Understanding Teens With ADHD

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Lots of changes and transitions naturally occur during the teenage years. Some of these changes can be quite dramatic and complicated, especially when that teen is also dealing with the impact of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). As a parent, your relationship with your teen is undergoing some changes—and perhaps some challenges—as your son or daughter is becoming more independent. You know that ADHD affects your child's behavior and emotions. Coming to terms with and understanding his/her own ADHD during these years can also have an effect on your child's self-perception and identity. This is especially important for those children who are first diagnosed with ADHD as a teenager.​

Important Steps During the Teenage Years

As your son or daughter enters and moves through adolescence, he or she will be expected to separate from you and become independent. Peer relationships are becoming much more powerful and influential. Your teen will have to deal with increasing social pressures, choose peer groups, and decide whether or not to use alcohol or illegal drugs. During the teenage years, your son or daughter is also adjusting to and working through understanding his or her own sexual maturation and sexuality.

Understanding the Challenges 

Adolescence is a pivotal time for all teenagers—as they form self-identity, plan for the future, and move into adulthood—but it is a time that can be even more challenging for a child who has ADHD. The normal “hurdles” of adolescence that a child must clear can be much higher for the teen with ADHD who is facing these same challenges with less impulse control, more problems with self-regulation and inattention, and greater delays in maturity and executive functions.

Because many children with ADHD lack social perceptiveness and interpersonal skills, they may struggle even more painfully during the teenage years when peers become more and more influential and peer rejection even more heartbreaking. This peer rejection can lead a child to move toward any social group that will be accepting, even if it is a group that is involved in delinquent behaviors. To top it off, the increased academic demands of high school require a student to be more organized and self-directed—skills that are delayed in teens with ADHD. Keep in mind that your child will need more monitoring, external structure, and support during the teenage years than a child without ADHD.

ADHD is often referred to as an "invisible disability." Though ADHD can create significant challenges, frustrations, and painful experiences for a child (or adult) and family, the impact of ADHD may not be recognized by outsiders because the person "looks normal." In other words, that person's impairments may not be obvious. The invisible nature of ADHD often makes it more difficult for others to fully understand the full extent and the complexities of the challenges a person with ADHD must deal with each day. As a result, difficulties may be attributed to other causes—laziness, irresponsibility, or even bad parenting. These negative perceptions are hurtful and often prevent a child and family from moving forward.

Education about ADHD helps correct these misperceptions. As your child learns more about his or her own unique ADHD, he/she becomes more empowered. Once challenges are better understood, solutions and strategies can be put in place. Insight into struggles allows the problems to be reframed in a more accurate light and helps a person move forward with not only a plan, but with greater optimism, self-advocacy, and hope for the future.

Predictors of Success 

According to the American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP), there are a number of important factors that contribute to a child with ADHD having the highest levels of success during adolescence. They include the following:

  • Early intervention
  • Self-understanding and acceptance of problems and issues
  • A supportive family
  • An understanding and developmentally attuned school system
  • An appropriate Individualized Education Program, if indicated
  • A willingness to engage in appropriate counseling, mentoring relationships, and “coaching” surrounding production and completion of work

The AAP identifies the highest risk factors that can lead to negative outcomes for teens with ADHD. These risk factors include:

  • Delayed intervention
  • An ongoing cycle of failure
  • Serious behavior problems in school
  • Significant substance abuse
  • Medication refusal
  • Damaged self-esteem resulting from the adolescent’s problems being viewed as character flaws rather than ADHD-related behaviors
  • Giving up or lack of motivation
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Article Sources
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  • American Academy of Pediatrics, ADHD: A Complete and Authoritative Guide, Michael I. Reiff (Editor-in-Chief) with Sherill Tippins, 2004.
  • George J. DuPaul and Gary Stoner, ADHD in the Schools: Assessment and Intervention Strategies, The Guilford Press, 2004.
  • Paul H. Wender, ADHD: Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in Children, Adolescents, and Adults, Oxford University Press, 2000.