Could we let our ADHD teen fail?

clark in jamaica

My ADHD/Aspie son Clark Kent earned his nickname honestly, and continues to prove it fits, even at the age of 17: he believes he has super-human powers, while in reality he is the affably bumbling Clark Kent. As a senior in high school, he announced he was done with medication, that he didn’t need it. After we picked our jaws up off the floor, we caucused. We couldn’t let him go cold turkey, not and still allow him to drive his Tahoe, not and expect him to graduate from high school. We circled back with him and laid out the terms of our cooperation: supplements, diet change, sleep and non-gaming commitments, aerobic exercise, and a supplement regiment. He agreed, and at first it went shockingly well. Then he quit the supplements while taking antibiotics. With that spoke of the wheel broken, he quickly crashed.

We did our best to help him back up, but things went from bad to worse. His good grades plummeted. His hygiene stunk, literally. He snuck in gaming hours, got up after we all went to bed, and wouldn’t rise in the mornings even when I stood over his bed and yelled in his ear. He racked up tardies and unexcused missed assignments. He didn’t participate in debate or government affairs, his passions and the activities most closely tied to his dream of becoming an attorney and maybe someday a diplomat. He only spoke to argue, and he spouted nonsense. He was 200 pounds of out-of-control rebel about to torpedo his future.

We consulted our family counselor.

“Don’t save him,” he said. “Let him figure this out on his own. Let him learn.”

Bile rose in my mouth. I’m no helicopter mom, but we’d helped him escape failures before by reinstating structure and forcing him to succeed. My husband squeezed my hand so tightly my bones seemed to bend inward, but it helped.

“OK…” I replied, wondering if I meant it.

In early November, we tried one last time to get through to Clark Kent. I accessed his failing grades on the school district’s website. A 24 in Environmental Sciences. A 35 in English. Both Advanced Placement classes.

“Please,” I begged. “Please don’t do this to yourself.”

“I’m fine. It’s all fine. I aced the SAT,” he said, but he wouldn’t meet my eyes, and his tone was surly.

He was right. He had aced the SAT, to no one’s surprise.

“A good SAT,” I started, but he interrupted.

“Great SAT.”

I started again. “A great SAT score won’t get you into college, especially if you don’t graduate from high school.”

“I’m going to graduate.”

“If you don’t get accepted based on this past year’s grades, you’ll have to include your grades from this semester, this year, which would be fatal. And if you graduate late, even if you did get accepted for the fall, do you think Texas A&M is going to hold your spot? For grades like these??”

“I’ll get accepted.”

There was no reasoning with him. My husband and I held each other, and stepped away from the boy and let him plummet. It hurt like hell.

His final grades came in for the fall semester. Through his usual sorcery, he aced his finals in English and Environmental Science. But guess what? It’s impossible to raise a 35 and a 25 to passing. He failed them both so spectacularly that it was mathematically impossible for him to pass Enviro Science for the year. And he didn’t get credit for the semester of English, which was required for May graduation.

Then we got notice from the school counselor. Clark Kent hadn’t completed his application to Texas A&M and his other less-favored college choice, University of North Texas. Now I cried. It wasn’t a surprise, even though he promised he’d done it (lying was always one of his most distressing behaviors when his ADHD raged unabated), but it was heartbreaking. Would my genius, super-talented boy sabotage his entire future?

It was time to find out. From him.

Watch for the next installment of the Clark Kent Chronicles here on {a mom’s view of ADHD}, in March.

Until then, has this happened to any of you?

Pamela, aka Clark Kent’s Mom

Pamela Fagan Hutchins writes the Clark Kent Chronicles on parenting ADHD wonder kids, thanks to the crash course given to her by her ADHD son and his ADHD father. Pamela is the author of the book The Clark Kent Chronicles: A Mother’s Tale of Life With Her ADHD & Asperger’s Son, and many others, like How To Screw Up Your Kids and her bestselling, award-winning Katie & Annalise mystery series, led off by Saving Grace. Visit her blog, Road to Joy, where you can buy her books in any form, anywhere. Pamela is passionate about great writing and smart authorpreneurship, as well as her husband and kids. Like Clark Kent, she also leaps medium-tall buildings in a single bound, if she gets a good running start.

