WRITTEN BY SUSAN FERREN, LMFT
There is no typical teenager with ADHD—their symptoms vary by gender, type of ADHD, their environment—but all of these teens are dealing with some level of personal, social, academic, and/or emotional difficulty and are often misunderstood by those around them.
Even though teens with ADHD may exhibit many of the same core symptoms as younger children with the disorder, including inattention, impulsivity, and hyperactivity, teens face the added challenge of the increased social and academic expectations of young adulthood. This new level of autonomy along with the reduced oversight that comes with it can intensify the symptoms of ADHD.
If your teen has been diagnosed with ADHD, it’s important to be alert to the struggles it may cause in many areas of life—difficulties in school, relationships with friends and peers, as well as emotional functioning.
Academically, without specialized support, teens with ADHD tend to have lower GPAs and standardized test scores, as well as higher rates of school failure and suspension. It is critical that these teens have access to accommodations in school and in testing, along with appropriate tutors and/or organizational coaching when needed.
It is also important that parents remain in the picture, providing support by knowing what the teen needs to do and when they’re doing it, rather than assuming they’re handling the work independently.
Socially, half of teens with ADHD experience serious problems with peer relationships. Research indicates that in general they have fewer friends and are more likely to be ignored, rejected, or bullied by peers, in addition to bullying others.
The most valuable thing a parent can do is to know who their teen is spending time with and to encourage discussion of relationship difficulties with you or another trusted adult. In addition, supporting participation in extracurricular activities which offer social opportunities in a structured environment is essential.
The teenage years can be an emotional minefield for all kids, but for those with ADHD who have difficulty regulating emotions, it can lead to greater highs and lows, and impulsivity can make it especially difficult for them to cope with frustrations.
Parents can help by assisting their teen in practicing cool down strategies, as well as developing coping tools. Teaching them how to apologize after an outburst can also be helpful.
Dr. Sharon Saline, author of What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew, advises an informed empathy approach to dealing with children and teens with ADHD. Dr. Saline advocates the Five Cs method—Self-Control, Compassion, Collaboration, Consistency, and Celebration—to reduce family stress and equip children with ADHD with the skills necessary to thrive.
Self-Control. Because raising a child with ADHD can test a parent’s patience, Dr. Saline recommends parents learn to first control their own emotions in order to model it to their teen. One of Dr. Saline’s patients told her parent, “if I’m upset and then you get upset, there’s nobody to help me rein it in and get back to center. If you lose it in response to my losing it, it’s kindling on the fire.”
Compassion. While Dr. Saline promotes the development of self-compassion, she firmly believes that teens must first experience it from others. If parents focus primarily on their child’s deficits, their child begins to see themselves as “inherently deficient.” Dr. Saline advises parents to “understand and accept” their child, even when the child “doesn’t accept” themselves. She believes meeting them where they are—as opposed to where we expect their brain or behavior to be—can make a huge difference in a teen’s life.
Collaboration. According to Dr. Saline, working with teens to find solutions, versus imposing rules, yields a better outcome, as does helping them build executive functioning by breaking tasks into smaller, manageable elements, as well as prioritizing them.
Consistency. When possible, Dr. Saline says to “do what you say you will do” while recognizing that “you’re aiming for steady, not perfection.” Kids that Saline works with “can’t stand it when parents say they are going to do something and then they don’t do it. For concrete thinkers, this is very confusing” she says. “They will continue to push you because they don’t know where the limit is…”
Celebration. Dr. Saline encourages parents to focus on the process more than the product. She estimates that the ratio of positive to negative feedback ADHD children receive is 1:15. “We have to pay attention to kids trying, even if they are not succeeding. Practice makes progress; we are looking for progress, not perfection,” she says. “It’s the process that will help the kids build the executive functioning skills they need for productive adulthood.”
Dr. Saline says that while medication can help some kids with ADHD, “pills don’t teach skills.” Saline talks to kids about how their brain works, how it grows, and what they can do to strengthen their executive functioning skills. She says it helps them to create a “space between ‘what my brain is’ and ‘what I am,” separating the experience from the person. Instead of saying “I am a distracted person,” kids learn to say “I am training my brain to focus better. Here’s how I’m doing it.”
“Remember,” Saline says, “you are talking about the skills, not the child.”
The good news, per Dr. Saline, is that development is in your child’s favors. “The brain is developing and will continue to develop. Where your child is now is not where they will be in a year. Focus on the now, not on your worries about five years from now.”
In addition, Dr. Saline believes firmly that parents’ efforts matter significantly. “What kids tell me over and over again is that they wouldn’t get through without their parents,” she says. “You matter more than you think you do.”
SoCal Adolescent Wellness offers an after-school program in Orange County that incorporates strategies to teach teens how to manage their ADHD symptoms. To verify your insurance benefits and schedule a free confidential Assessment with our specially trained adolescent treatment team, call us at 714-465-5583 or contact us at email@example.com
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