ADHD and Teenagers: Challenges and Opportunities: Part 1 of 2

The American author, Mark Twain famously said, “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years career trajectory.”

If this is an example of what all teenager’s think and feel then what are the challenges for a teenager with the developmental differences of ADHD and for their parents and teachers supporting them.

By the teenage years the symptoms of ADHD plus comorbidities are likely to mean that many teenagers with ADHD will experience some or all of the following issues in comparison to their peers at the same age:

  • Distractibility, Boredom and lack of focus
  • Disorganisation and forgetfulness over basic issues
  • Hyperactivity and fidgeting and restlessness
  • Heightened emotionality and frustration
  • Impulsivity and poor decision making
  • Poor concentration and trouble finishing tasks

Ironically some teenagers with ADHD have a few specific activities or tasks in which they have no difficulty and may indeed be thriving. This can be a source of confusion among parents and teachers. Examples of this may include doing well at sport, video games, art, music or a range of other practical activities. In this case parents will often assume that the teenager with ADHD is simply doing what they want to. The reality is that when individuals with ADHD are interested in what they are doing they can be extremely productive and successful.

ADHD is most often diagnosed in primary school as it is still the more hyperactive boys who are most likely to be spotted and evaluated. However if the child has the inattentive type of ADHD which can  often be the case with girls, but also with some boys (quietly staring out the window or leaving their work undone), signs may be missed through primary school.

Most studies show that 80 to 85 percent of preteenagers continue to experience symptoms into their adolescent years and that 60 percent of children with ADHD will become adults with ADHD. The impact of ADHD symptoms may increase or decrease over time depending on the individual’s brain development and the specific challenges faced in school or at work.

Many teenage issues at home, at school, and in social settings arise due to neurological developmental delays as we believe ADHD is connected to weak executive functioning skills  that help to regulate behaviour, setting goals, balancing responsibilities and learning to function independently.

Executive dysfunction can often affect a number of other skills which are critical to school and life success. These may include the following:

  • Response inhibition (being able to stop an action when situations suddenly change)
  • Working memory
  • Emotional control
  • Flexibility
  • Sustained attention
  • Task initiation
  • Planning/prioritizing, organization
  • Time management
  • Goal-directed persistence (sticking with a task when it becomes “boring” or difficult)
  • Metacognition (the awareness and understanding of your own thought processes)

On average, these executive skills don’t fully develop for most individuals until their early 20’s. For individuals with ADHD the developmental delay can be 3 to 5 years longer. As a result of this, teenagers with ADHD may often unfairly be labelled as lazy or oppositional because they do not match neurotypical peer behaviour.

As their bodies grow and change, teenagers with ADHD can tend to lag behind their peers in emotional maturity also. Experts say that a young person with ADHD will not achieve the emotional maturity of a neurotypical 21-year-old until they reach their mid or late 30s due to developmental delays.

Most well-adjusted teenagers will struggle with peer pressure, academic expectations, and emotional and physical changes during these years however teenagers with ADHD will face an extra set of challenges. Higher expectations and a drive for independence can often trigger impulsivity traits, just at the time when they may be facing transitional milestones such as considering alcohol and forming relationships with new or different friends.

For parents trying to navigate these challenges the benefit of closely working with the school and finding a specialist or counsellor experienced in working with teenagers with ADHD will be vital.  With a combination of practical behaviour advice, structured but flexible family/home management, plus the consideration of medication options, parents can successfully support their teenagers to avoid or minimise risks for negative outcomes.

Having discuused some of the challenges, part 2 of this article which we will send next week will consider a range of opportunities for teenagers with ADHD with regards to the future.

Please find a range of ADHD and Neurodiversity support services for schools and for parents on my website including 2 new webinar series