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adhd and alternative treatments, ADHD teenagers, Asperger's, autism spectrum disorder, Clark Kent Chronicles, Pamela Hutchins, teenagers, treatment ·

About the author

Pamela Fagan Hutchins writes the Clark Kent Chronicles on parenting ADHD wonder kids, thanks to the crash course given to her by her ADHD son and his ADHD father. Pamela is the author of the book The Clark Kent Chronicles: A Mother's Tale of Life With Her ADHD & Asperger's Son, and many others, like How To Screw Up Your Kids and her bestselling, award-winning Katie & Annalise mystery series, led off by Saving Grace. Visit her blog, Road to Joy, where you can buy her books in any form, anywhere. Pamela is passionate about great writing and smart authorpreneurship, as well as her husband and kids. Like Clark Kent, she also leaps medium-tall buildings in a single bound, if she gets a good running start.


  1. Kristen Cornejo says:

    Holy crap. My kid has ADHD. He gets distracted on the way to pee. (Which is why I follow you…) Thank you for doing this. I have so much to learn…

  2. crys says:

    We are in the throes of this as well. Unfortunately, even on meds, my 15 year old son isn’t a very motivated or high achieving student. He struggles, I monitor, we argue, I intervene, he eventually scrapes by with Ds, if we are lucky he will get a few Cs.

    He is adamant about joining the military after high school, which means he needs to be off meds now (if he’s lucky and quits taking them now he may get in, there is a good chance they won’t want him at all). I can’t imagine academic life without the medication. I also have zero desire to see him join the military.

    We are at the cross roads of do I let him try it and fail or do I fight it and insist he stay on them meds (which means I’ve doomed him to no military life)?

    Our family has a strong military service background, he wants to be part of it. I think he would be great at it but he is my baby boy and I want him safe & sound not running around being shot at half a world away. I also want him to finish high school without repeating required courses.

    I want, I want, I want…those wants are in direct conflict with what HE wants and it is becoming time to let him choose his path.

  3. Kstars-pa1 says:

    I don’t know whether to cry or to nod my head and realize that your post is a wake up call of sorts.  My son is 13 and on meds.  He has always been an A/B student, is in Gifted Ed, and has taken all honors courses the past two years.  He actually pulled off all A’s last semester, and is soooo capable of doing so if he wanted to. Some cracks are showing – a few Fs here and there on assignments he failed to turn in.  Little things that mean trying that much harder to maintain that A average he wants.  He wants to go to a very prestigious college in 4 years….sounds a lot like your Clark Kent.  His therapist recently told us he needs to experience natural consequences of not turning in assignments and forgetting tasks making his mornings crazy as he scrambles to do something in the short time he has before leaving to catch the school bus.  I’m really trying to let him fail now, so that maybe he’ll learn some strategies to deal with where he struggles now, but I constantly feel like I’m not doing enough to help him learn those strategies.  I’ve always said, and have told him that I want him to know when he reaches adulthood where he excels, where he struggles and to have learned coping strategies.  I also want him to have learned whether meds need to be a forever thing or not.  I really fear all the adolescent changes and those still to come and wonder what all that attitude will do to his easy going compliant, even asking to take his meds in certain situations self.  Praying, praying….

    • Pamela says:

       Praying with you. Keep the faith. I think 13-15 are the hardest years for most kids (I have 5), and were even harder for Clark Kent. But this too shall pass. We had a tough fall, but truly high school has been easier than middle school.

