Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in Teens Facts
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common conditions of childhood and adolescence. Research studies differ about how common this condition really is, but most experts agree that it affects 11% of school-aged children. More than 40% of children with ADHD also have ADHD during adolescence. If you are not actively parenting a teen with ADHD, chances are that you know someone who is dealing with this challenge.
What Are Signs and Symptoms of ADHD in Teens?
ADHD in childhood becomes apparent when the child exhibits symptoms of hyperactivity, trouble sitting still or paying attention, and/or impulsivity. In teens, this condition may have characteristics of less obvious hyperactivity and more of boredom, restlessness, and irritability. Adolescents with ADHD are also more likely to be strong willed, have conflicts with peers, parents and other family members, as well as to have trouble effectively managing their anger. The degree of severity of every symptom varies widely. Some adolescents with ADHD may need only mild interventions and guidance, while others require much greater support, potentially including medications or psychotherapy to achieve optimal levels of functioning. While doctors do not fully understand what causes ADHD, it is believed to be related to both environmental triggers and inherited or genetic factors. ADHD tends to run in families. Like any other mental disorder, having ADHD does not protect a teen from having another one, like depression, anxiety, or autism. Therefore, appropriate assessment, treatment, and other support for any co-occurring (comorbid) illness is another important component of parenting the ADHD teen.
ADHD in Teenagers: Boys vs. Girls
ADHD is diagnosed more often in boys than in girls. The predominantly hyperactive type of the condition is thought to be four times more common in boys, while the inattentive type is considered to occur two times more often in boys than in girls. However, those statistics are complicated by the fact that men and women tend to be diagnosed with ADHD equally as often in adulthood. Also, the diagnosis may be more difficult to make in girls because of the higher subtlety of symptoms, particularly less obvious hyperactivity in girls. Children of all ages can be affected, and the condition can persist into adulthood. Medications are available that can treat many of the symptoms of ADHD, although they do not "cure" the condition.
10 Tips for Parenting an Adolescent With ADHD
Parenting teens with ADHD can be particularly challenging. These tips may be useful for parents who have teenagers with ADHD. However, it's important to remember that no two adolescents are alike, and what works best for one family and/or at one point in time may not be helpful for another. Therefore, developing a repertoire of parenting techniques to help the teenager with ADHD is imperative. The following tips are based upon expert opinions and strategies that have been useful for many families in helping children with this condition develop the discipline necessary to be successful at home, in school and in their community.
- Work together as a team. This means that parents, educators, tutors, therapists, physicians, and others involved in the care of the adolescent should be on the same page regarding treatment plans, approaches, and goals. Sharing information with the others involved in your teenager's care is essential to ensure that he or she receives the necessary treatment and support. Treat your teen's teachers as allies, and work together for optimal outcomes at home and in the classroom.
- Balance structure and predictability with appropriate flexibility. Teens with ADHD need help achieving a balance of clear definitions of routines and expectations with the need to begin to take more control of their own lives. Predictability is also helpful for adults with ADHD. You can help your adolescent use and understand schedules by getting their input in making a daily schedule that includes time to get ready for school, do homework, free or play time, and bedtime. They may benefit from the use of clocks with alarms, as well the use of timers, or charts to help them manage their day. If he or she enjoys this, your teen may check items off a checklist as they are completed.
- Clearly define rules and expectations. Teens with ADHD do not deal well with excessive ambiguity or drastic changes in rules and expectations but may balk at the rules used for younger children since those may seem overly rigid. As with the daily schedule, it may be helpful to make a short list of goals, rules, or expectations for behavior. Contrary to the myth that talking about drugs, sex, or other dangerous acts encourages teens to engage in those behaviors, research shows that teens with ADHD are less likely to engage in impulsive acts like getting pregnant or causing a pregnancy, using drugs, or participating in criminal activity when they are given clear expectations to the contrary and taught how to avoid these pitfalls by their parents.
- Use positive feedback. It is always better to use more positive than negative feedback when talking with your teen. Be clear and specific, and praise your child for the things that he or she does well or completes on time. Rather than offering costly prizes or incentives, reward positive behavior with rewards such as sincere words of praise, special time with a parent or friend, or a special privilege.
- Use appropriate consequences for negative behaviors. Consequences for negative behaviors should be fair, timely, meaningful to the teen, and appropriate. Ideally, the consequence for a teen with ADHD should be an immediate event rather than something that occurs in the future or is excessively lengthy, as those types of consequences quickly lose their effectiveness. As with other aspects of the child's schedule, the consequences for negative behavior should be predictable and consistent. Adolescents may also benefit from the natural rather than parent-enforced consequences of their actions. For example, advising them on changes that can be made to his or her study habits in response to your teen earning a negative grade on an assignment or test may be more effective than withholding privileges for a period of time.
- Be clear, brief, and specific when giving instructions. It may be helpful to focus on one task or event at a time when giving instructions to your adolescent. Breaking a task down into smaller component steps can be helpful. Specific instructions, like "read 10 pages of your assigned book," are more helpful for a teen with ADHD than general instructions, like "do your English homework."
- Tackle one thing at a time. While you may want to help your teen overcome a number of difficult behaviors, it's best to focus on one or two at a time. Set both short-term ("ask for a five-minute break when classwork becomes frustrating") and long-term ("stop yelling in class when frustrated") goals and remember to use praise and rewards for achievements.
- Help your child eliminate distractions and manage time. Adolescents may especially need help establishing a homework routine that is free from distraction. You can help them create a homework space that is pleasing and quiet that allows for productive work. Your teenager may appreciate the use of a timer to help with homework in order to focus on one subject for a given amount of time, or to schedule 10-minute breaks after every hour of homework. It can also be helpful to look at long-term projects such as term papers and draw up an "action plan" for the project, breaking it down into manageable steps. Your teen may appreciate learning to use mobile apps to help them manage their time.
- Model a healthy lifestyle. Your teen will look to you as a model, so be sure that you are modeling the choices you'd like to see him or her make with regard to nutrition, exercise, stress management, and healthy relationships. Adolescents do as we do, not as we say. Seeking treatment for any medical or mental health conditions you may have, consuming a healthy diet, having a regular bedtime, maintaining healthy relationships and a normal weight, and avoiding toxins like cigarettes, alcohol, and drug abuse will help your child face the demands of ADHD and other life stressors by providing them with a role model for healthy living and stress management.
- Finally, value and embrace your teenager's uniqueness. Many famous and highly accomplished people have lived and are living with ADHD. Remind your teens of this fact, and help them find the areas in which they can excel. Don't forget to show your unconditional love for the unique person that is your child and know that the care and consistency you show in raising your child can have a significantly positive impact on your child's functioning and future.
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Medically reviewed by Margaret Walsh, MD; American Board of Pediatrics
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