was able to share how I handled it without getting emotional.

What Can You Do to Teach Executive Function Skills?

It takes time to develop these skills.  Remember What About Bob?  Baby steps.

Baby steps to the backpack.
Baby steps to writing in the planner.
Baby steps to turning in work.

Click on each of the key areas to explore various ideas for healthy executive function skills that you can work on starting today.

#1 Impulse Control
Do you have a teen that blurts out the first thought in his mind?  Interrupts you constantly?  He is lacking impulse control.  His brain is firing and he doesn’t pause long enough to be aware of his thought before it leaves his mouth.  This is part of metacognition.

Spending time teaching your teen to be aware of his thoughts and regulation of those thoughts takes practice. For real life examples, be sure to read Melissa Taylor’s post about metacognition.

#3 Flexible Thinking
If your teen is struggling to adjust when a plan suddenly changes, he might need help with flexible thinking activities.  In math, your teen may struggle with abstract concepts and grasping various ways of solving math problems.

Understood.org has a great page full of games and tips on building flexible thinking.

#5 Self-Monitoring
This is your teen that is shocked at the F in the grade book or misses the most important detail in an assignment.

Journaling can be an effective way to start building self-awareness.  Provide prompts for your teen to reflect on one small part of her day.  In our family, we do this verbally at the dinner table.  We ask questions each night and I record them so we have some things documented about how each of our lives are going.

Recently, I asked each of my children to tell me about when they felt brave that day, how did they help someone, and if they had failed.  This was hard for some of my boys to reflect on but with a few minutes, all of them were able to recall each of those moments.

Reflecting on your day is a great first step to teaching self-monitoring.

Start the conversation with your teen by using this Self-Awareness Checklist.

#7 Task Initiation
If your teen feels paralyzed by overwhelm because he is not sure where to start, he may need help with task initiation.

Strategies that help with task initiation:

  • Clear distractions.  If the space is messy, clean it up.  Create a sacred study space.
  • Identify the easiest task first.  This may be writing his name on the paper!  Scan the work for a small task that takes a little bit of time.
  • Use technology.  I have a son that doesn’t like to write.  We use Google Voice inside of Google Docs.  This helps him clear his mind of his thoughts.  Then he edits his work.
  • Use timers and alarms for short bursts of work.
  • Talk about why he might be avoiding the work (metacognition)
#2 Emotional Control
Does you teen struggle with emotions more than other teens?  Does a small mishap spiral into something bigger?

Your child needs help learning how to keep their feelings in check.

Be sure to check out this helpful emotional intelligence activity guide.

#4 Working Memory
I see this frequently as a tutor.  A student of mine will have the steps for a math problem down by the end of the hour, but when I see them two days later–it’s gone.  Students with this problem are suffering from a weak working memory.

Students can benefit from:

  • Drawing notes
  • Using a template for note taking that is customized for their learning style
  • Visual and auditory tips, tricks, and tools
  • Sticky notes in books
  • Study partners
#6 Planning & Prioritizing
Goal setting is hard for teens and adults.  How do you break something that seems big into manageable pieces?

Strategies that help with planning and prioritizing:

  • Chunking assignments into bite size pieces
  • Buying a used copy of a book that your teen is reading in class and rip it into smaller chapter amounts
  • Make a plan, even when you don’t want to
  • Work with a trusted adult to identify the steps to accomplish a goal
  • Find another adult to hold you accountable for completing steps
  • Rip out pages in your school planner that do not pertain to the school year (example: June – August)
  • Use digital sticky notes to keep track of steps (I like Google Keep)


#8 Organization
I think most of us struggle with organization!  Work together to create a predictable schedule and organization to help your teen be successful.

Use Google Drive to keep track of homework assignments.  My son often forgets to print his work.  This has saved our rear so many times!  He prints from school.

  • Clean the backpack out weekly together
  • Label everything in big bright letters (front and back)
  • Consider getting rid of binders and switching to paper folders for each subject.
  • Keep a rhythm to your morning and afternoon/evening.  Try having a snack, short tv break, homework, then dinner.  Keeping it consistent helps your teen stay on top of classwork.

Other resources:

Keeping Your Teen Organized

7 Systems for Organization


Suggested Reading:  Smart But Scattered by Peg Dawson

Successful Launch

I’m happy to report that Bobby did finally launch out his parent’s house. He started finding what worked for him. Many of the ideas I shared above, he started implementing in his own life.

There is so much you can do to help your teen develop these skills so he doesn’t end up in a van down by the river.

Help with Executive Functioning

If you’d like assistance with these skills, contact Kara Scanlon. As an educational therapist, she can help your teen work on specific strategies to get better function.

Also be sure to check out Seth Perler’s Student Success Toolkit. It’s a free five day email course packed with tips for assisting your teen with organization.

You might be wondering about your own executive functioning. If you struggle with keeping track of paperwork, focus, completing projects and such — you might enjoy reading/listening to Lisa Woodruff’s comprehensive guide to How ADHD Affects Home Organization.

For more homework tips, be sure to join my FREE Cut Homework Drama in Half course.

Adrianne Meldrum

Adrianne Meldrum

Owner of Math for Middles

I’m the owner and creator of the math videos here at Math for Middles.  I’ve tutored students for over ten years.  When I am not creating here, you’ll find me down by the river with my family.  You can read more about me here and how I once was a middle schooler too.
How to Prepare your Teen for Success