  4. Lorraine says:

    I have experienced this, yes – but on the other end of the story. As a teen my parents let me “fail”, as you put it, and I couldn’t have been more hurt by this experience. I didn’t learn to pick myself up and make a good future for myself, because I didn’t know how. “Let him figure this out on his own” – are you kidding me? Part of the responsibility of parenting is teaching our children the skills they need to succeed in life, not letting them crash and burn on their own when they don’t know how to make it. I never learned the life skills I would have needed to succeed, because no one helped me, and no one taught me. So here I am as a 30 year old with no coping skills, no career, no degree, and less time ahead of me to make a better future for myself. I wish my parents wouldn’t have let me fail, and I’m sorry that you feel it necessary for your son. Good luck to all of you.

    • Kara says:

      Lorraine, I’m sorry, but you need to get over that your parents “let” you fail.  ALL parents do the best job they can (however inept we think it is in retrospect).  Most of us are *trying* to be the good guys, but you guys don’t exactly come with hand books – especially kids who are “different”.  My dad died at nine.  My mom was “doing her thing” most of the time and NOBODY held my hand – and I joined the military at 18 cause I had nothing better to do.  I have mom anger issues too, but the only way for you to succeed in life is by your own devices – not theirs – and to let shit go.  I’ve just retired from the military.  I have 6 kids.  I’ve been a foster parent.  I’ve raised my cousin’s daughter (my real trial by fire).  My oldest is 16 and has Asperger’s and what Pamela talked about above is my daily life with my daughter.  The only thing you can do is try your best.  Tell them what’s expected.  Give them consequences.  Pick up some of their messes and explain what can happen if they do it again.  Give them guidance/options – but in the end we can’t MAKE you do it.  We’re not raising dependent children – we’re raising adults.  I have been where she is.  My niece chose the difficult path and I couldn’t stop her for ANYTHING.  It’s the fork in the road and eventually ALL kids meet.  And HE needs to make a choice, because it’s ultimately HIS life.  The sad fact is, you blame them for letting you fail, but you don’t even know if they could have MADE you succeed.

      • Akatommie_04 says:

        I agree with Kara, we can try to do all we can do with the challenges of being a parent, let alone, a parent of a child who is challenged. I struggle every day sending my child off to school, outside to play, or even a birthday party (if he even gets invited). He’s not in a wheelchair, or leg braces, something that can visually be seen. But, because he will be spouting off at the mouth, jumping here and there, dancing and singing to a song he heard at 6 a.m. that morning, other parents can’t deal with it or accept it. It’s easier for them to “trash talk” it, point fingers, and pass judgement on the child and or what the childs homelife must be. Honestly, 12 years ago I would have too, now that I have a child who is 10 and have dealt with all of the sigma, it’s exhausting.

        • Pamela says:

           Isn’t that the truth — sometimes I think Clark Kent was God’s way of making me a better human, and more aware of the beauty of all differences, less quick to judge. 17 years ago, I would have judged, too, I fear.

      • Pamela says:

         Kara, you did a wonderful job of seeing the message that I left for parents to deduce from what we were doing, and articulating it. Thank you. Good luck with all of your kids, but especially that special 16-yo.

    • Pamela says:

       I am so glad you commented, Lorraine, and I am sorry that you have so much pain in your life. I hope very much for you that you are able to find peace. I use the word “fail” provokingly in this post. I think you can probably read between the lines that we are trying to help him succeed at life, and will always be there for him, that we are not letting him fail life, just two classes. This strategy of letting him get the failing grades he earned is one those attempts to help him succeed. Letting him earn a failing grade — letting him fail — was emotionally, for the parents, much harder that swooping in and calling the teacher and begging for him to get partial credits, etc., and would have continued to hurt him by keeping him dependent and enabled and irresponsible — at 17 and 1/2 it is time for him to be making a transition away from those things. I won’t be there in a year when he is, technically, an adult. There will be no mom to swoop in then in college or his job or his relationships. So the counselor asked me to keep in mind that all of us enduring the pain of seeing him get the grade he deserved, since Clark Kent knew the rules and consequences (even if operating within them was hard for him) for this class and for life, was a necessary life step for him. I wrote this piece about the events of last fall. Much has happened since then that I am excited to share, and, I hope, will be inspiring to parents and FUTURE parents. I have five kids. Clark Kent is #4. We have made sure with each that we raised them to be independent adults, to succeed at life. He is the only one with special needs, and a truly beautiful person. I think he is going to run rings around all of us some day! Go Clark Kent!!

