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When Your Teen Has ADHD

Lori Freson

Health, Wellness, & Safety

It seems more and more teens are struggling with Attention Deficient/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) these days. Whether we are just doing a better job of diagnosing it, if current trends including use of electronic devises are contributing, or if it’s simply genetic or environmental factors, or even perhaps some combination of these, it seems ADHD is on the rise. If your teen suffers from ADHD, you are clearly not alone. Chances are that at least some of their friends have it, too. Being a teenager is hard enough. Couple that with ADHD, and they are facing some real struggles.

What is ADHD?

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a brain disorder marked by an ongoing pattern of inattention and/or hyperactivity-impulsivity that interferes with functioning or development. While many people experience some of these symptoms sometimes, those who suffer from ADHD experience find that it affects their ability to function is school, families, social activities, and jobs. While some people suffer from just inattention, hyperactivity or impulsivity, many suffer from a combination of one or more types of ADHD. All types of ADHD present serious challenges for teenagers, particularly during the difficult high school years.

What are some of the struggles?

When you have hyperactivity, it becomes difficult or impossible to sit still for any substantial period of time, such as you are expected to do in a classroom. This makes it incredibly challenging to learn, You might always be fidgeting or getting in trouble for squirming around it class.

If you have impulsivity, you are often blurting out in class when it isn’t appropriate or your turn to speak. This gets you in trouble with your teachers. You frequently interrupt others, which can cause social problems. This pattern can leave you labeled as a “trouble maker”.

When you are inattentive, you tend to both be disorganized and lack the attention span required for learning. Your executive functioning skills, those skills necessary for organizing yourself and carrying out tasks, are severely lacking. It can leave you feeling quite dysfunctional in the world of high school. Teens with this type of ADHD often forget to do or turn in homework, lose things, have trouble following instructions and remembering things, and get so distracted that they fail to complete common tasks.

How is ADHD treated?

There are several treatment options available for ADHD. When it is severe, and interfering with your ability to perform academically, medication is usually most effective. But be aware that strong medications have significant long-term side effects. Many times children who don’t get enough physical activity, eat a junk food diet or who do not get enough quality sleep can have the same symptoms of ADHD. Do a hard check of your child’s sleep, diet and exercise first before considering medication.

Psychotherapy and behavioral therapy can also be quite useful in teaching you more awareness and coping skills to deal with obstacles. Some people are even having success using educational and biofeedback methods.

What are some practical tips to help?

It is important to help your teen identify their own strengths and weaknesses. Help them become very clear and honest with themselves about which areas they are lacking in. Only then can you help them find solutions and ways to manage their ADHD. Here are some tips for managing different issues related to ADHD:

Forgetting their homework: Get an organizer and teach them to write every single thing in it, even things they think they’ll remember. Help them accept that remembering on their own is not their strength, and that they need to use the organizer religiously. They can even use an app as an organizer.

Forgetting to complete important tasks: Invest in lots and lots of sticky notes. Coach them to stick them everywhere to remind them what they need to do. They can also write reminders on their hand with a Sharpie. This is sort of old school, but if it works for them, then by all means, do it. Look for creative solutions.

Forgetting appointments: Find an app with an alarm or vibration, or a watch if they don’t have a cell phone. As they make an appointment, set the alarm reminder for that date and time on their device. Set it a few minutes before, and have it continue to remind them until you turn it off. Tell them not to turn it off until they arrive at the appointment.

Losing school work: Choose a binder or notebook organizer and set up a system for each and every class. Help them understand that they should immediately put away returned homework, quizzes and test in specific sections, and should also have a section for homework needing to be turned in, notes, assignments, etc. Always put every single thing where it belongs immediately.

Losing other items: Label every single thing they own. Consider GPS locater devices for expensive or important items. Have a designated place for everything, such as backpack, keys, sports uniforms/shoes, etc.

Fidgeting: Purchase a silent and small item that they can fidget with when they’re feeling hyper. Many fit right in their pocket. Discuss with teachers ahead of time to make sure it’s okay. Also, have them explain their issues to their teachers, and when possible, arrange for permission to take short breaks as needed to improve their ability to sit in the class and to be less distracting to others.

Inattention: Discuss with your doctor what the options are, as medication might really be helpful. Make sure they get plenty of sleep and eat nutritious food. When possible, arrange for them to sit in the front in class, and minimize all distractions. Encourage them to tell the teacher they have trouble paying attention, and ask him or her to help redirect as needed.

Impulsivity: Let the teachers know this is a problem. Work with them to develop a way that they can remind you gently when they’re doing this. Your teen must be as mindful as possible, and try to “catch themselves” before blurting out. Writing things down on a piece of paper often helps people avoid blurting out. This ensures that they won’t forget, but they can save it for a more appropriate time. Teach them to breathe slowly to help slow themselves down a bit.

In a nutshell, your teens are getting older and they need to take control of managing their own deficiencies. With your guidance, they can learn to talk to their own teachers. Use all of the tools available to them. Ask for help when they need it. Breathe, slow down, and be aware. This will allow them to stay calm, focus longer, and function better. Over time, they will either outgrow their ADHD, or learn how to best manage it. Start now teaching your teen how to manage it for the best possible chance at success.

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Lori Freson

Lori Freson is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Southern California. She has been working in the mental health field since 1997, and has been a licensed therapist since 2002. Lori currently works in her own thriving private practice in Encino and Sherman Oaks, where she serves the San Fernando Valley and Los Angeles areas.