When You’re On Your Last Nerve…

For the past two weeks, my friend Steve has been writing about his personal experiences with ADHD. I admire his honesty and vulnerability to share such a personal part of his life.

Whether we have a child with a learning disability or one who is experimenting with drugs and alcohol or just a teenager who is testing the limits of our patience, we share things in common. We begin to realize that our children will graduate from high school soon. We have to let them start to find their way independent of us.

I have been right where you are. I have sent children off to college not believing they were ready. There have been real challenges in their lives.

One Thing Helped

My thoughts took me back to a time many years ago when I was married to my ex-husband.  He was an alcoholic and I spent years and years in Al-Anon. It was a painful time in my life, but one thing I learned helped me to become a more understanding person. It helped me develop compassion and caring for something that was out of my control.

I learned alcoholism is a disease. If my husband had had cancer, I would not chastise him for having it. The same is true of any disorder whether it is ADHD or autism or dyslexia.  Getting angry doesn’t help anyone.

Unfortunately, simply acknowledging this doesn’t keep your teenager from driving you insane with his procrastination and failure to use common sense. Any parent who is on their last nerve knows what I am talking about!

The Very First Step

The first step is to recognize you are dealing with a human being with incomplete brain development, whether your teen has a disorder or not. The frontal lobe of the brain (the “common sense” part) does not fully develop until age 23-28! So it is imperative to find a solution that will work for you and for your teen.

We want our children to behave acceptably. We want them to conquer their immaturity and be ok.  “Just say no” or “Do it!” is not the first step to finding a solution.

I knew that my children were not “done” yet. Some had more serious issues than others, but the way I dealt with all their challenges and specific issues would make a significant difference in MY quality of life. It would make a significant difference in the quality of my family’s life as well.

It’s normal to be frustrated and angry at your child’s lack of progress. But while nagging your teen constantly might get results in the short term, it won’t get you what you’re looking for longer-term. It will only keep both of you angry and resentful and it will cause you more unnecessary angst.

There is hope.

The next thing I had to do was to get educated on what my child was struggling with. Is the elephant in our living room ADHD, drugs, hormones, or normal teenage instability? Thankfully, the internet provides many very good resources. Education is the first step to compassion and understanding.

In my case, I tried to see the world through my children’s eyes. Fortunately I had practice with this as I had struggled to understand my ex- husband’s addiction.

Hearing from other people struggling with addiction helped me to understand just how hard this daily struggle must be. Knowing that medically my ex-husband had a disease gave a diagnosis to what was happening in our home. With the diagnosis came a strategy for help. I found out what had worked for others. There is comfort in realizing that this is not just happening in my home. Using the collective knowledge of others was huge for me!

Next Step…

Next, I had to control the things that came out of my mouth. I don’t know who said “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt me” but they obviously were neither a parent nor a spouse of an alcoholic. Words can hurt. They can go deep. They can be remembered for years. Use your words carefully.

Criticism and judgment simply won’t work with ADHD, alcoholism, or dyslexia. I knew it would work even less well teenagers. So what to do?

The Hardest Thing Was the Most Obvious

The hardest thing was the most obvious. I started to try to avoid words and phrases that implied judgment, frustration, anger or impatience. Phrases like “You should have…”  or “Why did you…” or “What were you thinking?” started to stick in my throat even as I said them. I did my best to replace them with words that my child would be receptive to hear like “I am sorry that happened to you. What do you want to do now?”  or “I understand your frustration. Do you want to see if we can find a way to get you some help with that?”

That is not to say that I recommend mincing our words. Sometimes we must be direct and not be afraid to speak the truth.

But overall I had to listen more than I spoke. My words had to come from a place of compassion and understanding, even if it also meant tough love. I had to acknowledge their pain and struggle first and foremost.

Now, all that frustration needed an outlet. For me, that outlet was my support group and a really good friend. (And sometimes my children. I’m not perfect!)

My Changes in Attitude

Changing a few things in my behavior made me feel better, but (surprise, surprise!) it encouraged my teens to do better too.

Here’s a few specific strategies:

  • Use a softer tone of voice. The timber of our voice often says more than the words we express.
  • Focus on the positive. Give out sincere complements even if it’s as simple as ‘I like that shirt you have on today.”
  • Ask for advice. Seek out others who have dealt with the same issue and are still standing!
  • Be matter-of-fact. Don’t let your teens decide how far they can push you based on the level of irritation you’re showing.

Whatever we as parents are dealing with, the same principles apply. There is a universal language and it is called love and compassion.


What strategies have you used when you were on your last nerve? Please share below!


 Janet Byington I’m Janet Byington, a former school administrator who helps parents build confidence, motivation, and mental toughness in their soon-to-be college students. Work with me.


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