  5. bluecottonmemory says:

    I want to know more about the gaming – and why an hour. I’m interested in the diet – printed it out to talk about it more with him and my husband. We just had a bunch of blood work done to make sure there were no deficiencies – is the diet created due to deficiences or it just makes a difference? We’re coming into this game late – he was diagnosed with ADD in November, his senior year. Still have lots of questions.

    • Kara says:

      Blue – there are a lot of theories and hypothesis that Asperger’s and some of the other disorders are linked to an inflammatory diet.  They have proven scientifically that inflammatory disease (of any kind) in a mother can lead to a higher risk of your kids having ASD (I can link the New York times article if anyone is interested).  It is also hypothesized (one that I happen to believe) that if you can decrease the amount of inflammation the children have – coming from their diet in particular – you can reduce the severity of some of their symptoms.  Having an inflammatory-based autoimmune disorder myself, I am very familiar with the impact my day to day diet has on me, and I have no doubt on my kids as well.  

      As to the gaming, my daughter would game all day long if I let her.  Our saving grace is that the MMO (massively multiplayer online game for those unfamiliar with the lingo 🙂 she plays has parental controls that make it inaccessible to her at night.  Her hygiene would stink, literally, if we let her game the way she wanted to. While we use it as a carrot with her, it’s horrible how it sucks them in and leaves them without the personal interaction and physical activity they need so much.  To speak nothing of the importance of consistently (good) sleeping habits and how their gaming affects this.

      Now I could be completely off base by the diet Pamela is talking about, but regardless, it’s worth it to do your own research on the subject.  I always tell people, never believe what I say – do your own research  🙂 Just google inflammatory diet, leaky gut, low histamine diet, etc…. oh and the “increase of symptoms” while on antibiotics and the roles they play.

      I’m looking forward to Pamela’s reply as well regardless of whether we are on the same page on this topic or not.  I love getting other perspective from people based on their experiences.

      • Pamela says:

         Maryleigh and Kara: I have celiac disease (hey, Kara, I’ll bet you’re not surprised!!), and for the reasons you cite, we wanted to try a gluten free diet. I have a friend with two teenage sons with autism who believes a similar regimen has greatly reduced some of the behaviors that were most challenging. It’s an imperfect science at this point, so we researched and talked to people until we came up with the most likely pieces of his diet that would be reactive — gluten, dairy, and soy. Truthfully, we’ve only been able to curtail the gluten and soy. He still gets a fair amount of dairy. We added in supplements most likely to help — both “all around” and brain specific. The only one I know to be scientifically linked is fish oil. Well, and aerobic exercise (rock climbing is supposed to be dynamite for ADHD/ADD — multiple points of contact, using the brain too). The rest are anecdotal and a wish and a prayer. Gaming if I say none it becomes a battle of sneaking. The goal to me is zero gaming. It is an addiction to him and one of the only times I see him get angry and lose his temper is if I pull him away when he’s been on it too long. He’ll do it without going to sleep. He is on near-zero gaming now. He does best when he has no gaming. So anyway,when he followed the diet and lifestyle to perfection, he was noticeably better but not as good as with meds. And of course meds don’t do anything for the Aspergers anyway, so I try to keep him on as much of the lifestyle as I can in addition to meds.Kara, my other birth child has anaphylaxis — again, probably not a surprise to hear this reactivity manifesting itself in her, as it does in a different way for Clark Kent and for me. Hope this helped explain our choices. ~p

        • Kara says:

