ADHD: The Distraction is the Reward

As a parent of a teen with ADHD, I’ve learned to just let the irony roll over me. It’s inevitable. You think you have something figured out about life and then your teenager presses the big, red ADHD button and flips your understanding of the world upside down. 

It never made sense to me why my son had to study on the front porch with his loose papers flapping in the wind. Or why he could read his English homework better from upside-down on the couch. Or in what universe it made sense to blast his music while seemingly concentrating on Algebra. 

How do I focus? Give me a nice quiet room with a tidy desk and a locked door. I have to eliminate all distractions to do my best work. But for ADHD: the distraction is the reward.

Best way to study with ADHD

I was talking with one of my teen clients recently, and she mentioned that she needed to catch up on her English homework, not her favorite subject. 

Well, I know from experience that teenagers work best in the environment of their choosing, so I asked her where she envisioned getting this work caught up. 

Her answer? In the cheer gym between practices. That’s where she does her best work. 

The only problem is that the cheer gym is chock full of distractions—teenagers tumbling, giggling, flipping all over the place. And she’s a cheerleader, so she wants nothing more than to be running around tumbling with the best of them. 

It is simultaneously the best place AND the worst place to study… all because of the distractions.

Positive associations, dopamine and the distraction reward

My teen client didn’t realize it, but she wanted to study in the cheer gym because it was full of positive associations, whereas her English homework was full of negative associations. 

The task at hand was causing a lack of motivation. 

Motivation is fueled by dopamine. All it takes is a little hit of dopamine here and there to fill up the frontal lobe with gas in its engine to trigger that motivation. 

The problem is… teens with ADHD are already chemically deficient in dopamine, which means they are often deficient in motivation and they need a little reward to kick it up a notch. 

That’s why so many of them struggle to complete their work when they are in a sterile environment. There’s nothing for them to look forward to.

How to motivate a teenager with ADHD

Picture this scenario: your ADHD teen is struggling to do homework. 

So you eliminate all the distractions because distractions are the problem, right?


It’s a lack of motivation that’s causing your teen to be distracted. 

So the cure?
Give them a distraction. 

Wait what?


IF your teen isn’t in a period of motivation, you have to figure out how to trigger that dopamine… 

The promise of a distraction would do the trick.

I know. It’s counterintuitive. 

We’re so used to eliminating the distractions altogether, it doesn’t occur to us that the distractions could be the reward.

But remember (say it with me): What works for me does not work for my child.

Helping our teens switch their mindset to see the distractions as a reward for completed work will help them find that little hit of dopamine right when they need it most.

ADHD hyperfocus superpower

When I made the suggestion to my ADHD cheerleader that she could go ahead and tumble between practices if she got all her English homework done, she lit up like a Christmas tree. 

“Oh my! I can tap into that hyperfocus superpower because I know when I get that reward I can probably have my work done in 30-45 minutes!”

It had never occurred to her that the distractions could be the reward. 

But the ironic fact is… that promise of imbibing in a distraction as a reward allows them to tap into their hyperfocus super power (It’s a real thing!) so they can have more of their own time. 

Like I’m always telling my teens—when you man your time, you can have more of it.

The distraction just might be the key. 

Is your teen driving you crazy with their ADHD study habits? What’s your teen’s biggest distraction? Could it really be a reward in disguise?

For more epiphanies about your teenager and ADHD, jump on over to the Facebook group. You’ll find a community of parents navigating the irony together and lots of helpful advice for keeping your teenager on track.