Understanding Your Teen’s Executive Functioning

Parents are often puzzled by the frustrating, confusing, and worrisome situation of teens showing a more pronounced decline in grades and overall academic performance. While difficulties may have been present earlier, more dramatic consequences on academic performance are seen during middle and high school when academic demands increase and teens transition to greater independence in the classroom and at home. Many parents are riddled by questions such as: What is going on? Is my teen just lazy? Why can he spend hours watching YouTube or playing video games, but can’t spend 30-minutes studying for an exam?

The answer to these questions lies in a concept known as Executive Functioning. Executive functioning is a broad term that encompasses numerous cognitive processes that are critical for accomplishing tasks and achieving goals. Working memory (i.e., temporarily holding and manipulating information needed for a task), cognitive flexibility (i.e., ability to easily shift from one idea or rule to another), and inhibition (i.e., stopping an automatic response) are the initial foundation for more complex executive functions needed for daily skills such as those involved in time management, organization, task initiation, and planning. Rarely are single executive functioning processes used in isolation. Rather, they work together to achieve the desired outcome. 

Most individuals have “good” executive function days and “bad” executive function days. This is because executive functions are highly vulnerable to decline due to common experiences such as stress, poor sleep, or lack of exercise. Some teens may experience more “bad” executive function days than normal because EF weaknesses are considered a ubiquitous feature of most neurodevelopmental and psychological disorders such as ADHD, Autism, mood and anxiety disorders, and substance abuse. As teens transition into adulthood, executive functioning difficulties seem to worsen, creating more dramatic negative effects. Further complicating the issue is the fact that medications do not demonstrate robust changes in executive functioning, despite being the first-line treatment for disorders such as ADHD. This highlights the need for interventions during the critical stage of adolescence, if not before. 

Unfortunately, deploying executive functions requires effort–a lot of effort. Let’s be honest, we would all love to throw logic, reason, and planning out the window and let our fun-seeking selves take the lead! Why else can some teens spend hours playing video games but be unable to complete homework? Parents often interpret this as meaning that their teen just needs to work harder and put in more effort. While any behavioral change requires effort, telling a teen to work harder doesn’t quite achieve the desired results. This is because these weaknesses in executive functioning are due to both a skills deficit and a motivational deficit. Skills and strategies to help with time management, organizational skills, and planning can be taught to teens and their parents (e.g., through a program like thinkSMART®), but mere exposure to these skills does not always equate with use of the skills or improvements in executive functioning.

So, if you and your teen are struggling with executive functioning, and you’re noticing that it’s affecting your home-life, academics, and overall emotional health, consider enrolling in a structured program and working 1:1 with a coach who specializes in executive functioning. These skills can improve in everyone–even those who generally have strong abilities.

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