          Pamela – I would love to talk to you some more about the food issues – information you’ve found vs information I’ve found on the subject.  The disease I have is actually called Mast Cell Activation Disorder (MCAD) and it actually can cause anaphylaxis to any of my litany of “triggers”.  Also, with Clark Kent (I LOVE that btw), did the pharmacist recommend probiotics while he was on the antibiotics?  The “theory” being that the antibiotics kill off all the good bacteria in your gut (as well as the bad) making your MORE susceptible to inflammation – hence another possible reason for Clark Kent’s crash 🙁  I hope I’m not restating information you already know, but figured I’d put it out there anyway for other folks that may read this.  Antibiotic overload was the trigger for my disease (although predisposed for it).  I went from being a VERY active 35 year old with a new baby, 17 year career in military intelligence to a wasted shell of myself that had to be medically retired.  I am FINALLY learning how to put back together – and it’s all diet and exercise related.  It was through researching my own disease, I found all the linkages between inflammation and ASD.  I found your FB page and if you don’t mind I’ll friend you – you can always turn me down no problem 🙂 

  6. Heidi Milton says:

    This is so heartbreaking and soooo hard for parents like you (and me) to understand.  You are my hero for sharing this, P.  There will be so many parents encouraged and enlightened because of it.
    xo hm

  7. Ann Brennan says:

    Pamela, this is so hard.  We do have to let go at some point and let them learn the lesson.  We are coming up on that time and my heart is already broken.

  8. Gene says:

    whaaaat? talk about a CLIFFHANGER!!!!!! love you guys…

  9. Vidya Sury says:

    My heart is racing. I am desperately waiting to hear the happy ending in March, Pamela. Hugs. Sometimes my son drives me crazy with his forgetfulness but he is easy to push.

    My thoughts and good wishes are with you!

  10. Kenneth Roberson says:

    Thank you for this post! So many parents, myself included, know exactly the dilemma you’re describing – how to help our kids with ADHD learn to be responsible for themselves without ensuring they will fail doing so. 

    Believe me I know that awful feeling of knowing my son is headed for the cliff and wanting desperately to block they way, yet finding that I have little power over it. Some days he’s just determined to do things his way even though experience has showed him it’s not going to work but he still goes full steam ahead. 

    Lately, I’ve been testing my ability to let failure happen. It’s not been easy and I can’t say I’m good at it but the few times I’ve stepped back and resisted intervening, it’s actually worked out okay. My fingers are crossed those successes aren’t just a fluke.

    I’m eager to read your follow-up.

  11. sky says:

    While reading your blog, i thought it was my story, except I have a girl. While we live in an affluent town with many high achievers, it is hard not to get caught up in pushing her to get high grades, as we both know she is capable of doing so, but her motivation is lacking. She laughs about it, as I cry seeing her chances of attending 4-year college disappearing. And, we all know I am the stupidest parent alive! What an adventure I am on… I would like to know how you accepted your son to drive without medication….

    • We only let him drive without medication under the condition he would follow the other things (supplements and exercise etc) , but he fooled us. At some point, we have to accept that our society is full of unmedicated people with ADHD and other challenges driving, right? And when maturity is sufficient, let go of the reins anyway. He is back and meds and he is driving, but at nearly 18, I suspect we are about to the point where he can drive regardless of medication, unless a doctor tells us otherwise. (And here’s the crazy thing — he’s a very good driver — it’s so strange to me! he is the best of all our 5 kids, and none of the rest have adhd). Next installment soon.

  12. Dee says:

    This breaks my heart for you! My son is currently on track to fail fifth grade, so this is very real to me. On the one hand, repeating could be good for him on a couple of levels. But it could also rock his confidence, which is already pretty weak. I want to hear more of what happens for Clark – even as I’m cringing. My heart goes out to you in support, compassion, and fear that you are living my future.

  13. Jamey Bell says:

    I want to give the perspective of someone who was similar to your son in high school. This is in no way advice, this is just me seeing similarities in me and your son. I have ADHD. In high school I never did any work, only passed classes by acing finals (sound familiar?). I played games every chance I got. Graduating and going to college I decided I was going to start my adult life fighting my problems sans medication. Being able to pass tests without doing work made me one cocky teenager. 7 years of blur, in and out of college with no degree, increasing anxiety and another foot away from my family every failure I made due to shame (yet always convincing them and myself I was one day from starting the golden plan of forever future happiness and success). After 7 years of adulthood and I finally broke and fired up the meds. Now all I can think is how insane it was that I put myself through 7 years of flailing around blind because of my youthful pride almost exclusively brought on by how proud of myself I was in high school for being able to ace tests without doing work. 1 year on my meds I have accomplished more in 1 direction than I have in 7 years without. Again, this isn’t advice, just a story from a person who feels he shared a similar high school experience as your son. Time is distorted for people like us… as in it always feels like there will be enough to get in one more day or one more week of doing (insert hobby/game here).

    • Jamey, wow! Thank you for sharing that! And congrats to you for finding your center, and I am glad meds did it for you. Your story actually inspires me — maturity will catch up with our Clark Kents some day!!!!!

  14. Dipti says:

    We are in very similar situation as your son and family. We have a 17 years old high school junior son also. His story is so similar – he wants to go to Texas A&M as well, he has 227 PSAT (almost guranteed National Merit), but a low GPA, a “Clar Kent/Superman” personality – I can make to college as I aced PSAT, charming when not asked anything about schoolwork, still forgetting homeworks getting multiple zeroes. I spend many sleepless night in my bed worrying and crying at times. I will definitely following your articles, as we are just an year behind you.

  15. theguardian says:

    Thank you for sharing this. I am 29 and a guardian of my 17 year old brother with ADHD. He is in front of the computer all day. Good thing he recently followed our “no internet Wednesday” rule. His attitude has changed a lot because of the internet especially now that he is into racism and reads and talks a lot about it. I feel that he’s only absorbing negative things from what he is reading.

  16. Tammie says:

    I really don’t know where to turn! My 15 year old ADHD son is out of control! He has never done well in a school setting. He has struggled through it all. He now attends a special school called Lawrence Town Education centre. He tells me “the only kids that go there are druggies, drunks, and kids that don’t give a shit” we are just starting April of the school year and no good has come out of it. Just since Christmas he has gone way down and treats his whole family with disrespect. He is hateful to his six year old sister he threw her out in a snow bank in her nighty. He ripped his tv off the wall and smashed it then threw that out in the snow! He flipped my solid wood coffee table over and smashed the bottom of it with his feet. He brought a 17 yr old boy home from this school over night without asking took mine and my husband medication! The kid took all of my sons meds out of their capsuls and snorted it, then put them back together in the vial as if never touched. He ended up in. Hospital with his stomach pumped, and the RCMP along with EHS arrived at our house to check out my son who apparently took four of his fathers Zopiclone and went to sleep unknown what his friend was doing in our medice cabinet!
    My son is Six foot, two in. And weighs 200ibs. He is pretty scary when in a full rage! He smokes weed almost daily and now smokes cigarets as well. He also drinks when he can get ahold of alcohol. Tonight I get home from work and my husband meets me at the door almost in tears stating I’m totally done with him I can’t do this any more! He then precedes to tell me our son lit a whole hand full of sparklers on fire then dropped them onto his bed, his little six yr old sister in his room at this time, he threw the bedding off the bed on to a lazy boy chair in his room then catching the chair on fire. He then drags the mattress off his bed and carries it outside away from the house. The grandmother was in the living room and had no idea what was going on! My husband came home from work to all this and told our son to get out that he was done and he did not want him here in our home anymore! My six year old is in hysterics after all this horrific episode!
    My son I’m assuming has walked to a friends house and is staying the night there.
    I’m in big need of help here! Who can I call? Is there a place my son can go to dry out, get straight, maybe clue into reality? I at this time cannot change my husbands mind, he just sits quiet with red eyes saying nothing now!
    My email is please send any or all info that may help our once very happy family!

    Heart broken mom!


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